I was talking to my grandma several months ago, and she said she came across Steel Magnolias whilst flipping through the channels. She’d seen it before, but the feel-good powers were so strong that she stopped flipping and watched it again. That was recommendation enough for me, since she’s a tough critic (and a tough cookie).
The feel-good powers are indeed strong enough to endure across 27 years (though the whitewashedness of the cast really does not hold up, but I’ll get to that later). This is a story about female friendship and community in the South, at once wholly foreign and completely relatable. It’s a study in longevity through insanely human bouts of fickleness and big hair. The gals will annoy the shit out of you, but you’d probably want all of them on your side for any occasion.
Julia Roberts is Shelby, the belle of the group who also happens to have diabetes. She struggles to be seen as more than a delicate flower, but she’s also grateful for the protection she receives from everyone. Roberts acts the hell out of this role, particularly in scenes involving diabetic shock. (One scene in particular has no sound, which is downright haunting.) She has a real mother, M’Lynn (Sally Field), as well three self-appointed mothers in town beautician Truvy (Dolly Parton), former town first lady Clairee (Olympia Dukakis) and town nincompoop Ouiser (Shirley MacLaine). There’s also town newcomer Annelle (Darryl Hannah), who becomes Truvy’s apprentice and hanger-on.
The dudes in this movie — Sam Shepard, Dylan McDermott, Tom Skerritt — are all great, but they’re secondary to the estrogen pumping through each frame. These women know everything about each other, for better or worse. They gossip about each other and about others in the town. They prioritize their appearances over their comfort. And they have opinions about every move and decision that anyone makes. Perhaps “annoying” is an understatement.
But with their lives being so narrow, so focused on the small world that is their Louisiana town, it’s hard to imagine them paying attention to anything or anyone else. Because they know each other so well, and spend so much time together, they know perfectly how to tear each other down and lift each other up. Ouiser is more of an expert at the former, whereas Truvy dominates the latter. MacLaine is acerbic, providing most of the film’s funniest moments. And Parton, despite her best attempts to portray someone shallow, bleeds genuine encouragement. She’ll make you cry.
I mentioned above that this movie is whiter than white. It’s jarring. (There’s actually an all-black version of it, too, which I should watch.) At Shelby and Jackson’s (McDermott) wedding, a glorious affair, there’s one very strategically placed black couple in attendance. I had a hard time believing any of the main characters would have black friends, despite their generally welcome attitudes, which is a giant depressing shame. I can’t bring myself to commend the feeble attempt at inclusion, either. 1989 was still backwards. So that part won’t make you feel good.
Deep, profound, honest friendship will, though. It’ll make you think about your own friends, and how annoyingly lovable you’d all be if you were portrayed in a play (Robert Harling wrote the original) or on the big screen. Watch and weep, friends.