Gender Bender Over Thelma & Louise

A white-hot debate rages over whether Thelma & Louise celebrates liberated females, male bashers -- or outlaws

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It is "the first movie I've ever seen which told the downright truth," says Mary Lucey, a lesbian activist in Los Angeles.

It is a "paean to transformative violence . . . An explicit fascist theme," writes social commentator John Leo, who went out prospecting for a column in U.S. News and World Report and discovered a mother lode of fool's gold.

It is, according to Cathy Bell, a Houston environmental communications specialist who was once married to "a redneck control freak" and found the courage to dump him after a liberating weekend trip with a girlfriend, "like seeing my life played before my eyes."

"It justifies armed robbery, manslaughter and chronic drunken driving as exercises in consciousness raising," charges New York Daily News columnist Richard Johnson, who also finds it "degrading to men, with pathetic stereotypes of testosterone-crazed behavior" and half-seriously proposes a ban on it.

It is, according to Miami Herald movie reviewer Bill Cosford, "a butt- kicking feminist manifesto . . . which sweeps you along for the ride." No, says Sheila Benson, a Los Angeles Times film critic, it is a betrayal of feminism, which, as she understands it, "has to do with responsibility, equality, sensitivity, understanding -- not revenge, retribution or sadistic behavior."

Whole lot of heavy thinking going on out there. Some pretty heavy journalistic breathing too. Hard to believe that the occasion for this heated exercise in moral philosophy and sociological big-think is a modest and, at its most basic level, very enjoyable little movie called Thelma & Louise, which is so far a moderate commercial success. It has earned about $20 million in its first 3 1/2 weeks of release -- less than a muscular big-boy movie like Robin Hood or Terminator 2: Judgment Day could expect to make on its first weekend.

No matter. Thelma & Louise is a movie whose scenes and themes lend themselves to provocative discussions. What business it's doing is in all the right places -- the big cities and college towns where opinion makers are ever on the alert for something to make an opinion about. For their purposes, this movie is a natural. In the most literal sense of the word. For the picture has a curiously unselfconscious manner about it, an air of not being completely aware of its own subtexts or largest intentions, of being innocently open to interpretation, appropriate and otherwise.

This, indeed, is its salient redeeming quality. If it were as certain -- and as clumsy -- about what it was up to as its more virulent critics think it is, it might easily have been as overbearing -- and as deadly -- as some of their interpretations are. It is not, though, and anyone with a sense of recent film history can see Thelma & Louise in the honorable line of movies whose makers, without quite knowing what they were doing, sank a drill into what appeared to be familiar American soil and found that they had somehow tapped into a wild- rushing subterranean stream of inchoate outrage and deranged violence. Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider, Dirty Harry and Fatal Attraction -- all these movies began as attempts to vary and freshen traditional generic themes but ended up taking their creators, and their audiences, on trips much deeper, darker, more disturbing than anyone imagined they were going to make.

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