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Wouldn't you know it? A new Steel Magnolias remake is hitting cable TV in a month, the wrinkle being that it has an all- African American cast. While watching Herbert Ross's 1989 big screen Steel Magnolias a couple of nights ago, I thought to myself, is this going to play differently now that the cultural landscape has been exposed to last year's game-changing comedy-drama The Help? In that story, the white housewives of Mississippi were presented as domestic footsoldiers maintaining old traditions of semi-slavery. As the title suggests, Steel Magnolias holds that the women of the South are made of stronger stuff. Highly entertaining, the show is a comedy that shifts its focus toward more serious issues.
The original play Steel Magnolias was confined mostly to a hairdressing salon, the center of gossip for a small group of women in Chinquapin Parish, Louisiana. That's the land of the Napoleonic Code, which I suppose is just far enough West to avoid too many direct comparisons with The Help.
The movie opens up the play to include the men in these women's lives as well as a snapshot of Chinquapin across a couple of years' worth of beautiful Louisiana seasons. But the story still sticks close to an interesting, amusing group of women. Working out of her garage, hairdresser Truvy Jones (Dolly Parton) freely admits that she wants to hear every bit of news from around town. Her husband Spud (Sam Shepard) is fatally handsome but chronically unemployed. Housewife M'Lynn Eatenton (Sally Field) is in the throes of a big Easter wedding for her headstrong daughter Shelby (Julia Roberts), whose fiancé is young lawyer Jackson Latcherie (Dylan McDermott). Also part of the salon chat group are Ouiser Boudreaux (Shirley MacLaine), a well-off but malcontent survivor of two bad marriages, and wealthy widow Clairee Belcher (Olympia Dukakis), who is thinking of buying the local radio station because she doesn't like the programming. While criticizing "perfect" local families like the Marmillions, the group argues among themselves in a constant tease mode. Truvy hires young Annelle Dupuy Desoto (Daryl Hannah), an abandoned bride who seems to be nervous about everything. Annelle eventually turns to Jesus to cope with a confusing world. But the main focus is on M'Lynn and the newly married Shelby. Although Doctors have warned the seriously diabetic Shelby that bearing children will jeopardize her health, she and Jackson decide to take their chances so as to have babies of their own.
Critics of 1989 were put at a loss by Steel Magnolias. The a movie was so obviously successful on its own terms that it didn't seem cricket to point out plot turns as manipulative as anything in drippy Mother-Daughter soaps of the 1930s. The cyclical story structure takes us from an Easter wedding to an Easter finish that celebrates the continuity of life from the woman's perspective. Progressive values aren't really part of the equation. Both Shelby and Annelle exhibit no ambition beyond getting married and having beaucoup babies. Trudy and Annelle are working women without significant support from their men. Ouiser and Clairee are slipping past middle age, free of economic problems but dependent on companionship of their salon friends. We don't really see what M'Lynn's husband Drum (Tom Skerritt) does for a living, but the Eatentons are not suffering either. M'Lynn worries herself sick over her daughter's iffy health situation; when Shelby gets pregant M'Lynn can see doom closing in. But Shelby wants those babies and has decided that Love will find a way. Steel Magnolias expresses the all-consuming need of people who want children of their own: Shelby simply follows her heart.
Steel Magnolias' writing is always better than a sit-com, although the format of five women dishing dirt around a beauty salon does tempt author Robert Harling to trot out his share of big laugh lines. Fairly weak slapstick finds its way in as well, with Ouiser being dragged about by her giant dog, and a carload of colorful Easter eggs turned into a sticky mess. The film's strong suit is of course its wonderful cast, a talented and savvy group of professionals that, if something in the text weren't working, could probably adjust their delivery on the fly. The five star actresses make a great ensemble; it's fun just hanging out with these women. Top billed Sally Field is just a few seasons past her career apogee. She bears the worst of the melodramatic blows and aquits herself well enough to stand proudly beside classic soap divas Claudette Colbert, Irene Dunne and Barbara Stanwyck. Shirley MacLaine's task is to play the crusty curmudgeon Ouiser (Wheezer?), spitting venom as required by the story; the actress's personality is so strong that she never seems to be straining. Olympia Dukakis was 'discovered' two years before in Moonstruck despite the fact that her first film appearance was in 1962. Her cheerful, teasing Clairee Belcher balances out Ouiser's crabapple act while serving as the best conduit for laugh lines: "Well, you know what they say: if you don't have anything nice to say about anybody, come sit by me!"
For relative newcomer Julia Roberts Steel Magnolias was a major career step between the independent Mystic Pizza and the blockbuster Pretty Woman. Her Shelby is uncomplicated without being an airhead. Roberts' star power is already quite apparent. Dolly Parton, on the other hand, needs the most help preventing Truvy from looking shallow amid all the acting talent. As risky as it is to conjecture about these things, I'd guess that a savvy personality like Ms. Parton, encouraged by her peers, would be at her very best. Beautiful Daryl Hannah's Annelle is dressed down to look like an awkward misfit, what with the ugly glasses and line deliveries that highlight her insecurity. When the character finds Jesus an ordinary comedy might offer either sarcasm or rapt approval. Steel Magnolias instead gives Annelle a slightly perturbed boyfriend (Kevin J. O'Connor) so she can protest his backsliding ways, like putting His beer in Her refrigerator. Annelle's big speech to M'Lynn at first sounds shallow, until it is revealed that the girl is framing a genuine personal concern and sympathy in a chuch-ified framework. Steel Magnolias neatly touches on Born-Again sentiment without ruffling feathers one way or another.
Director Herbert Ross stages the action without stressing camera technique, shooting scenes from angles that show how the ladies interact as a group and leaving the technical heavy lifting to the camera department. Thus there are a lot of irrelevant continuity issues to bug anal-retentive types. Editor Paul Hirsch instead lets the emotional flow and interpersonal dynamics dictate cuts -- we never just pop to a close-up of whatever talking head has the next laugh line. Steel Magnolias is consistently funny even as we know it is heading in a serious direction. Most every scene takes place on a holiday where people dress up for some sort of ritual, like a wedding, a picnic or a Christmas fair. Thus the story avoids mundane day to day issues, moving between celebrations as if they were life milestones. Although certainly sad enough, the tragedies are not milked for soap opera tears. The show instead embraces a larger statement about death and new life... ending at Easter time.
Steel Magnolias is a thoughtful and rewarding idealized story about the way women support each other. What we remember the most is the terrific interplay between the high-wattage star personalities. The warm feelings that are generated don't feel forced. Finding a competent 'people oriented' film these days is pretty difficult -- what few reservations I once had about Steel Magnolias have completely faded.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Steel Magnolias takes its place beside the label's earlier disc of another class-act Sony title, As Good As It Gets. The immaculate transfer and encoding flatter the stellar cast, delivering a presentation equal to what could be had in theaters when the film was new. Georges Delerue's soft music is presented on an Isolated Score Track, and director Herbert Ross offers a full audio commentary. Because this is a Sony-originated title, the disc is encoded with English subtitles as well.
Twilight Time writer Julie Kirgo provides an insightful and amusing set of liner notes, placing Steel Magnolias and its stars' various careers in proper perspective. As I said, critics in 1989 didn't always know how to react to this unapologetic tear-jerker. Ms. Kirgo takes the time to give the show the serious consideration it deserves.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Steel Magnolias Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.