Thelma & Louise alternate ending: why it would have ruined the film.

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Feb. 15 2011 11:11 AM

Thelma & Louise

Why the alternate ending would have ruined the film.

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Spoiler alert here, since you can't really talk about Thelma & Louise without talking about the ending: When the girls drive off the edge of the Grand Canyon in the final shot, I don't think the screenwriter, Callie Khouri, is trying to suggest that women are so boxed in by oppression that their only option is suicide (another common objection on the 1991 pundit circuit). All I sense, from the writer, director, and actors alike, is the joy of allowing themselves to, in Thelma's words to Louise at that moment, "keep on going," to make the movie they wanted to make. As these two women we've come to love hurtle to their certain deaths, we experience something not unlike the thrill that comes with the final freeze-frame of Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. But Thelma and Louise's last moment leaves a sadder aftertaste somehow. It's an ending that seems inevitable (and watching the film a second time I was astonished how early on the women's fate was foreshadowed), but all these years later, it's still hard to watch that car go over the cliff.

Other endings were discussed—including one in which Louise would push Thelma out of the car just in time, saving her friend's life before sailing over the cliff herself. But in the end, Khouri convinced Scott to keep the ending she'd originally written. In a delightfully dishy commentary track featuring Sarandon, Davis, and Khouri—by far the best extra on this edition, and well worth listening to all the way through—Sarandon talks about how the final scene was the very last one to be filmed, so that the highly charged goodbye between Thelma and Louise also served as a goodbye for the two actresses, who'd grown close over the shoot. "It was perfect," says Davis, remembering how the sun set over the canyon just after their second take, marking the end of the production. And there is something perfect about the frozen midair arc of that Thunderbird convertible. It's an ending that's perfect in its very irresolution, the vehicle of the heroines' deliverance and doom caught at the very moment it goes from flying to falling.

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Ridley Scott shot an alternate, longer ending, which is also included as an extra in this edition. In it, we witness the continued trajectory of Louise's airborne car. A second shot from above tracks the car as it begins its descent, wobbling sickeningly as it hurtles into the void. As the state troopers gathered at the canyon's edge realize what's happened, the Harvey Keitel character approaches the lip of the canyon and looks over the edge, presumably at the mangled wreckage of the Thunderbird. He picks up the Polaroid photograph that blew out of the car—the one Thelma and Louise took of themselves as they set out, lipsticked and denim-jacketed, for their weekend jaunt—and gazes at it while a helicopter descends into the canyon.

This alternate ending adds perhaps 25 seconds to the movie's running time, but it changes it profoundly. Ending with the horrified Keitel at cliff's edge would have made Thelma & Louise into a head-shaking reflection on the terrible fate society visits on women. (In a ham-fisted line just before the final shot, the Keitel character laments to Stephen Tobolowsky's FBI agent, "How many times are these women going to be fucked over?") 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.

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