This week two dynamic duos face off! Ridley Scott’s road trip gone haywire: Thelma and Louise, and Fannie Flagg’s deep-south classic: Fried Green Tomatoes battle it out for best lesbian girl-power flick of the nineties. And the best part is, neither of them are actually about lesbians!
A brief summary for those of you who have not yet been fortunate enough to see these gems: Thelma and Louise, starring Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, is the story of two best friends named, you guessed it, Thelma and Louise, who steal away from their mundane, small-town lives (and in Thelma’s case, an obnoxious domineering husband) to spend a girl’s weekend up in the mountains. On route however, they have a run in with a smooth-talking bar patron who tries to take advantage of a very drunk Thelma in a parking lot while Louise is in the bathroom, and ends up with a bullet in the gut for his trouble. The girls, fearing that no one will believe their story, flee for the Mexican border with the police in hot pursuit, in a madcap adventure full of unexpected encounters, hare-brained schemes, high-rise jeans, and ra ra female empowerment.
Fried Green Tomatoes is the Depression-era story of Idgie Threadgoode and Ruth Jamieson, as related to 1980’s housewife Evelyn, by Ninny: an eccentric old lady she befriends while visiting an old age home. The story begins with the tragic death of Idgie’s older brother Buddy, which causes Idgie to retreat from society until Buddy’s former girlfriend Ruth intervenes at the request of Idgie’s family. In spite of their differences, the two soon form a reluctant friendship which blossoms over the summer. Autumn comes, Ruth leaves to be married, and the two lose contact, but when Ruth’s marriage becomes abusive, Idgie joyfully rushes in to rescue her. The two move back to Idgie’s hometown and set up a happy little business called “The Whistletop Café”, however with Ruth’s angry husband looking for revenge, and the ever-growing threat of the Klu Klux Klan lurking on the horizon, the girls find themselves in an increasingly perilous position.
The two movies offer an interesting comparison because they manage to be so incredibly different while being so much the same. Both were released in 1991 to critical acclaim, both are poignant stories of two female friends who embark on an unexpected “adventure”, both take place in conservative southern communities, both feature an abusive male bad guy who antagonizes one of the girls (until the other steps in an ousts him with gusto), both avoid ever explicitly defining the relationship between the two leads, and both, in spite of this last fact, have been adopted by lesbian audiences as their own.
So what differentiates the two? Well for starters there’s the original intent. Thelma and Louise was never meant to be about anything more than female friendship. According to the production team, the public reaction that it got came as a bit of a shock. Many of the movie’s “tip-offs” were apparently improvisations on the part of Sarandon, including the kiss at the end. Fried Green Tomatoes on the other hand, which appeared in book form before being adapted to the screen, never shied away from it’s queerness (the couple even share a kiss in the narrative), however when Fannie reworked the script for film, somehow the entire heart of the story managed to be muted to longing looks and conversations full of double meanings.
Which might explain the difference of my reaction to the two. Both movies were a riotously good time, equal parts light and dark, with adventure, comedy and tragedy all mixed up in one. Thelma and Louise blow up petrol trucks and rob desert gas stations while Idgie and Rose train hop and have a good, old-fashioned food fight. We taste the same horror seeing a weeping Thelma shoved onto the hood of a car as we do watching Ruth takes blow after blow from her maniacal husband. But in comparing the two as specifically queer film, I found that in Fried Green Tomatoes the depth and complexity of the relationship between Idgie and Rose was poignantly and convincingly portrayed, while in Thelma and Louise, the hunt for lesbian elements begins to feel like a queer “Where’s Waldo?”.
Perhaps it was the obviousness of the “clues” in Thelma and Louise that made it hard for me to find the chemistry between the two leads. People generally point to the closing scene as a, “See! We knew it all along!” (the way the girls clasp hands over the gear shift, the famous closing kiss, the couple-y Polaroids that feature in the credits, etc.), but for me these rang hollow. Maybe it was the age difference, but if anything I found the women’s relationship felt more maternal than anything. Fried Green Tomatoes on the other hand was surprising in little ways: the forlorn way Idgie watches Ruth’s wedding from a distance, Idgie’s face when Ruth drunkenly kisses her on the cheek after her birthday party, Ruth’s awed pronunciation that Idgie is a “bee charmer”, the proclamation in the courtroom that “she’s my best friend and I love her”, Idgie’s broken hearted “there’s so much I need to tell you”, cut short at the end. In general I found that it was what went unsaid, and unenacted that meant something, rather than what did, perhaps a result of the heavy censorship of all things queer that has become what we’re used to (if it’s too obvious, it must not be for real, right?). Ninny tritely concludes her story by thanking Evelyn for reminding her that what really matters in life is “friendship”, a word so completely inadequate that it must have been chosen intentionally.
Agree? Disagree? Watch them and let me know what you think! I promise you won’t regret it! (My housemate and I are dressing up as Thelma and Louise next Halloween. Awesome sauce.)