Geena Davis on increasing opportunities for women on screen
Has it really been thirty years? Almost from the day it opened in May 1991, Ridley Scott's feminist buddy movie "Thelma & Louise" was considered one of the most powerful films of a generation.
Geena Davis, who'd lobbied for the role for more than a year, was Thelma to Susan Sarandon's Louise – but Davis was actually signed to play either part. "I was gonna be in that movie," Davis said. "I didn't care, I was going to be in that movie."
Correspondent Tracy Smith asked, "Did you know then that it would get the kind of reaction that it did?"
"Absolutely not. None of us knew. It was a small movie, very small budget, and we just hoped people would see it and not hate the ending, you know? We had no clue it would strike a nerve like that."
At the time, Davis had already created some of the most memorable female characters on film, from a newly-dead bride in "Beetlejuice," to a quirky dog-trainer in "The Accidental Tourist."
But "Thelma & Louise" was on another level.
Smith asked, "And of course people said, 'This changes everything'?"
"Exactly," Davis replied.
And, how did it? "Oh yeah, let me think of the ways. Oh, it didn't! So, the change hasn't really happened yet," Davis laughed. "Still waiting."
That change she's waiting for is a film industry with as much opportunity for women as there is for men.
Her own activism began in 2004, when she noticed there were a lot more boys than girls in the shows her young daughter watched. Davis commissioned a study and, as she showed in her 2018 documentary, "This Changes Everything," shared the data with studio execs, who started casting more girls. Now, she said, "It's 50-50."
But there are other problems that are proving tougher to fix.
Smith asked, "Have things gotten better for women in their 50s and beyond?"
"No, no. No, it hasn't. It's much different for female actors past 50 than male actors past 50. The majority of female characters, I believe, are in their 20s, and the majority of male actors are in their 30s and 40s."
To shed even more light on the issue, she helped start the Bentonville Film Festival, an annual event held in Bentonville, Ark., as a showcase films that focus on diversity. But what's really on display here is opportunity – and that's something Davis knows all about.
After studying drama at Boston University, Davis found work as a model in New York City, and that actually helped her land her very first movie role. Seems they needed someone who looked good in underwear, and Davis, who'd been a model for Victoria's Secret, got the job opposite Dustin Hoffman in 1982's "Tootsie."
Clearly, she was a lot more than just a pretty face. Davis' role as the quirky Muriel Pritchett in 1989's "The Accidental Tourist" earned her an Oscar nod, but right before she went to the ceremony with then-husband Jeff Goldblum, she'd watched a show where critics agreed she had no chance of winning.
"I was just like, 'Oh. Oh, I see. Oh, all right. Well, I guess I'll still go. I'm all dressed up!'" she said.
And the Oscar went to … Geena Davis. "The funny thing was, it was Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson who were presenting the award. And Melanie kissed me when she handed it to me. And I was very conscious that I might have a pink kiss mark on my cheek there. So, in my acceptance speech, I'm going [covering cheek with hand], and it looks like I'm kind of shy or something. But I was actually just trying to cover up this potential kiss mark on my face!"
In 1992, fresh off of "Thelma & Louise," she seemed right at home as a star baseball player in "A League of Their Own." But truth is, she barely knew how to hold a bat. "I didn't know how to play baseball, or any sport. I really was so not athletic as a kid. I was always the tallest, tallest kid. Not just tallest girl, but the tallest kid in my class, and very self-conscious, and didn't want to try anything physical in case people would laugh at me. And they were constantly begging me to be on the girls' basketball team. And I said, 'No, no, but I don't know how to play basketball.' And they were like, 'Just stand there. You're the tallest girl anywhere. Just be on the team!' And I'm, 'No, no, no, no, no.'
"But now, I had to be the best baseball player anyone had ever seen."
As it turns out, she was a natural athlete. After watching coverage of the U.S. archery team at the Olympics, she took up that sport, and at age 41 nearly made it onto the U.S. team herself. "I got really good," Davis said. "Yeah, in two-and-a-half years I was a semi-finalist for the Olympic trials."
"What do you think that did mentally for you?" Smith asked.
"It was incredible. It was all about the points; you either hit it or you didn't, you know, and it was fascinating to do something that was that precise, and it wasn't up to people's judgment about what you were wearing or how you did it."
It seems the game in Hollywood is a lot more subjective.
Smith asked, "Do you feel like Hollywood is finally getting it?"
"I think so. You know, they made 'Black Widow,' you know, which recently opened to great success. And I think we're definitely headed more in that direction. To have more blockbusters with women in the lead roles, is definitely happening more, which is very exciting."
For her work, Davis was awarded her second Oscar, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, in 2019. But now, at 65, her more personal goal is still elusive.
When asked if she has had more opportunities, Davis replied, "You know, I make a joke about that, like, because I'm working to get more female roles in movies and TV, that at some point this will actually benefit me personally. But so far it hasn't."
"Is it kind of strange to you that things haven't changed for you?" asked Smith.
"That there aren't more parts out there? I mean, you won an Oscar a couple of years ago – it's not like people don't see you, you're out there."
"But they're so few – I mean, if you look at people in my age range, they're so few that are really getting, that are really working steadily, you know?" Davis said. "There's just very few parts for people my age and older, you know? So, it's just bad odds, basically."
Still, Davis (who calls herself "an impatient optimist") has beaten the numbers before. And in life, like her best movies, you just never know how it's gonna end.
Davis said, "I joke that I want my headstone to read, 'I wish I'd spent more time at work,' 'cause I heard this country-and-western song that said, 'Have you ever seen a headstone with the words "I wish I'd spent more time at work"?' Like, of course not."
"But you …?"
"Actually, I do wish I worked more, yeah. Actually. I'm fine, but it would have been nice."
For more info:
- Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media (seejane.org)
- Bentonville Film Festival, Bentonville, Ark. (August 2-8)
- The documentary "This Changes Everything" is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video and Netflix
Story produced by John D'Amelio. Editor: Lauren Barnello.
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