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Off the Cliff: How the Making of Thelma & Louise Drove Hollywood to the Edge by Becky Aikman (Penguin Press, $37)

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“She would create a movie about outlaw women on the run, busting out of tedious, thwarted humdrum lives – lives like hers – for freedom that let them finally become their true selves.  She imagined it all:  a movie unlike any other she had ever seen, where women drove the story, maybe even got to drive the car.”

-Becky Aikman (from Off the Cliff)

The 1980’s were a peak time for the shoot’em-up, car chase, fireball explosion action films.  These movies supplanted the western to become what drove box-office profits; lowbrow fare often starring incomprehensible, body-building leading men with overlong ethnic names toting high-caliber belt-fed machine guns or bazookas who in the final reel blew away the bad guy, fired off a cool remark, and rode off into the sunset on a Harley with a leading lady who was often neither the lead nor a “lady.”  When they tried to make a woman the hero of such a feature, it was often disastrous (with the glowing exceptions of Linda Hamilton in Terminator and Terminator 2 and Sigourney Weaver in Alien and its sequel Aliens, among extremely rare others) because the features were written, produced and directed by men who did little more than replace a male character with a female one and ultimately did little more than expose the overall weakness and silliness of the genre’s clichés.  Then along came a movie that changed everything…or at least it was supposed to.  And that is the subject of Off the Cliff:  How the Making of Thelma & Louise Drove Hollywood to the Edge by writer and journalist Becky Aikman.

It is often said that it is a miracle any movie gets made in the Hollywood studio system, let alone a good movie.  And in Off the Cliff we can see why.  Aikman takes us on and insane journey through the male-dominated dream factory few know about where great works of art get mangled in the process by people who don’t understand an artist’s vision or try to make changes that are sometimes baffling and often seem arbitrary.  We get angry when the author describes countless sexist behind-the-scenes incidents or industry double-standards, and share in the joys of the ultimate triumph of screenwriter Callie Khouri and others despite all the pitfalls.

In Off the Cliff Aikman skillfully tells the story of the making of Thelma & Louise from inspiration to conception to completion and legacy thoroughly and concisely.  She includes brief but informative mini-bios of all the principals involved including studio heads, producers, actors, as well as art directors and costume people without a single wasted paragraph to create what is an exceptional biography of a movie that can be used in film school courses on how the movie business works and how to put together a successful production.

In the end Thelma & Louise was a ground-breaking endeavour that frustratingly changed little in the motion picture industry.  But it is certainly worthy of a book to tell its story.  In a world where the man who was once called “America’s Dad” could possibly be a rapist (who would have thought he could do something worse than Leonard Part 6?) and the current occupant of the White House brags about sexual assault (and mind you still gets elected), a film like Thelma & Louise becomes even more relevant.  And Off the Cliff:  How the Making of Thelma & Louise Drove Hollywood to the Edge is just the reminder we need.

*PLEASE NOTE* This review is based on an advance uncorrected proof; changes may be made to the book before the final version goes to press.  Off the Cliff will be in bookstores on June 27, 2017.

Twitter:  @Akessaris


About Andreas Kessaris

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