Steel Magnolias is based on the hit off-Broadway play of the same name by Robert Harling. The playwright based the story on the death of his sister, Susan, and the community of strong women in his hometown of Natchitoches, Louisiana that rallied around his grieving family. Harling, who had attended law school and later took up acting, did not set out to be a writer. However, when his sister died, he was devastated and felt compelled to tell her story. A friend encouraged him to work through his feelings on paper, and within ten days the play was written. "I remember telling a friend that [the play] is going to open and do what it does and nobody will ever hear of it again, and then I'll go back to being an actor and figure out what I'm going to do the rest of my life," said Harling in a 2005 interview. "I had no delusions of writing grandeur."
Much to Harling's surprise, his play was a hit, and it wasn't long before Hollywood came calling. Director Herbert Ross became involved when producer Ray Stark recommended that he see Steel Magnolias on stage. "I was charmed by the play," said Ross in a 2000 interview. "I thought it was terrific and moving and funny." Ross quickly made a deal to bring Steel Magnolias to the big screen. Under Ross's guidance, Harling wrote the screenplay. While the entire stage play took place one a single set-Truvy's Beauty Shop-and used only six actresses, the movie would significantly open up the action to include multiple locations and several new characters, including husbands and significant others that never appeared in the play.
In casting the film version of Steel Magnolias, Herbert Ross wanted to bring some star power to the female roles. "Herb Ross called me and said that he had bought [the play]," said Shirley MacLaine in a 2000 interview. "And I remember his words were, 'Read the play and tell me what part you want to play.' I think he did that with all the actresses. We all really did pick the parts we wanted. I really wanted to play Ouiser. Didn't want to play anything else. I loved that idea of her being so curmudgeon-like."
While MacLaine took on the character role of Ouiser, Ross hired Sally Field to play M'Lynn, Dolly Parton as larger-than-life Truvy, Olympia Dukakis as rich widow Clairee, and Daryl Hannah as painfully shy Annelle. In an effort to convince Ross to give her the part, the usually glamorous Hannah showed up for her audition almost unrecognizable as she tried to look the part of dowdy Annelle. "For Daryl, who had never played a character role up unto this point," said Ross, "it was a real departure and she sought out the role and convinced me and Ray Stark that she could handle the role."
For the crucial part of Shelby, Herbert Ross seriously considered Winona Ryder, but in the end, she was considered too young looking. He then got his heart set on Meg Ryan. While Ryan was attached to Steel Magnolias for a short time, she dropped out of the project to make When Harry Met Sally (1989), the film that catapulted her to the top of the A-list.
It was through Sally Field that newcomer Julia Roberts was first brought to Herbert Ross's attention. Field's husband at the time, Alan Greisman, was a producer who had worked with Roberts on her first feature film Satisfaction in 1988. Both Greisman and Field believed that Roberts would be an excellent choice to play Shelby. Ross initially resisted using Roberts, something hard to believe considering what a huge star she went on to become. However, he was eventually won over by her talent. Roberts, who was still green in Hollywood at the time, couldn't believe she had a chance to work with such an experienced group of actors. "When I got the call to audition for the movie," said Roberts according to James Spada's 2004 biography Julia: Her Life, "I asked who was in it. When they told me, I said, 'Yeah, right.' I went to the audition with the intention of not getting it. I would go to the reading and do the best I could to try to impress somebody for a future role."
Though Ross hired Roberts for what would turn out to be her star making role, by all accounts he was extremely tough on her. According to Shirley MacLaine in her 1995 memoir My Lucky Stars, Ross wanted to have "a ballet master's control over his new discoveries" and wanted the gorgeous Roberts to change her appearance. "He wanted her to dye her hair, have her beauty marks removed, and never eat more than a thousand calories a day," said MacLaine. "He claimed he could detect the effects of an extra Saltine cracker on an actress's face. Julia stood up to Herbert's well-meaning dictates very well."
In her 1994 autobiography Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business, Dolly Parton also recalls Herbert Ross's stern treatment. "The only person who made [Steel Magnolias] less than a wonderful time for me," said Parton, "was the director, Herbert Ross. He didn't particularly like me or Julia Roberts at the start and was very hard on us...Julia Roberts was not the big star she is now, and I think Herbert Ross resented having to use her. He told me I couldn't act. This was not news to me, and I told him so. 'I'm not an actress, I'm Dolly Parton. I'm a personality who has been hired to do this movie. You're the director. It's your job to make me look like I'm acting.' By the end of the film, we had all made peace and become friends."
Paul Hirsch, the editor of Steel Magnolias, elaborated on Ross's directing style as quoted in James Spada's Julia Roberts biography. "He could be very demanding of his performers," he said, "and his style of directing grew out of his background in dance, where choreographers are notoriously blunt, even brutal, with their criticisms. Having said that, he was also the best director of actors I have ever worked with, and his pictures were often nominated for best performances in the acting categories."
Not everyone shared Ross's trepidation about hiring Julia Roberts. The established actresses in the cast warmed to her immediately and respected both her raw talent and the way she handled herself under such pressure. "Julia was new, had only done a few pictures," said Shirley MacLaine, "but the moment she walked into the rehearsal room it was obvious she was a born movie star."
Herbert Ross was adamant about shooting Steel Magnolias on location in Natchitoches, Louisiana, the actual town in which the action of the story took place. He felt that the character and flavor of the picturesque small town would bring the story to life. Most of the sets used throughout the shoot were real places, and many local citizens were used as extras, giving the film a feeling of authenticity. For her role as salon owner Truvy, Dolly Parton even trained for a time with local beauticians. "There were even brave people from Natchitoches who volunteered to have me do their hair," said Parton in her autobiography, "although I doubt many of them knew exactly how courageous they were."
The lead actresses all lived close to each other in rented houses in Natchitoches during the brutally hot Louisiana summer shoot. They spent a great deal of time together off camera and became genuine friends in the process. With so many top actresses together sharing the spotlight, it seemed inevitable that there would be drama. However, that didn't happen. "From day one," said Dolly Parton in her autobiography, "people were predicting trouble on the set because the cast included so many strong actresses with distinct and different personalities. That trouble never developed. We all got along fine."
Shirley MacLaine echoed Parton's sentiments in her memoir. "Nowhere was the effective power of women more evident than on the set of Steel Magnolias. The crew (mostly men) stood back in awe as they watched the women work out their creative problems with sensitivity and a minimum of turbulence. The actresses were there for each other at every insecure turn in the road. We were a bonded team." Julia Roberts also felt support in the potentially intimidating company of so many accomplished actresses. "They treated me like an equal before I ever began to deserve it," she said in a later interview.
Steel Magnolias opened to mostly positive reviews. "The principal pleasure of the movie," said Roger Ebert in his Chicago Sun-Times review, "is in the ensemble work of the actresses, as they trade one-liners and zingers and stick together and dish the dirt. Steel Magnolias is willing to sacrifice its over-all impact for individual moments of humor, and while that leaves us without much to take home, you've got to hand it to them: The moments work." Rolling Stone called it "practically critic-proof" and "shamelessly entertaining."
"Critic-proof" was right. Since its release in 1989, Steel Magnolias has gone on to become something of a modern day classic. It is a movie that remains a positive memory for those involved with the film. "Our gang of wonder women met, worked, and lived together," said Shirley MacLaine. "We cried, laughed, and teased together. I don't remember a moment of jealously, envy, or proprietary behavior...we covered for each other, we joked with each other, and we respected each other's privacy. It was an experience not unlike what people saw on the screen when the movie came out, only we weren't just in character, we were being ourselves." Herbert Ross agrees. "It was a happy experience. It was a special summer. It was the first movie I made after my wife's death...It was the movie that somehow returned me into participating again in the world." For newcomer Julia Roberts, Steel Magnolias was a triumph. Her performance garnered the film's only Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actress.
The supporting cast of male roles includes Tom Skerritt, Sam Shepard, Kevin J. O'Connor, and Dylan McDermott, who plays Julia Roberts's husband. Roberts and McDermott, who met on this film, got engaged for a brief time after making the movie. However, the relationship soon ended. Keep an eye out for writer Robert Harling, who has a cameo in the film as the minister who marries Roberts and McDermott.
Producer: Ray Stark
Director: Herbert Ross
Screenplay: Robert Harling (also the play)
Cinematography: John A. Alonzo
Art Direction: Hub Braden and Michael Okowita
Music: Georges Delerue
Film Editing: Paul Hirsch
Cast: Sally Field (M'Lynn Eatenton), Dolly Parton (Truvy Jones), Shirley MacLaine (Ouiser Boudreaux), Daryl Hannah (Annelle Dupuy Desoto), Olympia Dukakis (Clairee Belcher), Julia Roberts (Shelby Eatenton Latcherie), Tom Skerritt (Drum Eatenton), Sam Shepard (Spud Jones), Dylan McDermott (Jackson Latcherie).
C-117m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning.
by Andrea Passafiume