The mother of all chick flicks, Steel Magnolias is an adaptation of Robert Harling’s award-winning off-Broadway play, based on the stories of his own mother and sister. Shot on location in Harling’s home town of Natchitoches, Louisiana, and sporting an extraordinary female cast, this popular tragicomedy revolves around six women who meet at the local beauty parlour to console and cajole each other through life’s ups and downs.
As disparate as their personalities are, there is nothing that headstrong and beautiful Shelby (Julia Roberts), her iron-willed mother M’Lynn (Sally Field), acerbic curmudgeon Ouiser (Shirley MacLaine), the late mayor’s elegant widow Clairee (Olympia Dukakis), new girl in town Annelle (Daryl Hannah), and earthy salon owner Truvy (Dolly Parton) can hide from each other.
The six enjoy a friendship that bridges boundaries of age and social status. They are survivors, Steel Magnolias, tough in the face of adversity and able to sustain each other with a mixture of strength and laughter. Fuelling their approach is Shelby. A diabetic, she suffers terrible seizures, yet despite her doctor’s warnings (and her over-protective mother’s wishes), she’s determined to live life to the full. If that means having a baby, then a baby she’ll have, dammit. Her conviction does more than just rally the support of her friends down the boutique, it prompts them to take chances in their own routine lives. But with chance comes risk, and the ladies need every ounce of that survival spirit to overcome the tragedy that awaits one of them.
Even though director Ross opens up Harling’s play to incorporate the sights and characters of the small-town community (there are support roles from Tom Skerritt, Dylan McDermott and Sam Shepard), he rarely allows the intimacy of the drama to be overwhelmed. And when you’ve got Field, MacLaine and Parton on your team, that’s quite an achievement.
One of Parton’s lines goes: “Laughter through tears is my favourite emotion,” and it sums up the film’s spirit perfectly. As Rolling Stone noted: “This laugh-getting, tear-jerking, part-affecting, part-appalling display is practically critic-proof. But its actresses have tapped into some fundamental truths about the strength women derive from one another. Stale contrivances can’t stop them. The ladies are livewires. Just stand back and watch them set off sparks.”
USA / 1989
Director: Herbert Ross
Writer: Robert Harling (from his own play)
Cast: Julia Roberts, Sally Field, Shirley MacLaine, Dolly Parton, Olympia Dukakis, Daryl Hannah, Sam Shepard, Tom Skerritt, Dylan McDermott, Sam Shepard, Kevin J O’Connor