If you have ever known a southern woman, you know, they are a unique breed. As sweet as the sweetest tea this side of the Mississippi and as strong as steel when needed. Growing up in the southern United States surrounded by women, I am quite familiar with their charm and their stubbornness. Most people do not realize even sweet southern women have their limits, and when it has been reached, well, I hope you are prepared for the wrath to follow.
“Steel Magnolias,” the 1989 film written by screenwriter Robert Harling, is a tribute to his real-life sister, Susan, portrayed as Shelby in the movie. She died from complications of her diabetes after giving birth to her son, and he wanted to make a tribute in her honor and the strong women he grew up around in Natchitoches, Louisiana. Although there are men in the film, they are almost invisible. In fact, the stage play version of the story completely lacked male characters. This contributes to the focus of the film: the strength of women.
“THAT’S PART OF THEIR MYSTIQUE AND THEIR ALLURE, THE FACT THAT [SOUTHERN WOMEN] ARE COMPLETELY UNPREDICTABLE AND UNDEFINABLE.”
– Robert Harling, screenwriter, “Steel Magnolias.”
All of the characters are based on Harling’s mother’s real-life friends, although all names have been changed to protect the guilty, and Ouiser’s character was never revealed who it was based on. According to Harling, he did not want anyone to find out because he “was really worried because Ouiser’s such a crotchety old curmudgeon. And lo and behold, every woman in town was saying, “He based Ouiser on me.”
A tragedy, “Steel Magnolias,” could also be considered a southern comedic classic. As all southerners know that humor is sprinkled throughout everything we endure. The wit and sarcasm may not be understood by all viewers, but I believe the strength, endurance, and test of friendship can resonate for all.
The all-star cast includes Julia Roberts as Shelby, Sally Field as her mother, M’lynn. M’lynn’s tight circle of friends is Dolly Parton as Truvy, Shirley MacLaine as Ouiser, Daryl Hannah as Annelle, and Olympia Dukakis as Clairee. They regularly congregate at Truvy’s beauty shop to gossip and chat about life. When I was growing up I would sometime stay at my cousin’s beauty shop and it was the happening place. Women would come in and shop, she was a seamstress, and talk about life. She would always let me answer the phone and for lunch, we would cross Main Street and get chili buns at a local favorite.
“Steel Magnolias” takes me back to a harder, but quaint time in my childhood. Rotten Tomatoes shockingly gives it a critics score of 70% and an audience score of 89%. Stating it “has jokes and characters to spare, which makes it more dangerous (and effective) when it goes for the full melodrama by the end.” Maybe the southern humor does not translate well for all audiences.
There is one issue I have with this southern classic: Julia Robert’s accent. I do not know how other people feel, rumor has it she is actually from Georgia, but to set matters straight once and for all, we do not talk like that. Dolly Parton is the only original southern accent in the film, and since she is from my neck of the woods, I can assure you that it is original. Dolly is such a natural she did not have to learn anything about doing hair for the role she just picked things up from her years at the beauty shop. As Ebert observed, “The principal pleasure of the movie is in the ensemble work of the actresses, as they trade one-liners and zingers and stick together and dish the dirt.”