Review: “Steel Magnolias” (1989)
Produced by: Ray Stark, Andrew Stone, Victoria White
Written by: Robert Harling
Edited by: Paul Hirsch
Cinematography by: John A. Alonzo
Music by: Georges Delerue
Starring: Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis, Julia Roberts, Tom Skerritt, Sam Shepard, Dylan McDermott, Kevin J. O’Connor
Based on the play by Robert Harling
Steel Magnolias is one of those films I used to automatically think about when I thought of the term “chick flick.” It may well be one of those movies, like Sleepless in Seattle, which helped make me aware that movies can become so “gendered” and that there’s such a stigma attached to them that, if you just happened to like the film and not be part of the target demographic (i.e., women), then people begin to… well… “question” you. And I think I knowingly let this affect my enjoyment of the film and would overtly express my disgust for the film whenever the prospect of putting it on arose. Of course, I was probably ten around that time, but that stigma tainted all my future attempts to watch this movie with my mom, who happens to be a huge fan, even though I knew that, secretly, I found much to enjoy about it. And, even then, having been long since out of the house, time has also certainly taken its toll on my memory as to what it was that I enjoyed.
So, for Girly Movie Month, I decided to remedy the problem. It had been a while since I was last been exposed to Steel Magnolias – so long, in fact, that it wasn’t even on my radar until I was at a Redbox kiosk and saw that there was a Lifetime TV remake (*gag*) featuring Queen Latifah in the Sally Field role. Though I was kind of aghast at the idea of a remake made by a channel whose main claim to fame is a string of original movies in which most of the men are cartoon villains who think only with their genitals and fists (and whose existence has made it more difficult to procure quality screenshots via Google), it did prompt me to pull out my phone and add the original to the top of my Netflix DVD queue for the next shipment.
The film revolves around six small town Louisiana women who gather regularly at a local beauty salon to gossip about the latest goings on. Even as one of their own is on the cusp of becoming a wife, the primping and poofing of hair is still mostly an excuse to chatter away. For our entertainment, the women of the group all vary drastically in personalities and temperaments, of course. The characters run the gamut, from the bubbly salon owner, Truvy, to the naïve nervous wreck, Annelle, to the perpetually grouchy “Ouiser” Boudreaux, who stands firm as a one-woman army hurling complaints and insults at her opponents, to Clairee Belcher, a witty older widow who is making the most of her senior years and seems to be the only one able to match Ouiser’s antagonism with equal force.
And then there’s M’Lynn and Shelby, the mother and daughter who sit at the heart of the film’s story. M’Lynn is reserved and selfless, who wishes nothing more for her daughter but the best. Shelby seems to fancy herself a Southern belle and is the type of person who defends the subtle differences between the two shades of pink she has chosen for her wedding, and while she’s far from selfish, she, too, wants nothing more than the best that life can offer her, but much to her mother’s dismay, these hopes and dreams, may put her at odds with the fragile health she’s been cursed with.
It’s quite easy to dismiss the film as centering on a bunch of packaged character types who do nothing but gab on about the troubles they are having with their men and bodies and such – that’s not to say that this isn’t a large part of the film, but such a reductionist description of it does the film a disservice. Heck, with the exception of Annelle’s absent-from-the-start husband, Steel Magnolias is refreshingly fair in its portrayal of the men who occupy the lives of these six women’s lives without sacrificing the strength and integrity of its primary female roles. There’s also no competition between the sexes. The women stand by their men, and the men by their women, and they all stand by each other when life throws them a curveball. Conflict never comes from animosity – even the antagonism between Ouiser and the rest of the characters comes from an intimate familiarity and understanding that only the best of friends can exploit.
This film is a well thought out depiction of friendship that is often witty, comforting, heartwarming, and, yeah, at just the right times, even heartbreaking. It’s far from being a realistic portrayal of life, but it is a fairly excellent distillation of memorable moments in their lives that’s still recognizable and relatable. And there’s not a bad performance among the cast – I even found Julia Roberts, who in her first major role earned herself her first Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Shelby, to be more tolerable than usual, and I tend to dislike her often uptight performances. And while all the other women tend to play the role of comic relief, Sally Field stands as the pillar among the women in terms of her poignant portrayal of M’Lynn, who wants nothing more than to let her daughter have all that she herself has enjoyed throughout her own life and more but worries that the repercussions of pursuing those dreams may be too hard for her to handle.
Is Steel Magnolias a quintessential “chick flick”? Absolutely – there’s no use in denying the target demographic the filmmakers and studio were going for. That’s not to say, however, that just because you may happen to be a 10 or 26-year-old male that you should be ashamed to find yourself enjoying it. Why should you be? Steel Magnolias is better than plenty of the more popular “guy” films out there, anyway, and its quality transcends the gender barriers if you actually have, you know, some semblance of taste. Sure, you probably shouldn’t invite the guys over for a few beers, some Steel Magnolias, and the promise of a good, manly cry, but don’t hold that against the film. Your grudge lies with society, who tells you that you can’t do that kind of thing on your own without revoking your Man Card®.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 4 / 5