Monday, May 24, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Steel Magnolias" (1989)

I am secure enough in my manhood to proudly proclaim that I enjoy chick flicks -- good ones, at least. Two hours of maudlin sentiment and bitchy encounters may be some guys' idea of torture. But if it's well-executed and engaging, I'm there.

Somehow I'd missed "Steel Magnolias" in the 21 years since it came out. It's fair to say my teenage self was not as enlightened about feminine-themed movies, so I didn't catch it in theaters. And even the most ardent film lover will have a few seminal films they just never got around to.

I'm so glad to have rectified the oversight. What a wonderful pageantry of lively Southern womanhood. The film is based on Robert Harling's play (he also wrote the screen adaptation), which is a fictionalized account of his sister's death at a young age. Director Herbert Ross (who also helmed "The Sunshine Boys," featured here not long ago) has a wonderful touch with his huge cast of talented actresses.

This was Julia Roberts' big break-out role (she earned an Oscar nomination for supporting actress), but for me the film is notable for having so many great parts for actresses of a certain age: Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine and Olympia Dukakis. It's hard to imagine a movie being made today with so many gray-haired spitfires.

And what great one-liners they get: "Steel Magnolias" is filled to the brim with crackling dialogue. They're delivered in a showy, punchy way -- so much so that you can practically hear the wind-up. But even if there's that bit of inescapable artifice whenever a stage work moves to the screen, we don't mind because the lines are so great, and delivered with such panache.


"The only thing that separates us from the animals is our ability to accessorize."
"I'm not crazy, I've just been in a bad mood for 40 years!"
"I'm just screaming at my husband; I can do that any time!"
"Well, you know what they say: if you don't have anything nice to say about anybody, come sit by me!"
"I think we should pray." "Oh, I'd rather eat dirt!"
"We went skinny dipping and we did things that frightened the fish."
The plot itself is pretty simple, centering around the mother-daughter relationship of M'Lynn Eatonten (Field) and her daughter Shelby (Roberts), who's about to get married. M'Lynn has spent her whole life fretting after he daughter because of her severe diabetes, and isn't quite ready to cut the apron strings.

Later, Shelby insists on having a child of her own, despite dire warnings from the doctors about the impact it could have on her health. Sure enough, her kidneys fail and she has to receive a transplant from her mother. But eventually she succumbs and dies.

The men stay on the sidelines, where they belong. (The stage version takes entirely inside a beauty shop, and the males are discussed but never seen.) Tom Skerritt has a nice turn as Drum, M'Lynn's exuberant husband, and Dylan McDermott plays Jackson, Shelby's new husband.

By the way, you can tell we're in the Deep South by all the character's names. There's also Truvy Jones (Parton), the town's best beautician and gossip; Annelle Dupuy Desoto (Daryl Hannah), the resident Bible-thumber; Clairee Belcher (Dukkakis), widowed wife of the mayor and number-one socialite; and Ouiser Boudreaux, the neighborhood S.O.B. who dresses like a charwoman but knows that "the only reason people are nice to me is because I have more money than God."

These names may sound made up, but anyone who's actually spent time below the Mason-Dixon Line knows that colorful monikers abound. Consider Tillie Tooter, the Florida woman who became famous a few years ago for surviving several days trapped in her car.

The story takes place in Chiquapin Parish, a fictional Louisiana town that is apparently devoid of black people. (Actually, one mother and her child crop up near the end.)

"Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion," one of the women says, and it perfectly sums up the wonderful appeal of this Southern-fried gem.

3.5 stars out of four

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