Steel Magnolias is infamous in a good way. It’s a film that plenty of women relate to deeply because it’s about women forming community. That most of it takes place in a beauty parlor is just fun and apt because plenty of us ladies like that sort of thing. It’s a movie a lot of guys have seen but won’t always admit to liking. Amirite, fellas?
Shhhh, don’t worry. We won’t tell. 😉
For those who haven’t seen it, Steel Magnolias was released in 1989 and is set in the fictional Louisiana town of Chinquapin Parish. It’s an ensemble film, centered around Truvy’s Beauty Spot, where the local and loyal clientele gather. It’s a small town, so everyone knows everyone, and there are no secrets. This doesn’t stop our group from discussing it all in copious, glorious detail.
The movie opens on the day of Shelby’s (Julia Roberts) wedding to Jackson (Dylan McDermott). The Eatonton house is a beehive of activity, not helped by the fact that Drum (Tom Skerritt), the man of the house, is busy trying to scare away the neighborhood birds with a handgun and then with fireworks. Shelby’s brothers, Tommy (Knowl Johnson) and Jonathan (Jonathan Ward) are no help, tossing around a basketball and surreptitiously planning on decorating the getaway car, er, Trojan style.
Shelby and mom, M’Lynn (Sally Field) escape to the relative oasis of Truvy’s, where they’re getting their hair done for the big day. Truvy (Dolly Parton) is a sweet lady with a less-than-engaged husband, Spud (Sam Shepard) and rebellious son, Louis (Tom Hodges). The guys don’t really intrude on the beauty shop, though, where the women rule. Truvy has hired a new assistant, Annelle (Daryl Hannah) who’s nervous as a cat but eager to start a new life after a painful marriage.
Truvy’s regulars soon converge on the shop, where they discuss the preparations for the wedding, including Shelby’s chosen colors of blush and bashful, aka dark pink and light pink, her nine bridesmaids, and the gray armadillo groom’s cake baked by Jackson’s aunt. Motherly Clairee (Olympia Dukakis) soaks up every detail, crotchety Ouiser (Shirley MacLaine) looks more disapproving than she actually is, and Truvy fusses around Shelby like a loving aunt.
Annelle has no idea what she walked into when she took the job at Truvy’s. Not only does she feel awkward around these women who have known each other all their lives, but she watches in horror as Shelby goes into diabetic shock from too much insulin.
Everyone recovers pretty quickly, though, and it’s on to the wedding. The ceremony is gorgeous, the reception is a huge hit, and Shelby goes off with Jackson deliriously happy. Annelle hasn’t done too badly, either, because Shelby invites her to the reception, where she meets Sammy (Kevin J. O’Connor), the bartender, who gives her a cherry Coke.
Then it’s Christmastime, and Chinquapin Parish is celebrating with their annual fair. Shelby comes home for the holidays with big news: She’s having a baby.
Everyone but M’Lynn is over the moon. M’Lynn is worried because Shelby’s diabetes is so severe she’s been told she shouldn’t have children. She and Jackson can’t adopt, either, because of Shelby’s medical history, and Shelby wants to have a family so badly. The way she looks at it is that if something happens to her, the baby is a sign of life going on.
Well, Shelby and Jackson have a baby boy, Jack Jr. Unfortunately, the pregnancy really does a number on Shelby’s kidneys and her circulatory system weakens even more. M’Lynn donates one of her kidneys, but Shelby’s body rejects it.
If anyone reading hasn’t seen the movie, I’ll just say this: The story takes a heartrending turn that is hard to watch, especially for those who have lost someone. Or for those who have watched people lose someone. Basically, it’s hard to watch for anyone. At the same time, though, it effectively communicates the resiliency of the human spirit and what happens when people truly support each other.
I’ve only scratched the surface as far as what this movie is really like. The writing is wonderfully witty and endlessly quotable like a bumper sticker. Fans know what this means:
“Smile–it increases your face value.”
“You are evil and you must be destroyed.”
“Pink is my signature color.”
“You know I love you more than my luggage.”
When Steel Magnolias is up, it’s bitingly satisfying, and when it’s down, it’s heartbreaking without being contrived. However, the writing loves its audience and knows how to get them feeling like everything’s going to be OK even when life throws big heavy objects in one’s direction.
It feels real because a lot of it is. Steel Magnolias is based on an off-Broadway play Louisiana native Robert Harling wrote about his sister, Susan, who was a type one diabetic. Like Shelby, she started a family with her husband even though her doctors didn’t think her health could take it, and sure enough her kidneys began to fail.
Also like Shelby, Susan’s mother donated a kidney to her daughter, but unlike Shelby, Susan’s body accepted it. She died during a routine surgery at the age of 33. Harling was inspired to write the play because he was afraid Susan’s little boy, who was two at the time, would have no memory of his mother.
Steel Magnolias made its New York debut in 1987 at the off-Broadway WPA Theatre, then moved to the Lucile Lortel Theatre, with the curtain going up over 1,100 times. Tri-Star Pictures bought the rights to it, conscripting Harling to write the screenplay, which give the film and play a comfortable continuity. Much of the play’s dialogue appears verbatim in the film, but the play does take place entirely inside the beauty shop, so the obvious thing to do was take it outside. The film was shot in Natchitoches, Louisiana, where Harling and his family grew up, even casting some of the hospital staff who attended Susan in the film.
Plenty of Hollywood actresses wanted to get in on the action. According to Southern Living, one Bette Davis was especially keen to play Ouiser, so much so that she invited Harling to tea to lobby for the role. Davis also thought Elizabeth Taylor should play Truvy and Katharine Hepburn ought to be Clairee. However, Davis wasn’t cast because it was thought the role would be too physically demanding for her, and her response was, “You may give the role of Ouiser to someone else. But you and they will hear from Bette Davis.”
The role of Shelby almost went to Winona Ryder, who was too young, then to Meg Ryan, who was unavailable, and finally to Julia Roberts, who was just right. Harling found her presence on set comforting, as Julia was of the same personality type as Susan.
Harling’s family took the cast in like their own. His mother in particular wanted to stay around while shooting the hospital scenes. Harling tried to get her to go home, but Mom had a good reason: She had to see Julia get up off the hospital bed and walk away.
The film opened to generally favorable reviews (like this one by Peter Travers), but worldwide audiences really went for it, to the tune of $95.2 million in 1989 box office gross, or almost two billion today.
Steel Magnolias has worn well. In 2005 it was revived on Broadway, where it ran for 136 performances between April and July. It’s a staple of local theater all over the world. One of the houses that was used is now a B&B, and tours are given of the locations in Natchitoches that inspired the play and film.
Not every scheme related to the play has panned out. An TV version of the movie on the Lifetime channel garnered healthy ratings but horrid reviews (Harling very much disliked it). There was almost a TV series but it never got picked up. The film and play are what remain.
Why does Steel Magnolias touch people so deeply? Besides the fact that audiences respond to Susan’s story, Harling credits its universal themes. People who enjoy it may be from all over, but we all see ourselves in this crazy, wonderful group of Southern women.
The quarantine may be starting to lift in California, but the binge continues. Hope you’ll join me next week for another look at what’s been on my screen during this lockdown. Thanks for reading, everyone, and have a good week…