SARASOTA FILM FESTIVAL: Geena Davis making impact on, off screen

wtatangelo@bradenton.comApril 8, 2011 

Geena Davis superbly played one of the greatest, stereotype-busting parts ever written for a woman -- and by a woman -- in the landmark film “Thelma & Louise.”

She continues to promote equality in Hollywood behind the scenes with the highly influential Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.

And back on screen, as well.

The Sarasota Film Festival, which has its opening night bash today and runs through April 17, presents the new movie “Miss Representation” Sunday and again April 16.

Davis appears alongside numerous important figures from various fields.

Festival organizers first saw the documentary about the lack of women in positions of power at Sundance earlier this year. Soon after, they had the idea to honor Davis with their inaugural Impact Award.

The Oscar winner will accept on April 16 at the Sarasota Opera House. Davis also has talks scheduled at two other festival events closing weekend. “ ‘Miss Representation’ really hits you over the head,” Davis said by telephone. “The message the movie gives is about how prevalent and dominant the negative images are of what women are supposed to be in our culture.”

Davis shares screen time with an eclectic cast that includes television news anchor Katie Couric, comedian Margaret Cho, feminist icon Gloria Steinem, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Condoleeza Rice, former secretary of State in the George W. Bush administration. “What we have in common is all of us had experiences as women, forget about political parties, purely as women, that showed us how much further we need to go in improving the opportunities for women and the way women are seen,” Davis said.

“Thelma & Louise” probably has done more to advance gender equality than any big-budget movie to hit theaters.

Released 20 years ago this May, the film shocked audiences and created a media maelstrom.

Davis’ Thelma and Susan Sarandon’s Louise leave the loser men in their respective lives for a cross-country joy ride that turns into a sprint for the border after Louise shoots a man who had attempted to rape Thelma. Police closing in, the women decide to drive off a cliff rather than surrender. A buddy/road movie with a killing and tragic ending akin to the final scene of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” had never been done before with women as the stars.

Davis and Sarandon both earned Oscars nominations in the Best Actress category. Callie Khouri won an Academy Award for her original screenplay.

Scholars and critics praised the movie for its feminist overtones.

“I do think you can definitely call it a feminist movie in that the women are in charge of their lives and decide their own fates,” Davis said.

“But people are terrified of the term ‘feminist,’ ” she added with a chuckle. “It simply means women have big parts.

“For me, the thing I found remarkable was there were two lead female parts equally fabulous and complex and well written. That’s astounding. But we had no idea what was going to happen when it came out. It was mind blowing.”

Davis, who had won an Oscar for playing Muriel in the 1988 film “The Accidental Tourist,” followed “Thelma & Louise” with the equally successful “A League of Their Own.”

Inspired by the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League of the 1940s and ’50s, “A League of Their Own” offers ample laughs but Davis, as clutch-hitting catcher Dottie Hinson, also reinforces that women can be at once tough and beautiful.

“I get a lot of feedback on that film,” Davis said. “I never expected at the time that with video and DVD, this stuff lives forever. I have as many girls and teen girls come up and talk about that movie as when it came out and it’s fabulous.

“Same for ‘Thelma & Louise.’ Women more like the age I was when I made it come up to me having just seen it.”

Davis’ career suffered a major setback in the mid ’90s when she starred in the flop “Cutthroat Island,” directed by then-husband Renny Harlin.

She bounced back, though, in 2005 with the television drama “Commander in Chief.” Davis described playing the first woman American president as a “dream role.”

“I thought, you gotta be kidding me, this is perfect,” Davis said. “It was an amazing experience.”

The show, which aired on ABC, had strong ratings and earned Davis a Golden Globe award as well as an Emmy nomination in ’06. Then “Commander in Chief” seemed to be sabotaged by a hiatus and a time-slot change.

“That was tough,” Davis said, sounding sad rather than bitter. “We were doing great in the ratings.”

“We were opposite ‘American Idol’ and they thought they would protect the show by taking it off air and then bring it back afterwards. But after all that time, three months, they brought it back on a different night. It’s hard to get a really successful show that speaks to you like that one did.”

The woman whose resume also includes the hits “Beetle Juice” and “The Fly,” formed the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media about four years ago after watching children’s shows with her young daughter and noticing a great imbalance in the ratio of male-to-female characters.

Davis proceeded to raise funds for research showing top-grossing G-rated movies featured three male characters for every one female.

She discretely campaigns to increase the number of girls and women in media aimed at children and reduce stereotyping in general.

“I don’t bust anyone publicly and never talk about individuals or studios,” Davis said. “So many of the people creating the shows are parents, fathers and mothers, and they want to make things good and fair for kids. It’s just a matter of helping to point out what are research found.”

Davis’ activism landed her at the White House on March 30. First Lady Michelle Obama invited her to participate in a an event celebrating Women’s History Month.

“I was thrilled,” Davis said. “It was all about mentoring girls.

“That evening at dinner, Mrs. Obama made remarks about the president telling her maybe he should pop down and say hello. ‘You won’t, it’s only girls,’ she told him.

“He was banned,” Davis said with a laugh.

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