The woman’s picture, a long dormant sub-genre in American movies came gloriously back to life with Herbert Ross’s Steel Magnolias (1989); an unapologetically sentimental comedy zinger eliciting the great laugh and good cry through its affecting cocktail of pathos and wit, seamlessly blended throughout Robert Harling’s poignant and affecting gem of a screenplay. The film is inspired by Harling’s Broadway play, reportedly written in just 10 days; itself based on personal recollections of a close knit community of southern women from his youth who helped ease his family through the tragic loss of his sister. In essence, Steel Magnolias is a devoted homage to those ladies; characters straight out of character-ville with proverbial hearts of gold, whose shared camaraderie is predicated on mutual frankness, as imperishably funny as it remains immoveable as the rock of Gibraltar.
The most endearing aspect of Steel Magnolias, indeed the glue that keeps the entire film from degenerating into one giant cackle and catfight with claws in, is these blessed and bittersweet bonds that tug at our heartstrings; the ladies maintaining their fiery sense of decorum with a devil-may-care tongue-in-cheek savoir faire. In times of need or moments of celebration this intimately connected enclave is ready to face the world. That spirit remains Steel Magnolias most enduring and endearing pearl for the audience.
Of course, none of it would have worked without the ideal cast. But Steel Magnolias is immeasurably blessed by a perfect ensemble that includes Sally Fields as pragmatic M’Lynn Eatenton, Dolly Parton, effervescent hairstylist, Truvy Jones; Shirley MacLaine, thoroughly crabby Ouiser Boudreaux, Daryl Hannah, the socially inept introvert, Annelle Despoto, and Olympia Dukakis as fair-weather pixie, Claree Belcher. In only her second movie, Julia Roberts strikes a memorable chord as M’Lynn’s headstrong ill-fated daughter, Shelby.
Together, these actresses prove irresistible, their interactions believable with plenty of cause to cheer. At one point, Truvy astutely comments that “Laughter through tears is my favourite emotion.” Undeniably, the cast does not disappoint on this score. Depending on one’s point of view, the stars are either doing southern caricatures or making affecting and astute observations on the strong southern woman who sees herself in eccentric terms and aims to live up to that reputation with an indomitable sense of self.
Set in an idyllic Natchitoches, Louisiana, the narrative is more quaint Americana than Hollywood cliché and strictly gossip based; centering on a series of pivotal events and holidays to expose the bittersweet undercarriage of life; beginning with Shelby’s July wedding, then – in order; Christmas, Independence Day, Halloween, and finally Easter. After the main titles, superbly underscored by George Delerue, we enter the finite chaos of Shelby’s wedding day. M’Lynn is frantic as the caterer’s glassware has just arrived cracked and broken. In the meantime, her husband, Drummond (Tom Skeritt) and their two sons, Tommy (Knowl Johnson) and Jonathan (Jonanthan Ward) are busying themselves shooing away a mess of birds with gunfire while the backyard of the Eatenton’s house is tented for Shelby’s outdoor reception.
Amidst all this bedlam, the groom, Jackson Latcherie (Dylan McDermott) sneaks into Shelby’s bathroom while she is in the tub. We are given some coy dialogue that suggests the couple has had their ups and downs and that perhaps Shelby has even contemplated calling off the wedding. But it’s all just talk, as Shelby’s reassuring smile confirms. Besides, she’s late for her appointment at Truvy’s to have her hair and nails done.
Truvy has just hired Annelle for her second chair. The modest beauty shop is actually a converted carport behind the house Truvy shares with her husband, Spud (Sam Shepard), built by Spud before he lost his job. Now, chronically depressed, Spud spends most of his days lying on the sofa and drinking beer. The couple’s son, Louie (Tom Hodges) is a motorcycling free spirit with the surface sheen of the bad boy that Annelle finds rather intoxicating.
But there’s no time to daydream, especially since Annelle may or may not be married to Bucky – a reckless sort we never see but are told has made her life unbearable. Claree and Ouiser arrive for their wash and set. Claree, the widow of the town’s former mayor has just come from a dedication ceremony of some parkland named after her late husband, where Janise Van Meter (Nancy Parsons), the wife of the current mayor was accidentally struck by a wayward baseball. “Was she hurt?” Truvy inquiries. “I doubt it,” Claree glibly confides, “It hit her in the head.”
Claree and Ouiser are sometimes friends. Actually, Ouiser’s outward meanness is mostly an act. Confronting Annelle, Ouiser and the other women learn about Bucky. But their ravenous need for fresh gossip is diverted to Shelby who wastes no time divulging secrets about her and Jackson’s romantic weekend, much to M’Lynn’s chagrin. The mother/daughter tensions seem real enough, but suddenly Shelby withdraws; her face becoming sweaty and pale. Recognizing the symptoms, M’Lynn rushes to her side but it’s too late. Shelby is in the throes of a full blown diabetic meltdown gradually brought under control by M’Lynn’s quick thinking and patience. M’Lynn explains to the rest of the women that Shelby’s doctor has informed her she should never have children and attributes this latest attack to the stresses of the wedding.
From this scene we fast track through the nuptials, a garish display of ‘blush and bashful’; two shades of pink silk bunting and flower arrangements. Later at the reception, Drummond takes pleasure in his favourite past time, taunting Ouiser. Shelby is given some sound advice by M’Lynn who worries about her daughter’s future happiness even as the wedding limousine pulls out of their driveway.
The story leaps ahead to the holidays. A more relaxed Annelle has outdone herself, transforming Truvy’s Beauty Spot into a kitschy Christmas wonderland. In the meantime, Claree has bought the local radio station to occupy her free time and has become the new colour announcer for the local football team. Ouiser accompanies Claree into the men’s locker room after the game while Claree inexplicably waxes with the owner about the new uniforms, “such a vibrant shade of purple…grape or aubergine?” “Shut up,” Ouiser tells Claree, “This is football. All the people care about is touchdowns and injuries. They don’t give a damn about that grape shit!”
The night before the Eatenton’s annual Christmas party Shelby confides in M’Lynn that she is pregnant. But the news is hardly reassuring. In fact, M’Lynn is utterly distraught and downright angry with Shelby for disobeying her doctor’s orders. At the party, the news is broken to the rest of the guests by a very proud Drummond. Sensing M’Lynn’s concern and fear, Ouiser, Truvy, Annelle and Claree reaffirm their faith in Shelby’s decision and M’Lynn – in the face of their optimism – concurs and relaxes.
Once again, the story advances, this time to July 4th, coincidentally the birthday of Jackson Latcherie Jr. (C. Houser at 1 year old, and later Daniel Camp, age 3). M’Lynn and Shelby arrive for their appointment at Truvy’s and then make the impromptu decision to also get their nails done. However, when Truvy pulls back Shelby’s sleeve she is horrified to see large bruises covering her forearm. M’Lynn and Shelby explain that the stress of birth has caused one of Shelby’s kidneys to fail. Currently on dialysis, Shelby is preparing to enter the hospital to accept a transplant with M’Lynn donating one of her kidney.
The ladies step into high gear. Claree and Ouiser cook for Drummond and the boys while M’Lynn recuperates from surgery. Shelby returns home to Jackson and life returns to normal…or so it seems. Tragically, the kidney is rejected and Shelby collapses at home with only Jackson Jr. at her side. Discovered hours later by her husband, Shelby is rushed to hospital. But it’s too late. She has slipped into an irreversible coma. Making the painful decision to terminate her life support, the family gathers at Shelby’s side to say their tearful goodbyes.
At the funeral, the ladies rally around M’Lynn. She maintains her composure until Annelle – who has since become something of a religious zealot - passionately suggests that they should all be rejoicing because Shelby is with her Lord. The inference pushes M’Lynn’s grief over the edge. She screams uncontrollably and tells the women that she wishes she could hit someone until they felt as bad as she does. Claree grabs Ouiser by her lapels and instructs M’Lynn to strike her. “Go ahead, M’Lynn. Knock her lights out! We’ll sell T-shirts!” Claree reasons, “Saying I struck Ouiser Boudreaux.” The audacity of the offering breaks the tension with much needed laugh at Ouiser’s expense. Later, Ouiser and Claree reconcile and M’Lynn reasons that a part of Shelby will always be with her as long as she has Jackson Jr.
The scene dissolves to the following spring and an Easter egg hunt along the shores of the town’s park. Jackson Jr. is momentarily frightened after Claree tells him a story about a wicked witch named Ouiser, only to discover Ouiser actually waiting to surprise him from behind a tree. Meanwhile, Annelle, who is nine months pregnant by her boyfriend, Sammy (Kevin J. O’Connor) goes into labour. Louie fetches Sammy – dressed as the Easter bunny – on the back of his Harley Davidson as the two chase after Drummond and Annelle speeding to the hospital in Drummond’s SUV.
Movies made in the 1980s often get a bad rap for being goofy, gaudy or just plain ridiculous; and I must admit that occasionally this blanket critique is warranted. However, having lived through, and survived, the decade I can honestly say that even the thought of the ‘80s in retrospect leaves me with a warm, fuzzy ‘feel good’ I sometimes wish would return to my movie screen. For whatever reason, audiences fell in love with going to the movies all over again in the 1980s and Steel Magnolias, an $85 million dollar triumph, is as good a justification as any for their return in droves.
The film is a syrupy, highly enjoyable, ambitiously acted tour de force that warms the heart as easily as it mollycoddles the soul; its harsher life-truths tempered through a thin veil of comedy that, at times can appear strained, but never seems insincere. The sheer joy of the film is in its cast. We revel in their ‘laughter through tears’. The friendships are real, resonating warmth and humility. I can’t hide it. I love Steel Magnolias. It’s a shameless tear jerker, but one oh so effective in tapping the human psyche, triggering our joys and sadness. The exquisiteness of the exercise is that it never allows our tears to overpower the exaltation of the human spirit. As such we leave the theatre affected, emotionally satisfied and smiling. In the immortal words of George Gershwin: “Who could ask for anything more?”
Well, we get ‘more’ by way of Twilight Time’s sumptuous new Blu-ray transfer. Truthfully, this was a movie I never thought could or would look so good on home video, having treasured my utterly flawed VHS copy and then rather lacklustre DVD with its weak contrast levels and muddy colours. But the 1080p Blu-ray from Twilight Time is shockingly good; with rich, vibrant hues, exceptional contrast, accurately preserved film grain and fine detail that is razor sharp throughout. John A. Alonzo’s cinematography has never looked more resplendent. Truly, I couldn’t find a flaw in this reference quality transfer; another extremely fine effort from the distributor’s collaborative work with Sony.
The 5.1 DTS is also notable for offering a few aural surprises. I was amazed at the subtle clarity of effects, as in when Dolly Parton’s keys jangle as she’s trying to unlock a door or the slamming of a car trunk mashing a bunch of newly painted Easter eggs. George Delerue’s score is a sumptuous listening experience and is included as an isolated option. We also get an audio commentary from Herbert Ross – the same one included on Sony’s aforementioned DVD release. I also miss the exclusive DVD featurette that had Robert Harling talking about his play and the loss of his sibling. One aspect of this release that I cannot abide – the cover art; so painfully second rate in its Photoshop. Why can’t distributors just stick to giving us original poster art? Why indeed? Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)