What a brilliant, heedless, daring bit of improvidence it took to make the legendary Thelma & Louise. In her book Off the Cliff, Becky Aikman tells the long story behind 1991’s surprise feminist hit. The thing was a dream; it began as the vision of disgruntled music video director Callie Khouri, dwelt in development hell, was discovered, forgotten, rediscovered, passed around and recast before it made history.
In short, Off the Cliff it is the tale of four wheels, two leads and the hassle it took to get them on the screen. Aikman’s book is not just a tell-all, but a tell-why. The author’s fondness for the dusty, gritty parts of filmmaking jives perfectly with the film’s eye for the sandblasted parts of American life. If L.A. had been a just place, a noble place, if Khouri hadn’t spent years watching ‘80s hair bands grope dancers, characters Thelma and Louise would never have seen the light of day. The duo are iconic, but how does one become an icon? By smashing other icons.
Aikman’s saga—and it is that—is a hybrid animal, a beast of two parts. One half is the conventional cinematic behind-the-scenes-history we’ve all read before. This producer has this color eyes, this financier had this money available, this location was accessible, here’s what you would have seen during the casting process. None of which is boring, but all of which is expected.
But the other half of the story, what Thelma & Louise really meant, is the real draw of Aikman’s book. It’s the tale of American feminism, and in particular, the story of how women are mistreated in Hollywood. Anybody with two ears and common sense understands Hollywood’s misogyny. You could call it the industry’s longest-lasting tradition, after self-admiration. Ask any actor or close-watcher of the movie business: they’ll tell you stories to make you want to shed your skin. Aikman’s gift is to take the sexism of Los Angeles and quietly, without fanfare, make the perpetual privileging of male filmmaking a concrete fact for the reader.
That’s the meat of the story. There’s not a lot of poetry in the words, but what’s there is efficient. Aikman understands that making Thelma & Louise was not a matter of beating one caveman, but an entire system of backwards, prejudiced groupthink. Had one part been lessened—had the script not been perfect, had the true believers not held firm, had film company Pathe not bitten, had Ridley Scott been uninterested, had A-list actresses not fought for it, had the original ending been cut—the movie would have never made it past the slush pile.
The extreme antics of outlandish sexist assholes appear aplenty in Aikman’s book. But her focus is on the more casual, and therefore more horrible, everyday misogyny of the entertainment industry. It easy to write an essay descrying Hollywood sexism, and (sadly) just as easy for an outsider to disqualify it: “Well, filmmaking is a tough business.” But Aikman has a way around that. She knows that some people think of misogyny as a single act: a rude word, a gross assumption, an unasked-for advance. She shows us the film industry’s day-to-day sexism is less like a mugging, and more like Chernobyl: a pervasive, life-seeping poison that afflicts the earth. A silent distrust and disdain of women warps every decision, everything said or done in the entertainment world. Aikman’s curveball strikes home smoother than a straight pitch would. The harassment of one man can be written off as anecdote; the injustice inflicted upon many is as undeniable as the climate. When the reader is informed that Geena Davis’ career dropped dead at age 40, the news is delivered by Aikman not with anger or sadness, but in a matter-of-fact way, like discussing rainfall. That is the most extreme cut of all.
After Thelma & Louise, the cause of feminism in Hollywood met the same fate as Our Heroines: a momentary uplift, followed by the same disappointing return to gravity.
Off the Cliff, and the movie it chronicles, is inspiring for a specific set of reasons. The book is not a simple docudramatic story celebrating the dawn of Hollywood justice. That dawn never came, even after Thelma & Louise made, to paraphrase Susan Sarandon’s words, a shitload of money.
Rather, Off the Cliff is inspiring in the way the best speculative literature is: it shows what would be, could be, if women were allowed their own stories. Which was the point of Ms. Dickinson and Ms. Sawyer’s journey to the Grand Canyon in the first place. Like its subject, Off the Cliff holds out living hope that one day the world of film, and all the entertainments which orbit it, will have the courage to drive at full speed to the edge of tomorrow; to go over the precipice, full of faith and love, and when that day finally arrives, the improbable machine will fly when it was expected to fall.