This post has been long in coming, I have to thank Cecilia Ziko for the recommendation, but frankly I haven’t felt up to watching Steel Magnolias because I knew I would end up crying. I convinced myself that I had seen it so many times that it couldn’t effect me anymore, that I’d just watch it and since I already know what happens I wouldn’t be a total mess by the end. So the other night my fiancé and I spend a couple hours in 1980’s Louisiana, and between the two of us went through half a box of tissues (mostly me, but him too). I cried this time around more than I ever have, maybe it’s because I’m closer in age to Shelby now, or because I’m getting married in three months, or I’m just overly emotional, but it hit me hard. When you need to have a good cry, I can’t think of any other film that gets it done like Steel Magnolias, so I bring it to you this week for Beauty in the Movies because maybe you need a good cry, or maybe you just love it for the amazing female characters and the humor that they find even in the saddest of situations.
Steel Magnolias was originally a play written by Robert Harling based on his mother and sister’s endurance of life’s hardships with unbelievable strength (reading about that only made me cry all over again this morning). Robert Harling’s sister Susan was a type 1 diabetic, as is the character of Shelby, played by Julia Roberts in the film. Steel Magnolias opens on a Spring day in the fictional town of Chinquapin Louisiana, it’s Shelby Eatenton’s wedding day, and the whole town is in a commotion over the preparations. Shelby and her mother M’Lynn (Sally Field) are getting their hair done for the occasion at Truvy’s salon in the company of Truvy herself (Dolly Parton), Clairee (Olympia Dukakis) wife of the late mayor, and Annelle (Daryl Hannah), the new girl in town and a beautician at Truvy’s. The women discuss everything from recipes to wedding plans until Shelby has a diabetic episode, it’s one of the most powerful and upsetting scenes I’ve seen in a film dealing with illness. Shelby soon recovers with the help of some OJ and her mother’s care.
In the midst of the wedding madness we’re introduced to the cantankerous Ouiser Boudreaux (Shirley MacLaine) who lumbers through town dragged by her bewildered St. Bernard squawking at everyone she sees, including M’Lynn’s husband Drum (Tom Skerritt). That afternoon Shelby marries Louisiana lawyer Jackson Latcherie (Dylan McDermott) in a ceremony draped in her wedding colors—blush and bashful, or as her mother says “pink and pink”. While the town takes to the dance floor, M’Lynn expresses her worries to Jackson about Shelby’s ability to have children, and what the strain of carrying a child would do to her body. Shelby’s wedding is clearly bittersweet for M’Lynn, as she fears Shelby will ignore what the doctors have told her and choose to have a baby anyway. There is also an amazing armadillo cake, and this interchange between Truvy and Clairee:
Truvy: Well, these thighs haven’t gone out of the house without Lycra on them since I was 14.
Clairee: You were brought up right.
How can you not love these women?
After Shelby’s wedding the story jumps around in time, stopping at major holidays. First it’s Christmas, and M’Lynn receives the news she has been dreading, Shelby is pregnant. While everyone else rejoices, M’Lynn seeks solace in her friends, the only ones who can understand that what should be happy news, is actually devastating. I’m going to stop the summary there because if you haven’t seen it I don’t want to ruin it, but you should be prepared for some tears, so keep the tissues handy.
This film is filled with outstanding performances. Julia Roberts is both charming and authentic as Shelby, making her character so sympathetic it’s heartbreaking. Sally Field’s performance in one of the film’s final scenes is so moving I dare anyone to watch it without getting misty, and the supporting cast is obviously fantastic. This film wouldn’t be anything without Olympia Dukakis and Shirley MacLaine as the much-needed comic relief. Ouiser and Clairee are catty old bats who insult each other with fantastic quips at every other moment, but they also happen to be best friends, and no matter what they say, it’s clear they depend on each other more than anyone else. Dolly Parton plays Truvy with charming ease, and the woman sports pastel embroidered sweaters and mile high hair so elegantly that you’ll want to run out and get yourself some shoulder pads and clip-on earrings immediately. Daryl Hannah plays born again Christian Annelle with annoying perfection, but more than anything the magic is in the way these characters, and the actresses who play them, interact with each other to form a convincing and endearing group of friends.
What is it about tearjerkers? When done right a film can touch you so deeply that you can’t contain your sympathy for the characters, even if you know they’re just actors who go back to their glamorous lives after the credits roll. This film in particular touches so deeply because it feels real, Robert Harling lived this story, and so it doesn’t feel manipulative, it feels heartfelt. Harling even employed the actual hospital workers who were there with his family during their grief to play the roles of doctors and nurses. Even though it’s something you wouldn’t notice, it’s undeniable that the hospital scenes in this film feel authentic, and all the more painful because of it.
Sometimes you just need a good cry, and it feels so much better to cry about other people’s grief, maybe our own is too devastating. A film that can make you cry has touched you in some way, and even if it’s upsetting—it rattles you. You might not want to watch sad movies all the time, but every once in a while it feels good, maybe we crave the release without the reality.
The fact that this story was written by a man only makes it more powerful, because Harling bore witness to the strength of the women around him and obviously drew power from it. The title of the film comes from a line by M’Lynn as she’s talking about the agony of loss and how the men turned away from it leaving her alone to face the heartache, she says “Men are supposed to be made out of steel or something” and in that moment it’s clear that when it comes to heartache, these women endure loss by facing it head-on, no matter how delicate they may seem on the outside.
More than anything Steel Magnolias is about friendship, and how it helps us through grief. One of my favorite lines in this film comes when Truvy tells us “Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion”, and I can’t help but agree with her. What I love about this film is that it delivers that emotion, just when you’re a blubbering mess of tissues and tears, these women make you laugh out loud, they remind you there is still life after pain, and it’s worth living for. Spend some time with these ladies and you’re left feeling that life has to keep on going. Even in the darkest moments, there is light somewhere, and sometimes all it takes is a good friend to show you where to find it.
Have a great weekend everyone, I hope you all spend it with some good friends, and don’t forget to tell them about this blog!
Here’s your shopping guide so you too can look like a southern flower on the outside, even if you’re tough as steel within.