Friday, July 27, 2018

Steel Yourself for an ’80s Guilty Pleasure

When I first saw this film version of one of my favorite stage plays almost three decades ago, I must admit—I didn’t love it. But over the years, Steel Magnolias (1989) has grown on me. 

Perhaps because our local theater’s version of Robert Harling’s intimate tragicomic play about the strength and fortitude of ordinary everyday Southern women had been performed with such depth, dimension and heart, I didn’t see eye to eye with director Herbert Ross’s cinematic vision of casting larger-than-life movie stars playing these women in such flamboyant fashion.

Though I had enjoyed every member of the cast in other film performances, seeing this all-star extravaganza for the first time was a somewhat jarring experience. Though its star power packed a powerful punch, some of the lead actresses’ broad and over-the-top characterizations bothered me. 

Olympia Dukakis as Clairee Belcher

But that didn’t stop me from seeing the film again. And again. In fact, this has become one of those movies that if I land on it as I channel surf looking for something to pass the time, I’ll stay tuned and watch it to the end (even though I own my own DVD!). It’s an addictive guilty pleasure, imbued with a gay sensibility and a soupçon of camp, eminently watchable despite all its perceived flaws, far superior to a Mommie Dearest or a Myra Breckinridge (both of which I happen to adore). 

For the film, director Herbert Ross (Funny Lady, The Goodbye Girl)  and screenwriter Robert Harling (The First Wives Club, Telenovela), opened up the play (which all took place on the single set of Truvy’s Beauty Spot), actually filming on location in Harling’s own hometown of Natchitoches, Louisiana. But its casting and production design seemed decidedly at odds with a touching play that according to Harling had been inspired by real people and events in his life, including losing his sister to diabetes.

Shirley MacLaine as Oiuser Boudreau
Much of the expanded plot of the movie relies on humor and sight gags—the Pepto-Bismol pink church wedding scene; the shooting of birds from the trees for the reception; the smashed Easter eggs; the outlandish costumes of the principals. Of course, just as in the stage play, comedy gives way to tragedy as the story unfolds. 

Time and repetition have made this a movie I truly enjoy. Harling’s script is chock full of unforgettable one-liners that still zing and sting with rare wit, and tells a heartwarming story with the power to make viewers both laugh and cry. And indeed, I did become attached to these now-iconic characters as brought to life by these bigger-than-life star personalities.

Dolly Parton as Truvy Jones

As wisecracking matron Clairee Belcher, Olympia Dukakis, who I loved so much in her Academy Award-winning role as Cher’s cynical mom in Moonstruck, spews her lethal one-liners with the practiced timing of a Mae West or W.C. Fields, actually talking out of the side of her mouth in broad asides. (“If you can’t say anything nice about anybody, come sit by me.”) Funny as hell, but the stage character used humor to ease the pain of losing her beloved husband. That subtle shading is somewhat lost here. 

As Ouiser, the mean and crotchety one—“I’m not crazy…I’ve just been in a very bad mood for 40 years”—veteran actress Shirley MacLaine (who was still a vibrant, ageless, high-kicking redhead when the film was made), is more than just deglamorized. Her costumes and makeup are hideously ugly, and she’s given too much cartoonlike schtick with a sad-looking (similarly roughed up!) St. Bernard. 

Sally Field as M'Lynn Eatonton

In the play, much of the momentum is carried by the character Truvy, owner of the beauty salon, a long-winded storyteller who passes the time regaling her clients as she teases and sprays. In the film, Dolly Parton’s performance as Truvy is uneven (though heartfelt). In Nine to Five her refreshingly natural and unself-conscious portrayal of a spirited secretary charmed audiences, but here she seems to be a little intimidated by Harling’s intricate and often wordy dialogue. In Parton, Truvy’s humorous turns of phrase are delivered haltingly, but not without timing or humor. At some moments her delivery is odd and awkward — “[Miss Merry Christmas] was caught with her tinsel…down around her knees”— but in her defense, Miss Dolly does fire off a few comedic bullseyes as well. 

Don’t get me wrong, I do love Dolly and enjoy her quirky performance here. Once I learned through interviews with Shirley MacLaine that an impatient Herbert Ross had browbeaten and humiliated Parton in front of the rest of the cast, telling her to go get acting lessons, I looked at her valiant effort in an entirely different light. Now I find her performance brave and balls-out—Dolly is not a skilled actress but a natural performer with boundless charisma, enthusiasm and heart—and her chemistry with the other women is warm and real. 

Julia Roberts as Shelby Eatonton Latcherie

Two-time Oscar winner Sally Field (
Norma Rae, Places in the Heart—both Southern women, by the way) plays the role of M’Lynn Eatonton with matter-of-fact skill and far less bombast than her costars, although she does have her obligatory hysterical “Sybil” moment in the scene in the cemetery following daughter’s funeral. Somehow, though, Sally’s breakdown can still bring me to tears, too.

As Shelby, daughter of M’Lynn, the feisty bride who loses her life to a battle with diabetes—a difficult role that required her to transition from light comedy (“I’ll be the one in the veil, down front”) to high drama (literally expiring in a hospital vigil as the beeping EKG machine slows and stops)— a young Julia Roberts acquits herself with grace and aplomb. (This is despite the fact that director Ross had been equally hard on Roberts as he was Parton.) For Steel Magnolias, Roberts was nominated for her first Oscar, as Best Supporting Actress—the one and only Oscar nod the film received. Roberts would receive a Best Actress nomination for Pretty Woman a year later, and finally win a Best Actress statuette for Erin Brokovich in 2000.

Daryl Hannah as Annelle Dupuis

As Annelle, the new girl in town (“with a past!”), Daryl Hannah displays a great comic flair. Revealing herself to be more than the sex symbol she played in Splash and in Wall Street and the tabloid-selling paramour of JFK Jr. and nemesis of his mother Jackie Onassis (who reportedly put the kibosh on her son’s marriage plans with the actress), Hannah gives one of her most solid film performances.

Ironically, Jackie O’s sister Lee Radziwill was married to Steel Magnolias director Herbert Ross at the time of filming. (Perhaps that even played a part in how Daryl got the role.) Ross had recently been widowed after a 28-year marriage to ballerina Nora Kaye. Together, their cinematic labor of love had been the exquisite 1977 ballet drama The Turning Point, starring Shirley MacLaine and Tom Skerritt. Lee Radziwill, also a lover of ballet and patroness of the arts, had been a friend of Ross for years before their 1988 marriage, but the union was not to last. Ross acrimoniously divorced Radziwill in 2000 and then he died in 2001.

The male characters of Steel Magnolias do not appear in the all-female-cast stage play at all and are painted by Harling as little more than comical cartoon characters, as colorfully described in amusing anecdotes by the women in the beauty parlor. But in the film, Tom Skerritt (Alien, Top Gun), Sam Shepard (The Right Stuff, August Osage County) and Kevin J. O’Connor (Peggy Sue Got Married) manage to imbue their performances with depth and humanity.

Sam Shepard as Spud Jones
As Drum Eatenton, M’Lynn’s husband and Shelby’s dad, Skerritt is affecting in the final act of the picture as his daughter and wife undergo a kidney transplant (after playing Drum as a “dumb redneck” in the first two thirds of the picture).

Sam Shepard gives the most naturalistic portrayal of all as Truvy’s husband (despite his comical character name of Spud). Parton’s best and most touching scene, in fact, is a somber moment opposite Shepard, who plays her husband, as as they prepare for Shelby’s funeral. 

Tom Skerritt as Drum Eatonton

As Shelby’s sardonic husband, handsome Dylan McDermott is properly macho and tongue-in-cheek as he humorously refuses to take anything his mother-in-law Field says seriously, but his shallow character is given very little screen time.  In contrast, Kevin J. O’Connor makes the most of his brief scenes as Daryl Hannah’s gentle bartender boyfriend. 

His knack for writing rich female characters of all ages has turned into a cottage industry for Robert Harling, who parlayed his little play into a successful, still-going-strong career as screenwriter and producer. Harling would work with Sally Field again in Soapdish and with Shirley MacLaine in Evening Star, the sequel to Terms of Endearment.

Dylan McDermott as Jackson Latcherie

All in all, for me the years have been kind to Steel Magnolias; it’s a film I really do love. (I haven’t yet seen the African-American TV film version made in 2012. Now I’m so attached to the film version, I hesitate, because I know it so well after umpteen viewings!) The actors are unforgettable and iconic. Having helmed the musical numbers in William Wyler’s film of Funny Girl (as well as directing its sequel Funny Lady), director Ross gives the film a rhythmic musical flow. Lively southern music and the picturesque Natchitoches Louisiana locations lend charm and authenticity to the proceedings. And ultimately, it achieves, in the words of Truvy,  a  mixture of “laughter through tears—my favorite emotion.”

Director Herbert Ross and his all-stars


William said...

Well, as usual, Chris, you've written so intelligently about this film that you've made me want to see it again. I saw it years ago but don't remember it too well. I appreciate your wise comments on the differences between a stage play and the film adaptation, especially in regards to the high-powered casting which often throws everything out of whack when a play is filmed. (And don't get me started on what happens to musicals!) It's true that you can be very disappointed in a film when you first see it, then grow to like and admire it more and more as the years go on, your original expectations replaced by a fondness for what it is instead of what it isn't.

Goos show, as usual!

Quiggy said...

I have never watched Steel Magnolias. I always thought of it as a "chick flick" and it takes a lot of extra stuff to draw me into what I expect to be a schmaltzy evening. I must admit however that two phrases in this review perked up my sensibilities. Saying that it had a bit of camp to it and calling Dolly's performance "balls-out" (for some reason I just like that phrase. It was the reason I finally watched "Myra Breckenridge" after reading your review of that movie.) I'm going to watch this one, although God only knows when... I've booked blogathon entries through early November...

Jim aka Quiggy

angelman66 said...

Hi Bill - thank you as always for stopping by!

You are so right, much of the time a stage play becomes unrecognizable when adapted into a film, and with musicals is even worse. I will have to cover this phenomenon when I review Pal Joey for the Rita Hayworth blogathon this October. The plot characters and and music stray far from the original.

Steel Magnolias is a delight if you like these actresses! Have fun with it!

angelman66 said...

Hi Quiggy - You are right, it is definitely a schmaltzy chick flick! If you ever have time, it is worth a watch.

LOL, I guess "balls-out" is one of my catch phrases. Wonder how I got that one into my head!

Quiggy, thank you so much for your support as always!

Poseidon3 said...

This is a special movie to me (yet one - in ten years and nearly 700 posts! - I have never written about myself!) I remember wanting to see it when it came out and my mother coming home from seeing it with her husband and another couple and not liking it at all. But when I did finally see it, it was almost life-changing! So funny and so sad and with dialogue that seemed to become part of my own (and many other certain young men's) personal vocabulary. I just loved, loved, loved it. It was the reason I bought I DVD player because I wanted to see the deleted scenes that badly. LOL Somehow I think I overdosed on it and that may be why I never revisited it for my blog.

I directed the play in 1999 and it was an incredible experience that I will always treasure. So I totally get what you mean about the differences between the two. I do think, in retrospect, some of the visuals and costumes are overdone, but the gems of performance - even big as they are - remain. And the music is just wonderful. I'm so glad you mentioned that scene with Parton and her husband prior to the funeral. I think it's overlooked by many viewers and it is actually the key to her whole character. She's spent her life trying to beautify herself and everyone else and her husband doesn't even know what any of it is or is used for. Poignant that it may all have been for nothing as far as he was concerned. I also loved seeing Dolly in some darker shades of blonde, though she scarcely, if ever, did so again after this! Thanks!

angelman66 said...

Hi Poseidon - thanks so much for stopping by!
So glad you love this movie! It is indeed an addictive experience! So cool that it inspired the purchase your first DVD player! And to have directed the beautiful play on which this film is based must have been such a glorious experience.

Yes, three cheers for Miss Dolly–I too love her touching scene with Sam Shepard, and all her hairstyles do indeed belong in Truvy's "Hairdo Hall of Fame."

So glad you came to visit, Poseidon, and share your love of Steel Magnolias!

Ken Anderson said...

Late to this one, but always happy to uncover another of your posts. This film has been a favorite of mine since it was released, and I have seen it more times than I can count.
That is indeed splendid, if overstressed at times. But like you and Poseidon, I've always felt the scene with Parton and Shepard to be one of the strongest.
I took a glimpse of the TV remake and decided to give it a pass. This was was too ingrained in my psyche. Another great write up about another fave film. Thanks!

angelman66 said...

Hi Ken! Why am I not surprised you love this film too? Because we're classic movie soul twins!
Yup, this is one that if you flip onto it as you channel surf, you watch "just this scene" and end up hooked until the end, even though you own the DVD!!

These superstar ladies have made it iconic...and we know every line by heart!

Thanks so much as always for sharing your passion for movies and for encouraging my own!!