Steel Magnolias (1989)



Steel Magnolias is a 1989 American comedy-drama film directed by Herbert Ross. It is a film adaptation of Robert Harling’s 1987 play of the same name. The play and film are about the bond a group of women share in a small-town Southern community, and how they cope with the death of one of their own.

The story is based on Robert Harling’s real life experience of the death of his sister, Susan Harling Robinson, in 1985 due to complications from Type 1 diabetes. He changed his sister’s name in the story from Susan to Shelby Eatenton-Latcherie.

The title suggests the main female characters can be both as delicate as the magnolia flower, and as tough as steel.

Annelle Dupuy (Daryl Hannah), a reserved beauty school graduate, moves to a northwestern Louisiana town and is hired by Truvy Jones (Dolly Parton) to work in her home-based beauty salon.

In another part of the neighborhood, M’Lynn Eatenton (Sally Field) and her daughter Shelby (Julia Roberts), are preparing for Shelby’s wedding later that day. Along with Clairee Belcher (Olympia Dukakis), the cheerful widow of the former mayor, they arrive at Truvy’s to have their hair done. Suddenly, Shelby, who has type 1 diabetes, falls into a hypoglycemic state, but recovers quickly with the help of the other women. M’Lynn reveals that Shelby has been told by her doctor that she should not have children, and this was the point of an argument Shelby had with her fiancé the night before, with Shelby wanting to back out of the marriage so as not to deprive her fiancé of the chance to have children.

Later that afternoon, short-tempered, grouchy, and sarcastic Louisa “Ouiser” Boudreaux (Shirley McLaine) arrives in the salon and questions Annelle about where she has moved from, forcing Annelle to reveal that her husband Bunkie has recently left her while fleeing the police, taking all their money and their car. Moved by Annelle’s emotional confession, Shelby invites her to the wedding, where she meets bartender Sammy DeSoto, and she soon becomes one of the gang.

Several months pass and Shelby returns to town to celebrate Christmas. During the festivities, she announces that she and her husband, Jackson (Dylan McDermott), are expecting their first child. Everyone except M’Lynn is thrilled, and she explains to her friends that the doctors had warned that Shelby’s illness means that pregnancy would be very unwise. Shelby knows this but says she is unwilling to go on without having children. Unable to give her any words of wisdom, Truvy suggests they try to focus on the joy of the situation instead.

Shelby successfully delivers a baby boy, Jackson Jr., but soon shows signs of kidney failure and starts dialysis. She celebrates July Fourth, around the time Jackson Jr. turns one, by successfully receiving a donated kidney from M’Lynn, allowing Shelby to seemingly resume a normal life. Four months later, on Halloween, Ouiser, Clairee, Truvy, and M’Lynn throw Annelle a surprise wedding shower, as she is now engaged to Sammy. Shelby is unable to attend due to a conflicting schedule with her nursing job, which, along with her medical condition, is causing her great stress and fatigue.

Shelby collapses at home while dressing Jackson Jr. in his Halloween costume. Unable to call for help, she is found unconscious by Jackson. She is rushed to the hospital, where it is determined that Shelby has contracted an infection in her central nervous system due to the suppressive therapy given to keep her body from rejecting the kidney. The doctors inform the family that Shelby is likely to remain irreversibly comatose, and they jointly decide to take her off life support.

After the funeral, M’Lynn breaks down in hysterics but is comforted by the other women. Later, at the wake, M’Lynn begins to accept her daughter’s decision to end her life in return for a few special years of motherhood. Annelle, now married and pregnant, asks M’Lynn if she could name her own baby after Shelby, since Shelby was the reason she and Sammy met. M’Lynn gives her blessing and assures Annelle that Shelby would have loved it, accepting that “life goes on.”

On Easter morning at the town Easter Egg Hunt Annelle goes into labor and is rushed to the hospital by Truvy and her husband Spud, and another life begins.

The original play dramatized experiences of the family and friends of the play’s author following the 1985 death of his sister from diabetic complications after the birth of his namesake nephew and the failure of a family member’s donated kidney. A writer friend continuously encouraged him to write it down in order to come to terms with the experience. He did but originally as a short story for his nephew then later to get an understanding of the deceased mother. It evolved in ten days into the play.

Released by TriStar Pictures in the United States on November 15, 1989, it grossed more than $83.7 million at the box office. Harling’s first produced screenplay, he adapted the original film script which was then heavily rewritten beyond the on-stage one-set scenario (which had taken place entirely in Truvy’s beauty salon) of the stage production: the scenes increased and the sequence was more tightly linked with major holidays than the play; the increased characters beyond the original, all-female play cast caused dialogue changes between on-screen characters (among them, Harling playing the preacher and Truvy has one son instead of two). Natchitoches, Louisiana served as both the 1989 film location and scenario location with historian Robert DeBlieux, a former Natchitoches mayor, as the local advisor. The house where much of the film was shot is now a six-suite B&B, available for rent.

The movie received a limited release on November 15, 1989: entered the U.S. box office at No. 4 with an opening weekend gross of $5,425,440; by the time of wider release two days later it grossed $15,643,935; stayed in the top 10 for 16 weeks, gross $83,759,091 domestically with a further $12,145,000 with foreign markets giving a worldwide gross of $95,904,091.

The film was released on VHS on June 19, 1990, and on DVD July 25, 2000, allowing the film to gross a further $40 million. The movie’s overall gross was $135,904,091.

CBS broadcast on August 17, 1990, a half-hour television pilot sitcom sans Shelby’s character as the story line was post death. The cast included Cindy Williams as M’Lynn, Sally Kirkland as Truvy, Elaine Stritch as Ouiser, Polly Bergen as Clairee and Sheila McCarthy as Annelle.

Lifetime Television Network announced (October 10, 2011) a planned remake under the direction of Kenny Leon, director of the ABC movie A Raisin in the Sun (2008), set in Louisiana with black actors in the lead roles: Queen Latifah (M’Lynn), Jill Scott (Truvy), Alfre Woodard (Ouiser), Phylicia Rashād (Clairee), Adepero Oduye (Annelle) and Condola Rashād (Shelby). The New York Times had mixed reactions: applauded it on some points and on others as either schmaltz or less attentive than the 1989 film.

Memories of “Steel Magnolias (1989)” in The 80s

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