Geena Davis Isn’t Dying of Politeness
Speaker 1: Geena Davis was in some of the quirkiest and most interesting films of the '80s, The Fly and Tootsie. She's certainly best remembered now for Thelma & Louise, which was groundbreaking in its moment, a saga, or a buddy movie about the consequences of women striking back against male violence. Geena Davis has now written a memoir about her life on and off the camera. She spoke with staff writer, Michael Schulman, who covers entertainment.
Michael Schulman: You may not have seen Geena Davis and a movie lately, but you might have caught her at the Emmy Awards last month, where she was honored for her work with the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. 20 years ago, she was watching TV with her two-year-old daughter, and was shocked to see how few female characters were on screen.
She wanted to know how big of a problem this was, so she spearheaded a major research project to gather data on gender representation in children's entertainment. That's how an Oscar-winning movie star began her new life as what she calls a middle age data geek. She would walk into executives' offices, armed with numbers, but she wasn't confrontational.
Geena Davis: It was polite. It was very polite. My approach was very polite because I said, "I know you don't know this, take it, do whatever you want with it. I just thought you might like to hear this, and I'm never going to bust you publicly. I'm never going to name a movie or studio or anything. This is just private between us."
Michael Schulman: It turns out that politeness is something that Geena Davis has been wrestling with her whole life. It's one of the subjects of her new memoir, Dying of Politeness. How did you learn politeness and why is it so deadly?
Geena Davis: Well, I learned politeness from minute one, I'm sure. That was my family, very old-fashioned New Englanders, both from Vermont. Well, it wasn't so much being kind, it was not making anyone go out of their way for you, for anything. Never asked for anything, never need anything, but on the other side, offer everything. My Dad fixed everybody on the street, he fix their plumbing or their furnace or their car or whatever. It was just in my family.
Michael Schulman: When did you realize that there was a downside to politeness?
Geena Davis: Well, it was painful sometimes to say no. If we went to visit friends' houses and they offered me candy, I had to say no, and my best friend's mom was an incredible cook. Oh, she made this chicken with garlic that was incredible, so anyway. I'd be smelling that and I go, "It's time for me to go home for dinner." She'd say, "Geena, do you want to stay?" "No, no, thank you." She'd call my mom and just say, "Lucille, Geena's staying for dinner." "All right, talk to you later." [laughs] She would rescue me from my own politeness.
Michael Schulman: I want to talk a little bit about your earlier career. You moved to New York in 1978, what was the plan?
Geena Davis: Oh, I knew I wanted to be in movies rather than plays. Nobody told me that if you want to be in movies, you should probably go to LA. My plan was, I would become a model and then people would just offer me movies because, at that time, Christie Brinkley was showing up at a couple of movies, and Lauren Hutton and I thought, "Okay, it's so much easier to become a supermodel, then an actor." [laughs] Well, I must have assumed that, which was crazy.
Michael Schulman: I have to ask you about this, when you were pursuing your modeling career, you were working on Ann Taylor on Fifth Avenue. This is not something that an extremely shy self-effacing person would necessarily do, but you kind of put on your own version of Street Theater. Can you just explain what happened?
Geena Davis: I tried to look very nice every day. Fully made up and hair done, and tailor clothes even. One weekend, the window display in the front on the street was a couple of mannequins sitting, but there was one empty chair in between them. I said to one of my friends, "Dare me to go in the window and pretend to be a mannequin." I just sneaked in the window, I sat down. A couple of people have been looking in the window and saw me do this. Then they're like, "What's she going to do?" Then more people are coming, "What are you guys looking at?" "Just wait, just wait." Then I finally moved. They were like, "Aah," and clap.
Michael Schulman: [laughs] What was motivating you?
Geena Davis: Just for kicks, see if I could do it. I didn't intend to make a thing out of it. I was just going to do it that once but they started hiring me to do that on Saturdays. Five hours in the window.
Michael Schulman: Ultimately, the model-to-actor plan worked. You got your first role in Tootsie through modeling, didn't you?
Geena Davis: It completely worked. When they were casting Tootsie, the role that I ended up playing, needed to be in her underwear in a couple of scenes and they thought, "Well, let's just check if there's any models who can act." They called all the modeling agencies to see and my agents said, "Yes, we have one." I got to audition. They said, "Wear a bathing suit under your clothes." I read it was just with an assistant casting director and a video camera. I read and she said, "Thank you." I left and I was like, "Well, that's fine. I didn't do well enough." Plus, on my first audition ever, what are the odds I'm going to get in the movie with Dustin Hoffman?
Then I went to Paris to do the collections. Sydney Pollack saw my audition tape and say, "Hey, wait a minute, I like this girl, where's her bathing suit stuff?" They said, "Oh, we forgot." "Get her back." "We can't. She's in Paris." To my great happiness, I had been in a Victoria's Secret catalog. They sent the photos from that over there. As opposed to being in midtown Manhattan in some dingy office building, I had perfectly lit airburst, fan-blowing photos of me in underwear already. I guess that clinched it.
Michael Schulman: So much of the arc of the book is about how you learned boldness and bravery and assertiveness from your characters. What was an early example of that?
Geena Davis: Well, yes, I had to play someone who was so much bolder than myself. Accidental Tourist was one where she was very confrontational in a way and said what she thought at the moment she thought it and was not going to give up on things. Very tenacious, and wasn't going to take no for an answer. That was really the first time that I had to really step outside myself.
[Accidental Tourist scene]
Genna: Muriel Pritchett, let me give you my card.
Muriel Pritchett: Oh, wow. I'll bear that in mind, thank you very much.
Geena Davis: Or just call for no reason. Call and talk.
Muriel Pritchett: Talk?
Geena Davis: Sure. Talk about Edward, his problems. Talk about anything, pick up the phone and just talk. Don't ever get the urge to do that?
Muriel Pritchett: Not really.
[end of scene]
Michael Schulman: This is your Oscar-winning role as Muriel Pritchett, the dog trainer, opposite William Hurt. You write about reading the book and immediately wanting to option it yourself. What was it about that character? Was it that sense of wanting to be like her in some way?
Geena Davis: Oh, yes, definitely. She's so colorful and I thought, "Wow, how fun would it be to play this character?" Optioning a book, that wasn't something that was going to happen, but Dustin Hoffman had given me that advice. When I was on Tootsie, he said, "Read a lot of books and if you see something you like, try to get the rights."
Michael Schulman: Dustin Hoffman seems to have a lot of advice for you, didn't he?
Geena Davis: Yes, all day long, he was giving me advice.
Michael Schulman: He also told you don't sleep with your co-stars, and if they want to say, what was the line?
Geena Davis: You want me to tell that story with?
Michael Schulman: Please?
Geena Davis: After Tootsie, my model agent took me and a couple of other actors/ models to Hollywood to meet casting directors and he happened to know Jack Nicholson. Every single night Jack Nicholson had dinner with us. Then one day, I came back and there was a note under the door that said, "Please call Jack Nicholson and this number." I was like, "Oh, I can't believe it. Jack Nicholson called me. Oh, my god." Anyway, I said, "Hello, Mr. Nicholson. This is Geena, the model, you've called me." He said, "Yes. Hey, Geena. When's it going to happen?" I was like, "Oh, no."
It immediately came into my head what to say because I've been holding on to this advice. I said, "Oh, Jack. I would love to, you're very attractive but I have a feeling we're going to work together at some point in the future and I would hate to have ruined the sexual tension between us." He was like, "Oh, man, where did you get that?" It worked.
Michael Schulman: Getting back to Accidental Tourist. How did that character rub off on you?
Geena Davis: I became much more able to be assertive. More than I was, which was profoundly unassertive.
Michael Schulman: In a way, that seems like a bit of what happened in Thelma & Louise, which is that the offscreen dynamic between you and Susan Sarandon mirrored how Louise emboldens Thelma.
Geena Davis: Absolutely. Yes. I was so in awe and admire Susan Sarandon so much. To witness that nobody gave a shit if she said what she thought. She never used qualifiers. I don't know what people would think or, I don't know. This is probably a stupid idea. That was my life was a string of qualifiers before I would say anything. The whole shoot was an education for me in how to very calmly and capably say what you want.
[Thelma and Louise scene]
Thelma: I don't know, Louise. I don't know what you're asking.
Louise: Now don't you start legging out on me. Goddamnit, Thelma. Every time we get in trouble, you just get blank or plead insanity or some such shit. Not this time. This time things have changed. Everything's changed.
[end of scene]
Michael Schulman: Now, you, of course, are in these two iconic feminist movies right back to back Thelma & Louise and A League of Their Own. They were so impactful.
Geena Davis: Oh Yes. Thelma & Louise exploded onto the seemed, like Susan and I were on the cover of Time Magazine a week later or something. The headline was Why Thelma and Louise Strikes a Nerve. Not, Why Is Thelma and Louise So Great?
Michael Schulman: What kind of response do you remember for A League of Their Own?
Geena Davis: What I noticed was, before it came out, a lot of people came to the set to interview me or us. During these interviews, it was fascinating because almost every single person, male or female said, "Would you say this is a feminist movie?" In this wink-wink tone. I'd say "Yes, Yes, it is." They'd be like, "It is? What? It is? Are you saying you're a feminist?" I'd say, "Yes, sure." They couldn't believe I would say that out loud, which is so crazy. That's how strong the backlash was at that time.
Michael Schulman: I want to talk about a period in your career that doesn't get as much attention, which is right after that. We always hear about women in Hollywood turning 40 and suddenly just not getting roles. I'd like to hear about what exactly happened from your perspective.
Geena Davis: It was just absolutely heartbreaking because this is my thing. It felt like forced retirement or something. The work just literally dried up. It was incredibly painful.
Michael Schulman: It also seems to me like that period where you were not working as much was fruitful in other ways because you took up other interests. One of them was archery. Can you describe how you took up an interest in archery?
Geena Davis: I had to learn how to play baseball for League of Their Own. I was really worried about it because I'd never been athletic. Trained with the coaches that they had. They very soon said, "You have some real untapped athletic ability." I was like, "Wow, I do." Then I was determined, "I want to take up a sport in the real way and not a movie version of it."
I picked archery because I saw it on TV during the Olympics in Atlanta, and then total immersion. Yes, I was a semi-finalist for the Olympic trials two years later. It was incredible. I really changed my body image and the idea of how much space I could take up in the world to become athletic and realize that I don't have to be ashamed of how tall I am and ashamed of my body because I can do cool things. It was very transformative.
Speaker 1: Geena Davis talking with Michael Schulman. Her new memoir is called Dying of Politeness.
Michael Schulman: Geena, this has been so much fun. Thank you again. It's great to talk to you.
Geena Davis: You too, Michael. I'm sorry I wasn't sometimes very articulate.
Michael Schulman: That's still "dying of politeness."
Geena Davis: Oh my God.
Michael Schulman: You see.
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