'G.I. Jane' screenwriter explains why Demi Moore gave 'the performance of her career' in the 1997 military drama

Demi Moore gets into fighting shape in G.I. Jane. (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)
Demi Moore gets into fighting shape in G.I. Jane, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)

Before it re-emerged as an Oscar night punchline — and a prelude to a slap that's still reverberating in Hollywood — G.I. Jane's primary pop culture legacy was a career-defining showcase for Demi Moore. Released 25 years ago on Aug. 22, 1997, the Ridley Scott-directed military drama featured the Ghost star completely revamping her screen image, bulking up her body and shaving her head to play Lt. Jordan O'Neil, a military analyst who becomes the first female candidate to go through intensive basic training to join a Navy SEAL-like special ops team.

Although the movie itself received mixed reviews, Moore's intense performance was largely praised. It also proved to be her last star turn for some time: The actress took a multi-year hiatus after G.I. Jane's release, shifting her focus to raising her three daughters with then-husband, Bruce Willis. She didn't appear in another mainstream studio movie until Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle six years later.

"It's the performance of her career," G.I. Jane screenwriter, David Twohy, tells Yahoo Entertainment now. "The movie rises or falls on her performance, and that required her to have a total, unflinching commitment to that part. And she had that commitment — I think she f***ing nailed it."

In Twohy's ideal world, G.I. Jane's only connection to the Oscars would have been a Best Actress nomination for Moore a quarter century ago. Instead, the film is now part of a moment that's enshrined in Oscar infamy. At the 94th Academy Awards in March, comedian Chris Rock introduced the nominees for Best Documentary, and took the opportunity to address Best Actor nominee Will Smith and his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. "Jada, I love ya. G.I. Jane 2 — can't wait to see it, all right?" the comedian said, referencing the actress's bald head. (Pinkett Smith suffers from alopecia and has openly discussed her struggles with hair loss.) Smith then walked onstage and slapped Rock on camera.

US actor Will Smith (R) slaps US actor Chris Rock onstage during the 94th Oscars at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California on March 27, 2022. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP) (Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)
Will Smith slaps Chris Rock onstage during the 94th Oscars at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, Calif. on March 27, 2022. (Photo: ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)

"It was a G.I Jane joke," the comic said after the King Richard star returned to his seat. "Keep my wife's name out your f***ing mouth," the actor responded. Smith remained in his seat for the rest of the telecast, and later accepted his Best Actor statue, declining to apologize to Rock. (Smith issued an apology the following day, and released another apology on July 29. He also resigned from the Academy, which later voted to ban him from attending the Oscars and other events for 10 years.)

"To me, the joke was sort of a non-joke that was followed by some testosterone-fueled over reactionary bulls***," Twohy says of the Oscar fracas during which G.I. Jane became collateral damage. "I personally think that Jada should have flashed her own guns and taken it as a compliment, because Demi looks great in the movie with her bald head, and Jada looks great, too. So where's the burn? Not only where's the joke, but where's the burn? I don't get it." At the same time, he doesn't believe the movie itself has been impacted in a negative way. "I'm assuming that my next residual check for G.I. Jane will double."

Twohy's history with G.I. Jane dates back to 1995, when he found himself on a shortlist of writers brought in by Hollywood Pictures — one of the Walt Disney Company-owned labels that focused on grown-up fare — to work on a script that had originated with British writer Danielle Alexandra. Moore was already attached to the project at that point, and had been impressed by Twohy's contributions to Harrison Ford's 1993 hit, The Fugitive. "I originally passed, because I don't have a military background," the writer explains. "So the studio said, 'Please go out and meet with Demi.' She was filming Striptease at the time, we met in her trailer during her lunch break."

During that lunchtime meeting, Twohy remembers asking Moore one very important question. "It was her idea to shave her head, and I said: 'Do you know what kind of a skull you have? Do you have a good-looking skull? Because if not, this could go bad, quick.' She said: 'I don't know, but I think I do! I've never seen it.' I was captivated by her and that was the point of the meeting. When I got back to L.A., I told the studio, 'OK, I'll do it.'"

Twohy turned in his first draft of G.I. Jane in Aug. 1995, a full two years before the film arrived in theaters. And those two years were filled with multiple rewrites, plus a major third act overhaul that Scott demanded when he signed on to direct. "It was one of the more torturous writing projects I've been involved with," laughs Twohy, whose other credits include a stint on the script for Kevin Costner's notorious 1995 bomb Waterworld and writing and directing all three entries in Vin Diesel's fan favorite Riddick trilogy — Pitch Black, The Chronicles of Riddick and Riddick.

WESTWOOD, CA - AUGUST 28:  Actor Vin Diesel and writer/director David Twohy attend the premiere of Universal Pictures'
Vin Diesel and David Twohy attend the 2013 premiere of Riddick in Westwood, Calif. (Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

One of the first choices that Scott and Twohy faced was whether or not to enlist the U.S. military in bringing G.I. Jane to life. As Twohy recalls, the director initially argued in favor of cooperation with the Navy, hoping to use actual locations and technology. "He loved the hovercrafts that the Navy had," the writer says. "He told me, 'I can't get my hands on the hovercrafts without cooperation, so we're going to cooperate!'"

But Scott's resolve wavered as the Navy demanded script changes and creative oversight. Twohy remembers the duo sitting in "endless meetings" where a rotating crew of bureaucrats raised objections to the amount of swearing in the script and the use of the SEALs name. (The fictional team in the movie is called the U.S. Navy Combined Reconnaissance Team.) "After awhile, we got to the point where we were like, 'F*** the hovercrafts and f*** the Navy — we're doing it without cooperation."

Twohy credits the always-resourceful Scott with figuring out a way to feature the Navy in the movie without their direct involvement. "Ridley went down to Florida and found a beach venue that was directly opposite a Naval base," the writer says. "He realized, 'If I set up on this beach and film seaward, all those battleships and frigates and Navy activity is going to be in the background of my movie.' And that's the way we did it!"

Ridley Scott on the set of G.I. Jane (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)
Ridley Scott on the set of G.I. Jane in 1997. (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)

While Twohy started work on the script knowing that he was tailoring the role of Jordan O'Neil to Moore, the rest of the cast wasn't set in stone. In fact, he initially wrote the unit's ranking officer, Command Master Chief Jack Urgayle, as an older character than the one eventually portrayed by a then-39-year-old Viggo Mortensen. "That was a bit of a surprise," he says of Mortensen's casting, revealing that Harvey Keitel also wanted to play the role. "Ridley approached Harvey for another part, but he said, 'No, I want to play Master Chief.' Ridley informed him, 'We've met some of those guys, and they tend to skew young — you're too old for that part.' So Harvey declined to join the movie; he wanted Master Chief or nothing. That's when Viggo's name made its appearance."

Twohy says that Mortensen came to set with the idea that Master Chief would be a D.H. Lawrence fan, a running thread that sets up the emotional final scene between him and O'Neil. "Viggo is a poet himself, and I can only assume that Lawrence is one of his favorite poets. So he brought that to the table and incorporated it into the character." Mortensen's relative youth also upped the intensity in the battle of wills he shared with Moore — a battle that takes a physical turn in one memorable scene where the two get into a fight that leaves her bloodied and bruised.

While Twohy wasn't on set the day that Moore and Mortensen went head-to-head, he was given the scoop about the brawl afterwards. "I heard that when Viggo puts her head through the door and throws her from inside the interrogation room to the outside area, he was supposed to throw her into a pad that was on the door. But he threw her a little off, and her head hit the door for real! They really got into it." (Moore later showed off her battle scar during an appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman.)

Viggo Mortensen and Moore in a scene from G.I. Jane (Photo: Buena Vista Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Viggo Mortensen and Moore in a scene from G.I. Jane. (Photo: Buena Vista Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Twohy also wasn't on set the day that Moore — and the rest of the crew — saw exactly what her skull looked like when it was shorn of hair. "I saw behind the scenes footage later," he recalls, adding that Moore served as her own barber. "I always assumed that Ridley would have filmed it in one take with six cameras, but he kept stopping and starting! Demi would get three or four strokes of the razor in, and he'd be like 'Stop, stop! Are we good? How does the skull look?' When she got about 40% of her head shaved, the whole crew broke out in applause. You can hear a lot of the military actors in the background yelling, 'Hoo-yah, hoo-yah!' It was a big f***ing deal; I would have loved to have been there."

But the writer was present and accounted for when Scott filmed the scene that was intended to open G.I. Jane. "Ridley's original idea was to start with an action sequence that showed that O'Neil's not just an intel officer, but has athletic aspirations as well," Twohy says about the discarded sequence which found Moore practicing a fast and furious Skeleton run at a Winter Olympics training facility in Lake Placid, N.Y.

"He filmed this fantastic sequence, where she's hurtling down the Skeleton course at 50 miles an hour, with her coach barking in her ear the whole way," he continues. "Then she crashes and burns at the end, because she's not taking his direction very well. That's one of her character flaws, thinking 'I've got to do this my way,' which is the opposite of teamwork." (Although the Skeleton sequence was cut from the theatrical version of G.I. Jane, it was later released on both the Laserdisc and DVD editions.)

While the alternate opening was eventually released, Scott shot another ending for G.I. Jane that has only ever been seen by studio executives at Disney. Twohy says that the film's third act was always a sticking point for the director, who wanted O'Neil to face real world combat at the end of basic training, in the same way that Top Gun ended with Tom Cruise's Maverick flying into an actual battle with hostile enemy fighters. (The original Top Gun was directed by Scott's brother, Tony Scott, who died by suicide in 2012.)

"Ridley always had it in his head that we were going to do the same thing," Twohy recalls, adding that his own preference was to make surviving basic training a life or death situation of O'Neil. But Scott ultimately won that battle, and the writer scripted the ending seen in the film where she and her fellow trainees are dispatched to recover weapons-grade plutonium from the Libyan desert. On the advice of the film's military adviser, ex-Navy SEAL Harry Humphries, Scott filmed an ending where O'Neil was shot and killed by a sniper, in addition to a finale where she survives the mission. Disney executives were shown both endings and went with the happier version that general audiences saw when the film premiered.

"It was a cautionary ending — just stark as f***" Twohy says of the alternate finale. "The story that we told was telling the parents of America that they have to be ready for their daughters to come home in body bags. Ridley and I talked about it and I said, 'I don't think it's gratifying, but I can see how this might be an apt ending if we're being totally realistic about this.' But I'm assuming the studio stepped in and said, 'Nope.'"

Moore shaved her own head in a key scene from G.I. Jane (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)
Moore shaved her own head in a key scene from G.I. Jane. (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)

Thanks to Moore's still-potent star power, G.I. Jane topped the box office its opening weekend, but the mixed critical response ate into its earnings and the film ended its run just shy of $50 million. Looking back, Twohy believes that the vitriol that surrounded Moore's previous film Striptease impacted the way that G.I. Jane was greeted by reviewers and audiences alike.

"Striptease came out while we were in production, and the stink was in the air," he says of that 1996 flop. "I don't think it was fairly received, and Striptease had a lot to do with it, because it was a truly bad movie. She should have been nominated for G.I. Jane, and I think she would have been, too, if not for Striptease. That tainted her chances and maybe everyone's chances."

Over the ensuing 25 years, though, Twohy says that he's received messages from many viewers — including a number of female military officers — who give the movie a big "Hoo-rah." "I do hear from women in combat settings who say, 'That movie is why I'm here.' I also hear from workout people, too! They're like, 'Anytime I want to get pumped up for a good workout, I watch G.I. Jane.' I think it has a powerful message that still resonates today, and I'm sure that a lot of women in the military go through the same things that we portrayed. I don't think misogyny has gone away in the military."

G.I. Jane is currently streaming on Tubi.