Geena Davis On Going From ‘Crippling Politeness’ To Outspoken Activism

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Growing up, Geena Davis’s neighbors thought she was crazy.

After seeing her pretend to lead blades of grass into imaginary battle, a concerned neighbor called Davis’s mother to say there was something seriously wrong with her daughter.

“Actually, there were a lot of calls to my mother to say that something must have been wrong with me,” Davis wrote in the new memoir “Dying of Politeness.”

‘Dying of Politeness’ by Geena Davis

The book is the two-time Academy Award winner’s first, and chronicles her life, rise to fame and journey from “crippling politeness” to full-on “badassery.”

“I was conditioned to think that I mustn’t ask for things, must never put anyone out; so trained to be insanely polite that I learned to have no needs at all,” Davis wrote.

To prove her point, Davis cited the time her family rode with an elderly relative who veered in and out of oncoming traffic with barely a word from her parents.

“The lesson being: Even if there is death in the offing, (or of the offspring), don’t say something that could possibly be perceived as impolite,” wrote Davis and, thus, the title of the memoir.

Writing the book, Davis told TODAY, was a challenge at first. As a self-professed “terrible procrastinator,” Davis said she would distract herself doing things like “play games on her phone for two hours” at a time.

“If I could get myself to sit down and write, then I could keep going. I was very excited to learn that I could just keep going for hours. So, that was something I didn’t know about myself.”

Speaking to TODAY, Davis explained how she made the transformation happen.

Growing up ‘peculiar’ on the outskirts of Cape Cod

Born and raised in the small, New England town of Wareham, Massachusetts, Davis was named “Virginia Elizabeth” before being nicknamed “Geena” by her brother on the way home from the hospital.

Her parents, Bill and Lucille, were of modest means and at the age of 10, Davis took on a paper route to earn money, sometimes hand-delivering papers to elderly customers, including one who started inviting her in for treats and hugs. It eventually led to more.

“I didn’t know what he was doing, or why; in fact, I had no idea that it was bad,” Davis wrote in the memoir.

After asking her mother about it, Davis watched her mom “march right up the middle of the street,” before eventually returning with a warning to Davis to never go inside his apartment again.

“Not for us a trip to the police to report a sexual assault by an old creep. We were New Englanders: we sucked things up and kept them hidden,” Davis wrote. “I had no idea I’d been molested.”

Consumed by anxiety and too tall to “hide,” Davis wrote that while she was surrounded by a lot of amazing women and friends in her early life, she had few suitors and just a single date in high school.

“So, it wasn’t just the neighbors who felt I was a little peculiar. It was definitely boys, too,” wrote Davis.

Geena Davis in 2022.
Geena Davis in 2022.Kelly Lee Barrett / Getty Images

‘Never sleep with your costars’

After attending Boston University as a theater major, Davis left the program for New York City, where she began working as a retail associate at Ann Taylor, then becoming a model with the Zoli Agency.

Soon, she was getting steady work, leading to an audition for the 1982 film, “Tootsie.”

“It was beyond my wildest imaginings that I would get the first movie role I auditioned for,” Davis wrote. After winning the role, it wasn’t long before Davis found herself being mentored by the film’s star, Dustin Hoffman.

“He definitely took a mentoring role with me right from the very beginning,” Davis told TODAY in an interview. “He was very confident, for some reason, that I was going to have a significant career and wanted to make sure I was prepared.”

Along with giving Davis advice on how to overcome her feelings of self-criticism, the actor also offered some personal advice. ‘Never sleep with your costars,’ she recalled him saying in the book. ‘It’s just a bad idea. It complicates everything.’”

Not only did Hoffman tell her not to do it, Davis told TODAY, but Hoffman also told her how not to do it.

According to Davis, Hoffman said if propositioned, to say no on the basis that she didn’t want to ruin any on-screen “sexual tension” by having an off-screen relationship.

Advice Davis said she used after meeting Jack Nicholson.

“He invited me and a couple of the models over to his house for tuna fish sandwiches with a glass of milk, then later I got a message to call Jack Nicholson,” Davis said. “And he said, ‘Hey, Geena, can I send a car over? When’s it going to happen? Let’s get going.’”

Though Nicholson wasn’t a costar, Davis used Hoffman’s advice and told the actor that she had a feeling they’d work together one day and didn’t want to ruin any future sexual tension between them.

“He was like, ‘Oh, man, who told you to say that?’” Davis said.

‘Thelma & Louise’ and meeting the ‘Queen Alien’

After “Tootsie,” Davis made several other high-profile movies including “Beetlejuice” and “The Fly,” before taking on “The Accidental Tourist,” a role that earned her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 1989.

When she was given a copy of “Thelma & Louise,” the story of two women on the run from police, Davis wrote that it was the best script she’d ever read.

Thelma And Louise
Susan Sarandon (left) and Geena Davis in the film ‘Thelma And Louise’, 1991.Getty Images

Unfortunately, it had already been cast with Holly Hunter and Frances McDormand, then Jodie Foster and Michelle Pfeiffer, and Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn after that.

Through the casting changes, Davis doggedly pursued the film, eventually winning over director Ridley Scott and scoring the role of Thelma before meeting Susan Sarandon, who Davis wrote changed everything.

In contrast to Davis’ unflinching politeness, Sarandon was outspoken and unafraid to speak her mind. “I was now on another planet, a new, exciting, powerful planet, and Susan Sarandon was the Queen Alien,” Davis wrote in the memoir.

Much like their on-screen relationship, Sarandon was Davis’ inspiration in real life.

“The characters have a certain kind of relationships where Louise is the leader in the relationship and Thelma’s a little younger and more naïve. She looks up to Louise and counts on Louise to help her and look out for her,” Davis said.

“That was definitely how we were in real life, too,” she continued. “And still are. We’re still really good friends.”

Making ‘A League of Their Own’

When Davis was offered the chance to be in “A League of Their Own,” the actor said she didn’t hesitate for a second and immediately practiced her throw to be good enough for “movie baseball.”

Davis was put to the test at an in-person meeting with director Penny Marshall, who made her throw a ball despite Davis’ strict orders not to, since the meeting was meant to be about the role, not a test of her athletic ability. “Bottom line, she rolled right over my fledgling badass,” Davis wrote.

Alamy

However, Davis still got the part of Dottie. She recounted the reason she was “angry” at Tom Hanks while filming the iconic movie. “There was one superlative I could not claim; being the nicest person on set,” Davis wrote.

“Tom Hanks is the nicest guy in the world, in real life, which was wonderful … and pissed me the eff off,” she joked in the book. “You simply can’t out-nice, Tom.”

The ‘Me Too’ movement and making a difference

Davis told TODAY that sexual harassment and objectification haven’t been “rampant” in her life, but she’s encountered both, including the time a director had her “act out a role” while sitting on his lap early in her career.

“It left me with shame and humiliation that was hard to get past and made me realize how vulnerable I really was,” Davis wrote in the memoir. But it was also a dawning for the actor who realized just how prevalent the exploitation of female actors was in the industry.

In 2004, she founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, a research-based organization that advocates for gender balance, inclusion and a reduction of negative stereotyping in the entertainment industry. It’s an endeavor that’s earned the actor the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences in 2020 and the Governors’ Award in 2022, an honorary Emmy for contributions to the television industry.

With the advent of ‘Me Too,’ Davis said there’s been some progress.

“It certainly changed things for women to finally be believed,” she said. “I’m fairly certain that no agents are going to send their young actresses to audition in a hotel room anymore.”

But there’s still work to be done. Much like her own evolution, Davis said that it starts with women feeling empowered to speak up instead of being bound by the constraints of politeness.

“The concept that you give away a little bit of yourself every time you don’t speak up for yourself or say what you think,” she said.

“The feeling of having to be pleasing and nice, that people will only like you if you never cause any problems and taking that all the way to feeling like you can’t say what you think in seemingly innocuous everyday situations and in important situations as well.”

The next big role?

Over the past four decades, Davis said she’s fortunate to have played an array of parts. She plans to continue acting. “There’s not a lot of people that get to be a pirate captain, a CIA assassin and a baseball phenomenon,” Davis said.

She also played the first female president in the 2005 TV drama series “Commander in Chief,” a role that could serve her well if the role she’d most like to play next comes to fruition: Eleanor Roosevelt.

“I think I could really look like her — she’s also very tall — and the good thing about wanting to play her is that she was famous for her whole life, so I’m not going to age out of the possibility to play her,” laughed Davis. “So, I have plenty of time.”

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