Oscar History

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« Hugo Nominees Or: How To Stop Worrying and Love The Geek | Main | Take Three: Jérémie Renier »

"Something's crossed over in me. I can't go back. I couldn't live."

For those who experienced the tumultous "girlpower" ride of 1990s popular culture this Pretty Woman vs. Thelma & Louise essay in The New York Times is wonderfully mnemonic... and insightful.

Love that accompanying illustration by Tom Gauld. Spot on, spot!

Here's a morsel from the article on the narrative transformational journeys of Thelma (Geena Davis) and Vivian (Julia Roberts), the "ingenues" as the narratives go.

...only Thelma transitions into a new, more independent self, while Vivian finds a way to be preserved as a wide-eyed child-bride forever.

It was precisely this happy ending that made people love “Pretty Woman,” just as it was the flying-off-the-cliff part that made some people object to “Thelma and Louise.” But while Vivian was happily giving herself to a callous oligarch who would purchase her personhood (as she chirped inanities about “rescuing him right back”), Thelma was saving herself by holding up a gas station and locking a cop in the trunk of his car. As every moment of Vivian’s transformative love story — from buying new outfits to subsuming herself to her Pygmalion husband — is transactional, every step of Thelma’s transformation is about evolving from chattel to free agent. In fact, you can make the argument that it was actually Vivian, not Thelma and Louise, who ceased to exist at the end of her film.

Guess which film predicted the next two decades of pop culture? Sigh.

In the magazine version (alas not online) the sidebar features Susan Sarandon Haikus by Adam Sternbergh. These were the two funniest:

Kind Sister Prejean
Bravely faced down injustice
And Sean Penn's Acting.

Nun, hooker, stepmom,
Your only regret, no doubt:
"Mr Woodcock," yes?


Come back to the five and dime Susan Sarandon, Susan Sarandon. And by five and dime, we mean "good movies."


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Reader Comments (13)

That article had a point but didn't explain it. I thought it ended abruptly without telling me why Vivian prevailed over Thelma?

April 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMurtada

Murtada, her point is all there (you read the second page, right?)

I suppose it can be equated to the moment of Obama's election, when a wide swath of the public believed the hype of "hope and change", while not really thinking about how that was going to be achieved, and believing that the work was essentially done, and this man's election would change everything. Then you wake up a week or a month later and realized it's the same old system, the same paradigm, and nothing has changed except a few names and faces.

Thank you Nathaniel! A brilliant read, I thoroughly enjoyed that essay. I was also in college when Thelma and Louise came out . I saw it the first time with friends at the old movie theater in downtown Ann Arbor, MI; I recall seeing it twice there, and several of my friends - male and female - and myself being wild about it. My mother was mystified - she disapproved of their behavior, of making things worse for themselves at every turn "when they should have just called the police to begin with"; and my film professor at the time equally perplexed at my enthusiasm, but for a different reason: "It's just a rip-off of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."

I know part of my enthusiasm, nay love, for Thelma and Louise, came from the fact that it was released right at the time I finally "came out" or came to terms with the fact that I was a lesbian; it spoke to me as a young woman trying to find herself, trying to locate her own identity in the world. I'm still searching for my identity, sadly, so it still speaks to me on that level; but when I rewatch it now, it's the performances and line readings that thrill me : Sarandon's breakdown in the motel room, and Davis' line that is quoted in the essay's title. I get a lump in my throat just remembering it. Even if I've never done what they did, even if I've never really "rebelled", I still feel that line, feel the meaning of it deeply in my bones. But reading it in black and white, it's a banal enough line; it's Davis' delivery that really delivers it, that makes it soar.

I also remember watching Pretty Woman at the time (on home VHS, not the big screen; I think it was one of the first VHS tapes my mom actually bought), and I watched it several times and was entertained by it, while I was also perplexed as to why I found it entertaining, as I was also turned off by the regressive gender politics of it. Clearly I didn't have the intellectual or theoretical framework that the author had, although I had a natural inclination to feminism. But the fact that I watched it and was entertained at all points out how seductive the fantasy presented in Pretty Woman was and is.

April 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJanice

And btw - that was definitely the peak career moment for both actresses. Sad that their weren't more to come - Sarandon rode it out for a while, but her Oscar was really I think a body of work as well as make-up Oscar more so than for the role of Sister Prejean (which I found a little contrived, a bit too saintly to be compelling, and not nearly as layered and complex as her work in Thelma and Louise.)

And Davis' subsequent career just makes me sad.

April 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJanice

Janice -- maybe (on career peak) though I think some might argue that Sarandon has enough intermittent peaks to just be one long fine career -- albeit one that stalled as soon as she won the Oscar. as for Davis. I still don't know quite what happened afterwards. she even had a big hit after (A League of Their Own) but not really a big career. (sigh)

April 25, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I suppose the next natural question is what movie defines where we've come since then, culturally speaking? Sex and the City 2 (not to pick at a wound that I recall was already overly infected with unnecessary misogyny) which has combined the two and turned over-consumption into an expression of girl power. Now you can be Thelma & Louise, have love, have great money, buck the patriarchy and have your happy ending.

I keep coming back to that Howard Beale monologue about harmless TV (or in this case movies) not being harmless because fewer than 1% of people read books and newspapers and think harmless escapism is real life.

Oddly enough it applied to another conversation I was having on movies marketed toward women, rom-coms, where the title character's main trait has transformed from Hepburn style gracefulness to Heigl style klutziness. But I digress. I could ponder on this topic forever.

April 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRobert

Robert -- except that Sex & the City betrayed that initial theme to an extent. since in the end Carrie (the stylish woman) and Big (the super wealthy CORPORATE MAN) "rescue" each other so it became less about self expression than about being rescued to a degree.

But on the other hand, sex & the city at least has Carrie struggling in regards to not necssarily wanting someone to pay her way (there were great episodes about money situations).

so yes, sex & the city is a lot more complicated than pretty woman but hmmm. i dunno. yeah, great topic.

April 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

And Davis' subsequent career just makes me sad.

Who cares? She still looks good today without any "work" done -- has younger husband who is fine and gave her twins -- she has an Oscar -- no need to feel sorry if you never won (Sigourney Weaver, Glenn Close, Pfeiffer, Julianne Moore, Annette Bening, Barbara Hershey, Alfre Woodard, Gena Rowlands, Winona Ryder) -- Jeez that list made me sad.

April 25, 2011 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtfu11

I know man, I know. it's sad the PRETTY WOMAN won the day, and Geena Davis married one of the worst directors in the world, and Suzy Sarandon is now a reference point for liberal actor politician nosing around. One day, we'll rise!

April 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterErich Kuersten

Thelma & Louise is my favorite movie ever, with both Sarandon and Davis giving career best performances (at least so far). Those characters, and their transformations, are so real to me,still. Just thinking about the look on both of their faces at the end of the film-- the moment when Thelma says "Keep going." I get choked up just thinking about it.

April 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBiggs

I lose my shit at Thelma & Louise's ending. LIKE A BABY. So moving still to this day.

At Pretty Woman's? Meh, have fun with the realities of that situation.

But really though, there's no doubt which one is the better film, despite cultural favoritism.

April 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMark

Pretty Woman really does showcase how talented a presence Julia Roberts is. You can debate the quality of her acting, but she is charming and winsome enough to carry a film. With any other actress in that part, Pretty Woman would be a forgotten relic by now.

April 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBiggs

Biggs, you probably put your finger on why I was entertained by Pretty Woman even while the politics made me wince. It has to have been Julia's charm, because I can't think of anything else about it - other than Laura San Giacomo in a short and thankless role. (Now there is another career trajectory that makes me sad - another viewing of "Sex, Lies and Videotape" anyone?)

I guess we could say that in some ways this was also a "Career best" or at least career defining moment for Julia Roberts as well. (I think of Nat's line in the Moulin Rouge essay, re: the "booby-trapped quest" for audience love and bucks.)

April 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJanice

Nat, I adored Sarandon at the time, and she's given fine performances since - GREAT performances is another matter. And, after the Oscar, did she hit the Hollywood wall of ageism (where they weren't writing roles for women of "a certain age" - you've got to work in France to get those, I guess?), or did she simply decide she'd won the golden ring, was ok financially, and stop caring quite so much, to relax into semi-retirment? Or a combination thereof?

Erich, Biggs & Mark - amen, brothers.

April 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJanice
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