Geena Davis: Thelma rides again

In her most famous role, the actress (and Mensa member) stood up for downtrodden women everywhere. Now she’s found a new front for the fight
  • @johnhenrywalsh

One of the things people may not know about Geena Davis is that she’s a whizz at archery. She took up the sport at 41, became obsessed with target shooting, and practised for six hours a day. In two years, she was good enough to try joining the US Olympics archery team heading for Sydney 2000. Three hundred women tried for a place. Geena came 24th and didn’t make it. But she went to Sydney anyway, as a “wild card” entry in the Golden Arrow competition. That’s what you do when you’re a six-foot Hollywood goddess who had three children in her late forties: you don’t give up.

This week she hit a bullseye in media circles with a short manifesto that’s startling in its simplicity. “Geena Davis’s two easy steps to make Hollywood less sexist,” appeared in the Hollywood Reporter’s “Women in Entertainment Power 100” issue. It’s a call to arms for Hollywood scriptwriters, asking them to go through their scripts and change several characters’ names from male to female. “With one stroke you’ve created some colourful, unstereotypical female characters,” she writes. “What if the plumber or pilot or construction foreman is a woman?” Secondly, she recommends that, when writing a crowd scene, they use the words, “A crowd gathers, which is half female.” Hey presto. “You have just quickly and easily boosted the female presence in your project without changing a line of dialogue.”

These recommendations seem almost insultingly simple. But Davis’s manifesto is motivated by a passionate belief that the underrepresentation of women in the media is a social anomaly; that girls can be inspired to be company directors, politicians, scientists and US presidents if women are routinely portrayed in such roles on TV and in films.

She’s been campaigning about this since 2004, when she started watching “family-friendly” movies with her daughter Alizeh, then aged three, and realised that, for every female speaking part in such films, there were roughly three male parts; and that crowd and group scenes were oddly bereft of girls and women. She investigated the phenomenon, founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, consulted friends in the industry and came up with a startling statistic: whenever large groups of people are shown on celluloid, only 17 per cent of them are women – and that woeful gender imbalance has been that way since 1946.

“We are in effect,” writes Davis, “enculturating [sic] kids from the very beginning to see women and girls as not taking up half of the space.” Can it be, she argues, that the reason why the presence of women in Congress, the military, the academy, the legal profession stands at around 17 per cent is because we’ve come to see that as the normal ratio?

To ram the message home, she recently went on YouTube with “Geena Davis Archery Tricks”, in which she used her trusty recurved bow to shoot various targets – men, balloons, Apple, paparazzi photographers – as she made little jokes about her films and concluded by saying, “Support gender equality in films and television – and now a Long Kiss Goodnight,” aiming the last arrow straight at the camera lens. “Geena Davis is a tall drink of badass,” commented, admiringly.

Virginia Elizabeth Davis was born in Wareham, Massachusetts, in 1956, to a civil engineer father, William, and a teacher’s assistant mother, Lucille. At school she was unhappy because of her height: at six feet, she was the tallest girl in any class. After graduating, she took a BA in drama at Boston College. She also joined Mensa, but regrettably it was little help when, in 1979, she moved to New York to find a career as a model. Signed by the Zoli agency, she began to model for Victoria’s Secret, the lingerie firm. Sydney Pollack, the film director, was leafing through the catalogue one day, spotted her, and cast her in Tootsie (1982) where she appeared, mainly in her scanties, alongside Dustin Hoffman. But she got good notices, and moved to Los Angeles. TV parts flooded in for the tall, pretty, 26-year-old ingénue with the huge brown eyes and the extraordinary mouth, both sensuous and disappointed. She married Richard Emmolo, the first of four husbands, but it lasted only a few months.

Davis hit her stride as a comedy actress playing Chevy Chase’s research assistant in Fletch. She co-starred in David Cronenberg’s The Fly with Jeff Goldblum, who became her second husband in 1987. Comedy won her the 1988 Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in Laurence Kasdan’s The Accidental Tourist, in which she played a wacky but romantic dog-trainer. The highlight of her career so far came in 1991 with Thelma & Louise, Ridley Scott’s female-buddies-on-the-run drama, which was nominated for six Oscars. Davis and Susan Sarandon were both up for Best Actress, but neither won. Playing the put-upon housewife Thelma, Davis was convincing in her discovery of both hot sex, at the hands of Brad Pitt, and the joys of being an outlaw. The ending, in which the women drive to their deaths over the rim of the Grand Canyon rather than giving in to the law, was a notable moment in celluloid feminism.

“Afterwards,” David told the press, “I had women holding me by the lapels, so I could hear their story. And that experience really brought home to me how few opportunities we give women to feel like that about a movie. To feel passionately identified with it and feel empowered and thrilled.”

A year later, she drew good notices in A League of Their Own with Tom Hanks and Madonna, a film about sibling rivalry in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League formed in 1943. But nothing seemed to go right afterwards. Divorced from Goldblum, in 1992 she married the director Renny Harlin and they formed a production company whose first film, Speechless (1994) – a screwball romance between rival political speechwriters – was a failure. Cutthroat Island (1995) with Davis as Morgan the pirate queen and Matthew Modine charisma-free as her leading man was one of the biggest flops in film history. After it, her career was effectively scuppered, although she was good as a tough-bunny spy in The Long Kiss Goodnight.

Her personal life, however, took a turn for the better. In 2001, she married her fourth husband, Reza Jarrahy, an Iranian-American plastic surgeon. At 46, a dangerous age for a primagravida, she gave birth to Alizeh, and followed up, at 48, with twin sons, Kian and Kalis. She returned to the screen this year in In a World ... set in the voice-over business.

Davis has been working in films for 31 years, flirting, emoting, screaming, firing guns, doing her dazzling smile and winning millions of hearts. But it’s possible that the role for which she’ll be best remembered is as the initiator of the largest research project ever undertaken on gender in entertainment, and in her ceaseless quest to do something about it. It’s possible. But first we’ll have to shake off the memory of her sweetly, seductively introducing a traffic cop to her Colt .45, somewhere in the Arizona desert.