Reader’s Request Week: Steel Magnolias (1989)
LAUGHTER THROUGH TEARS IS MY FAVORITE EMOTION.
by Chris Cantoni
I am probably not the person to be writing about Steel Magnolias. I am sure that whoever suggested it for Reader’s Request Week is already disappointed, both because I am a man and had never seen Steel Magnolias until just the other day. That is a lot of disappointment! From the film’s constant mention - and the fact that it was made in the 1980s - it’s clear there’s a whole lot of nostalgia attached to this film.
Spoiler alert! The women are the steel magnolias. That’s the name of the movie because it’s about a group of women who are delicate yet strong. Basically a bunch of southern women who all hang out at the hair salon together. ulia Roberts is getting married, but she also doesn’t seem to like her fiancé very much? Sally Field is her mom because of course she is. Sally Field is always the mom.
Then there’s Dolly Parton, who runs the hair salon. Dolly Parton seems like she would make a really fun aunt, doesn’t she? Like she would use curse words and probably let you sip her beer and talk frankly about sex when your parents weren’t around. But she would also always be unlucky with men and her and her sister would have an underlying tension about their different lifestyles.
Daryl Hannah is in it too, and is in a bad marriage I guess? Honestly, a lot of the early character set-up did not make a lot of sense to me. But later she’ll become a very devoted churchgoing woman and marry an unattractive guy she meets at Julia Roberts’ wedding.
Olympia Dukakis and Shirley MacLaine play the older ladies and all that is important to know is that they are the R2D2 and C3PO of this movie. Shirley MacLaine’s character is named Ouiser, but it’s pronounced “Wheezy” and I spent much of the movie thinking it was a cruel nickname. Wheezy spends a lot of her time being mean and miserable, so it is probably a lot like some old people you yourself have known.
Anyway, it turns out Julia Roberts has diabetes, which, when it was revealed via diabetes attack (is that what it’s called?), I thought was just a weird little character detail. But as Chekov famously said, if a gun shows up in the first act, it will have diabetes by the end of the next act. Julia Roberts loves kids, but her diabetes makes it very risky for her to have her own, which is sort of the main dramatic crux of the film.
So the next thing we know, Julia Roberts is having a baby! Of course she is, because otherwise this is just a movie about women hanging out in a hair salon. Because of the strain on her body, after having the baby she goes through kidney failure, so Sally Fieldmom gives her a kidney.
But not before Julia Roberts decides to cut all her hair off and then be upset about it? There is a very confusing scene where Dolly Parton just cuts all of Julia’s hair off and no one is saying anything about how awful it might look. And I’m not saying short hair on a woman is bad. Short hair on woman is great! Go for it! But it’s not the fact that the hair is short but that it’s just a terrible haircut. No one would want it on their head. Which makes me wonder if Dolly Parton should be operating a hair salon at all.
Obviously, because this is a movie, Julia Roberts dies. If you are surprised, don’t be. Remember, if there is a gun with diabetes in the first act, that gun will die of kidney failure in the following act. I don’t know how long all of this takes, but she collapses on the veranda (everywhere in the south has a veranda, right?) and then is lying there until her dopey husband finds her (played by Dylan McDermott, not Dermot Mulroney because I always mix those two up). And she’s in a coma for a few days or weeks or years, no one ever specifies, so they turn the machine off and while the men in the movie are generally ape-like (Tom Skerritt spends the majority of his screen time barking at Wheezy), the women all come together and Sally Fieldmom, who stayed in the hospital the whole time with Julia, gets mad and has a great scene that yes I admit made me tear up. It’s emotional! Her daughter died and it’s not fair and I really like scenes where grief is shown in more interesting ways than just tears.
Then Olympia Dukakis makes everyone laugh and they all feel better temporarily, which really is darling. There’s a certain brazen charm in trying to get an upset person to laugh. You’ve probably been on both sides of this, and when it doesn’t work it’s a disaster, but when it works it is just like coming up for air again! So they leave the funeral, a few months pass and that’s pretty much the movie. Daryl Hannah has a baby at the end and life goes on, which I think is the message of the movie (the second message anyway; the first message is that these women are Steel Magnolias).
The main weakness of the film is that I just don’t care much about any of them. Daryl Hannah is relatively timid and ignorable, Dolly Parton has an uneasy marriage that is not explored in any meaningful way, and Wheezy is cranky for reasons no one ever explains. Everyone feels like they aren’t fully fleshed out and this movie could be twice as long (sequel!). Which is saying a lot, considering it’s already an hour and fifty or so minutes. Where did all that time go?
Steel Magnolias probably fits in that list of movies you love because you grew up with it but you’re also willing to concede it’s a bit silly, like Top Gun! But there is something there, about those women. Given how increasingly distanced our society has become, particularly in the past ten years, it’s actually refreshing and meaningful to see women who are more like family than friends. Sure they often argue and bicker, but that’s what sisters do. I have five aunts on my dad’s side and it’s not hard to picture them as the stars of this movie, and it’s nice to know that the reliable familiarity is something that isn’t just a Hollywood ideal for me but something I actually get to enjoy in my real life.
I don’t know if today’s kids can relate to that in the same way. Steel Magnolias made over $150 million in today’s dollars, but twenty years later the whole country wonders how a movie like Bridesmaids will do and feign shock when it does surprisingly well. It makes me wonder when we’ll see the inevitable remake: Steel Mags. Don’t hold your breath though. Hollywood doesn’t trust women to open movies. They don’t trust gray hair either. But mostly I think they don’t trust that type of sincerity anymore, or the idea that people can be strong but still tender, or that maybe sometimes we really do need friends to rely on.
Chris Cantoni will literally write about any film he is asked to, and be a very good sport about it. He is an aspiring screenwriter living in Los Angeles, and was one of the very first contributors to this site. He considers himself far more of an Iron Daisy, or maybe a Metal Tulip, than a Steel Magnolia.
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