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Riding Shotgun

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PERHAPS NO FILM HAS PUSHED SO many hot, gender-reversing buttons as Thelma & Louise, the startling road film starring Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis as a pair of women buddies turned outlaw. While moviegoers have been generally cheering the surprise summer hit, critics have been training their big-bore pop-psych barrels on the film’s rich ambiguities, and hardly anyone is neutral. Some embrace the movie as a neofeminist Butch & Sundance trip, full of “thrilling, life-affirming energy” (New York Times critic Janet Maslin), while others deplore its harsh view of men and have categorized it as a “sisterhood bash-a-thon” (Los Angeles Times). (For more of this debate, see p. 94.)

With her slim 6′ frame stretched out in a plastic armchair in her Los Angeles office, Geena Davis understandably gets up a head of steam about such criticism. “It’s kind of humorous that people would all of a sudden go, ‘Oh, poor men.’ ” There’s a cheery, disarming lilt in her voice. Thelma costar Michael Madsen calls her unique charm “a cross between Daffy Duck and Grace Kelly.” But Davis becomes passionate when discussing the treatment of women in film. “Let’s get real here for a second. Ninety-nine percent of all other movies are about women either having shallow, one-dimensional caricature parts or they’re being mutilated, skinned, slaughtered, abused and exploited with their clothes off. Even if this film did convey some horrible man-bashing message—’Let’s us gals all get guns and kill all the men’—it couldn’t even begin to make up for all the antiwoman movies people don’t even talk about.”

For Davis, 34, a graceful former fashion model with glamorously chiseled features, playing Thelma marks a departure. Davis makes far more of her demanding role than a caricature, turning it into the most complex, vividly drawn role she has created thus far. It should also give her bankable clout with Hollywood’s male power elite, most of whom insist that only hugely successful male superstars can power a movie to box office heaven.

Until now, despite her artistic gifts and volleyball-spiker’s height, she has remained a relatively low-profile act. Neither her 1989 Oscar for Best Supporting Actress as William Hurt’s lovably loopy dog trainer in The Accidental Tourist, nor a trio of cultish films (The Fly, Earth Girls Are Easy, Transylvania 6-5000) with recently shed husband Jeff Goldblum, nor her work as Alec Baldwin’s wife in Beetlejuice succeeded in bumping her into the big time. But Thelma may well do for Davis what Pretty Woman did for Julia Roberts.

Thelma & Louise may change people’s perceptions of Geena,” says Lawrence Kasdan (The Big Chill, Body Heat), who directed her in Tourist. “But people are incredibly slow to get it in Hollywood. I haven’t seen a better woman’s part than Thelma in a very long time. She’s sexy, funny and moving—a big long arc there. Geena is pretty amazing.”

As Thelma, an Arkansas housewife fed up with the macho mouth of husband Darryl (Christopher McDonald), Davis hooks up with world-weary waitress Louise (Susan Sarandon) to light out for a free-swinging weekend away from all that testosterone. But the women’s holiday turns into a nightmare when a honky-tonk cowboy tries to rape Thelma. Louise breaks up the attack at gunpoint and blows the guy away when he insults her and Thelma—a homicide that has audiences cheering.

On the lam—and on the way to a surprising dénouement—the pair are transformed into bumbling but dangerous outlaws. Davis, who lobbied director Ridley (Black Rain) Scott for months to nail down the part, says the film is about “two women finding their power.”

Davis says she likes parts that contain “a lot of comedy, humor, heart and heavy stuff too.” Playing Thelma met all those conditions and gave her something additional: the chance to bond with a fellow actress. “It was incredible,” she says of the three-month location stint with Sarandon in the heat-baked badlands of Utah. Sarandon became a role model for Davis, both as an actress and as a working mother. “She’s someone I really want to keep in my life,” Davis says. “I’d always prided myself on being the most calm, centered, relaxed person on the set. She’s got me beat.”

“But ‘role model’ sounds too Helen Hayes—ish to me,” says Sarandon, 44. She seems as determined to heap praise as her buddy. “Geena’s so intelligent, courageous, funny, optimistic, inventive—and has such a natural grace about herself and how she creates her life. But I see us as equals. Our bonding came not from hanging out, pajama parties, shopping or sweating on a dance floor. It grew over the months, working together as the heat rose, the dust swirled, the wind blew as we baked in that f——— desert.”

As it happened, the grueling shoot marked the last months of Davis’s three-year marriage to Goldblum, whom she met when they filmed Transylvania in 1985. Vacationing in Las Vegas in 1987 with Ed Begley Jr. and his then wife, Ingrid, the couple decided on an impulse to marry then and there. It was that kind of relationship. Davis says she filed for divorce right after Thelma wrapped, though she insists the timing is coincidental and not a case of Thelma-fying her own life. She grins. “That would be a great story. ‘Does the movie, comes home and says…'”

She says very little, actually, when it comes to Goldblum. Davis won’t reveal why they split, but she misses their off-kilter onscreen chemistry. She says that she and Jeff are “on the phone all the time, and we see each other occasionally.” She even predicts they may work together again. “Life is funny,” she says. “That was always an appealing part of it. When I work, I like to be immersed. I didn’t mind at all the fact that we were sort of living it 24 hours a day. We usually ended up in sync with it. I’m sure we’re both pretty sad. We certainly had high hopes, every good intention. It’s upsetting.”

Lorimar Television’s director of telefilms and miniseries, Nina Tassler, a confidante of Davis’s since they were roommates at Boston University, observed Geena and Jeff throughout their marriage. Says she: “They shared, it goes without saying, wonderful senses of humor, a spontaneity and easiness in their relationship.” Tassler, who was in touch with Davis by phone throughout the Thelma shoot, adds that “Geena is very expressive about her feelings and not afraid to confront and go through painful experiences.”

But life with Goldblum wasn’t, apparently, a nonstop laugh riot. “I always think of that episode of the Dick Van Dyke Show,” Davis says. “Laura was mad at Rob, and some neighbor just then said, ‘You’re so lucky you’re married to Rob, you guys just laugh all day long, have nothing but fun.’ And Laura said [gritting teeth, rolling eyes, seething], ‘Oh, yeah, it’s just a barrel of laughs.’ You knew she was pissed about this thing, but other people’s perceptions are that it’s just perfect, he’s the funniest guy. This is not a reflection on Jeff. I mean, it can apply equally to me. We were a normal couple and had all kinds of experiences. We weren’t sitting around just laughing all day, putting on shows for each other.”

Putting on shows, however, has been a lifelong habit for her. Virginia Davis grew up in Wareham, Mass. (pop. 18,000), near Cape Cod, and was given the nickname Geena early in life. Her mother, Lucille, a retired teacher’s aide, and father, William, a retired civil engineer, still live in Wareham, and her brother, Dan, is a Las Vegas geotechnical engineer. Her earliest ambition was to act. Behind the shy, gangly exterior was a far richer—and hammier—fantasy life that took shape through drawing and writing stories. “My girlfriend and I put on plays in the basement and were always coming up with things like making our dolls have beauty contests,” she says. “We’d have pajama parties in someone’s backyard tent, and I’d hold a flashlight to my face and tell some horror story.”

Although she was a natural as a hurdler and high-jumper at Wareham High School (“I used my height to psychological advantage”), her height also made Geena self-conscious in the dating game. “I certainly noticed everybody else was going out but me,” she says. “I had my first date in my junior year and thought, well, at last it’s finally starting. And then he never asked me out again.”

What happened? She spoofs Thelma: “Drank Wild Turkey. Got a gun. Shot him.” Actually, Davis spent her senior year as an exchange student in a town north of Stockholm and had her first romance with a local lad. “Suddenly nobody was noticing I was tall,” she says. “They liked me there.”

After the summer sojourn, Davis came home and immersed herself in acting studies. After taking all the drama courses offered at “tiny, fun, hip” New England College in Henniker, N.H., she did summer stock and then switched to Boston University. She continued the summer repertory work in New Hampshire and in 1979 earned a bachelor of fine arts in acting.

Even as a freshman, Davis was a quick study. Shannon Lavender, a fellow theater major at New England, recalls, “One day we were sitting in the cafeteria, and a bunch of us said to Geena, ‘Let’s see if you can make yourself cry.’ She put her head down and we were all cracking up. But when she raised up after about 30 seconds, her shoulders were shaking and her eyes and nose were real red. We couldn’t believe it.”

From Boston, Davis headed for New York City to model, as a stepping-stone into acting. To get more jobs, she lied about her height to the prestigious Zoli Agency, telling them she was 5’10”, the ideal height for a runway model. “A lot of times the sleeves of things were too short on samples, so I did a lot of swimsuits and lingerie,” she says.

A first marriage, at age 24, to New York City restaurateur Richard Emmolo, wasn’t a perfect fit either, and they split in 1983 after less than two years. “Pretty young,” she concedes. “A part of [why it didn’t last] was my wanting to come out West, and just that our lives seemed to go in different directions.”

Zoli’s film division landed Davis a brief part in 1982’s Tootsie as the nearly naked soap actress whom Dustin Hoffman encounters in a dressing room. After critical success in the short-lived mid-’80s TV sitcoms Buffalo Bill and Sara, Davis began focusing on features. “I was disappointed by Buffalo Bill and had pinned a lot of hopes on it,” she says. “But I got more philosophical with Sara. If it had been a giant hit, I’d still be doing it now. Which is really a scary thought. Then I couldn’t have been in Thelma & Louise.”

Nor would she have won the Oscar for Tourist. “I was very surprised,” she says. (The favorites were Sigourney Weaver for Working Girl and Michelle Pfeiffer for Dangerous Liaisons.) The nomination and pre-Oscar hype “is such an overwhelming and incredible thing to happen to you. It’s like suddenly you’re running for this thing, and it’s just this crazy time when the phone never stops ringing, every time you turn the TV on, someone’s speculating how you’re going to lose, and in Vegas they post odds. It was a challenge to keep levelheaded.”

Davis, like many of her sisters in cinema now, is taking a more assertive role in her career. She says the Oscar may have “facilitated” setting up her own production company, Genial Pictures, and landing a deal with Fox to develop her own scripts and stories. Fanny Levy, whom Davis hired last year as her producing partner, says she and Geena are looking for projects that “would give Geena a chance to do things she might not have a chance to do as an actress for hire—like a great dramatic love story.” Says Davis: “It’s frustrating and time-consuming, but for women in film there’s need for improvement. You’re so limited by what material gets to you.”

That seems to be changing since Thelma. Says Levy: “The movie has affected the flow of material drastically. All of a sudden the number of script submissions has tripled. And people who weren’t that interested in lunching with me before the movie are suddenly interested.”

On the personal front, in the wake of the breakup of her marriage, Davis has bought a “cute and smallish” three-bedroom Victorian-style home in the Hollywood Hills. Her life revolves around the same close friends she’s had since college, plus diversions like movies, theater, miniature golf, card games, Chinese and Italian restaurants and hanging out with her giant schnauzer, Professor. But Davis says she keeps her kitchen skills closeted, limiting entertaining to “pancakes and breakfast items” for invited friends. “I’m afraid to let people know I can cook,” she explains. “So I feign that I’m useless in the kitchen.”

Boston University buddy Tassler says Davis is an “incredibly supportive” friend who will check in from any far-flung location to stay in touch. She says Geena once helped her pull through a “very difficult” postpartum transition when she was going back to work after the birth of her baby. “I went through a lot of feelings of self-doubt and loss of self-esteem,” says Tassler. “I was particularly vulnerable after having my son. It was rough getting back on my feet in the business. Geena is a very calming, tranquil, insanely normal person who works hard in her life for balance and harmony. She showed tremendous patience and understanding, talking to me about how competent I was and just being a real champion for me.”

Davis herself has made a smooth reentry into singlehood and doesn’t mind being home alone—or making a gradual return to dating. “It’s an important part of life to be able to be okay with yourself,” says Davis. “I enjoy being contemplative and having time to assess things and listen to myself. It really took me a while to accept the mind-set of being single. That was tough.”

But for Davis—as for Thelma—the name of the game is independence and an undiminishable sense of self. Davis figures superstar stature can only help the cause. “I have always craved responsibility in my life,” she says. “I can embrace all that. This kind of career is really a product of your determination and tenacity. One of the things I’ve found most appealing about adulthood is that you can be in charge of yourself and your fate. I like that.”