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At Last: Thelma and Louise Live Happily Ever After
Twenty years ago this month, Thelma & Louise entered the public imagination—two ladies on the run in a beat-up, now-iconic Thunderbird. Looking back, Thelma & Louise, in that it redefined who women were supposed to be. Gee, the film showed us, women can drink and smoke and drive fast and end up in the predicament usually reserved for heroic, handsome cowboys—boxed in a canyon with no way out.
In 1991, there was much debate over whether or not the film was sexist, if the male characters were cookie-cutter, if the film was trying to say that all men messed up all women, all the time. Even then, as a teenager, I thought that seemed a little dopey. Nobody thought that male outlaw movies were anti-police.
Then again, I was growing up with single mother who worked 10 hours a day. We needed Thelma and Louise. We needed to be Thelma and Louisa—peeling out of our driveway in order to make it to school on time (for once), sloshing a mug of Mom's instant coffee all over our legs.
With the advent of DVDs, the director Ridley Scott was able to showcase another ending for the movie. Instead of Thelma and Louise holding hands, soaring gloriously off into the thin, blue air of the unknown, a helicopter descends, and Harvey Keitel rushes to the edge of the canyon to look down at the destroyed car—and women—below. He then picks up a Polaroid that fell out of the Thunderbird, a picture of the two outlaws at the beginning of their trip, made up and dressed up and smiling.
This brings up so many icky questions. For example, how did the photograph happen to flutter back so conveniently? Why are "happier times" in the movies signified by women wearing a fresh, glossy coating of lipstick? More to the point, Dana Steven's insightful essay in Slate concludes that "ending with the horrified Keitel at the cliff's edge would have made Thelma & Louise into a head-shaking reflection on the terrible fate society visits on women." Further she adds, "choosing to end instead with the heroines' shining-eyed farewell, followed by the freeze-frame of that eternally buoyant car, allows Thelma & Louise to dwell forever at that odd moment in movie history when women won the right to be just as crazy as men."
Meandering around on YouTube, I found several alternate alternate endings to Scott's choice that users had created. After the jump, see what one adds onto the newly released Keitel-helicopter finale...
Here, the car soars into thin air, Harvey shakes his head with grief, and...the Thunderbird bounces to a safe, dusty landing on the other side of the canyon. I don't think I'm alone in saying that this is the ending I have longed for for 20 years. Thelma and Louise get out safely; they escape the way they deserve. Hooray!
Which is precisely when my internal uh-oh-meter goes off. If I am now revising Thelma & Louise into a romantic comedy, something has gone terribly wrong.
The argument among various talking heads seems to be: Should we end with the glorious moment of the women floating off in "that eternally buoyant car" or end with the man at the edge of the canyon? The argument between the folks on YouTube seems to be: Why don't we change the ending so that the women fall but bounce back up? But to me, these two discussions contain the same crucial misdirection—ignoring what actually happens when a car drives off a cliff.
The truth is that Thelma and Louise do fall down to earth. But because we have to imagine it ourselves—instead of watching it—we all can wiggle around with reality and play pretend, revising what's so painful.
In our own lives, don't we often do the same thing? When events don't play out the way we want, don't we create a more appealing end? The lover who is long gone comes back in a daydream, holding a bunch of tulips, or stops in the doorway and never leaves in the first place. The kid who never liked us in the seventh grade apologizes to us in front of everyone at the 20th class reunion that we skipped.
The final, original moment of Thelma & Louise allows us the possibility of a fairy-tale finale, but doesn't actually suggest one, which is why it's so meaningful as a film even today. People die in life. People leave or don't love us or hurt us when we least expect it. And it's when we start thinking of alternate endings—putting our time and attention into imagining what might have been—that we need to stop and begin to look at the real, authentic ending and try to figure out how to move on.