Thelma & Louise, like many a Hollywood favorite, took many twists on its path to the big screen. The famed road trip drama, released 30 years ago on May 24, 1991, was originally set to star Michelle Pfeiffer and Jodie Foster as the eponymous Arkansas heroines whose weekend getaway turns into a run from the law after they kill a would-be rapist.
Both actresses dropped out, though, as the project idled in development. Pfeiffer went on to star in 1992 period piece Love Field, while Foster won an Oscar for playing Clarice Starling in 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs. The original duo was replaced by Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn, but that tandem was not to be, either. Finally, the film found its Thelma and Louise in Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, respectively.
The project — scripted by Callie Khouri and directed by Ridley Scott (who was initially only planning to produce but wound up taking the reins after Bob Rafelson, Kevin Reynolds and Richard Donner reportedly passed on it) — had enough buzz to attract some of the biggest names in the business. But as Sarandon told Yahoo Entertainment in a 2014 Role Recall interview, those involved had no idea just how impactful the film would ultimately become.
“We were two gals in the middle of what was basically like a cowboy movie,” she said (watch above, with Thelma & Louise beginning at 3:05). “And we didn’t understand that it was going to be taken as any kind of iconic movie. Ridley took this little thing and placed it in this heroic landscape.”
Thelma & Louise was a box-office success, earning $45 million on a budget of $16 million. But the film had an even more profound cultural impact with its feminist re-imagining of the outlaw trope exemplified by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or Bonnie & Clyde. In a 2011 essay for The Atlantic, critic Raina Lipsitz labeled Thelma & Louise “the last great film about women.” The film earned six Oscar nominations, winning Best Original Screenplay for Khouri, who would go on to write Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (2002) and create the television series Nashville.
The movie is also famous for introducing future mega-star Brad Pitt, whose role as the charming hustler who woos Thelma was originally set to be played by Billy Baldwin.
“I remember thinking [Pitt] was darling. And you know, they spent a lot of time on that love scene. I remember a lot of time on the love scene. And Geena tells it that Ridley was personally oiling [Pitt] down and he got much more attention than she did,” Sarandon says. “But when I saw the movie I thought that all of his stuff in the police department is where you really saw that Brad was something really special.”
And then, of course, there’s the film’s famous ending, which finds the women literally at the end of their road, kissing and holding hands as they speed off a Grand Canyon cliff to certain deaths. The kiss, Sarandon says, was not scripted.
“We did the end of the movie actually in like one take, because we spent the whole day doing helicopter shots and all the other stuff that had to happen on the last day of shooting,” she recalled. “We had one take and I just told Ridley I’m going to grab her and kiss her, and he said, ‘OK.’”
Stream Thelma & Louise on Amazon.
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