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Steel Magnolias
★★★☆☆
First run Theater cinema

The comedy/drama Steel Magnolias, one of 1989s biggest crowd-pleasers, follows a group of women in northwest Louisiana who congregate around a beauty parlor where they gossip, joke, and derive strength from each other. Based on the successful play by Robert Harling, this film version directed by Herbert Ross (Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Play It Again Sam, Pennies From Heaven, Footloose, and many screen adaptations of Neil Simon plays) is the kind of schmaltzy pop entertainment that is sometimes elevated by a great ensemble cast. Such is the case here, where a cavalcade of heavy-hitting actresses works harmoniously together in a successful attempt to NOT upstage each other. Thus, what could have ended up as a mere campy delight is rendered as a heartily agreeable excuse to watch some major talent on-screen together indulging in hilarious one-liners and well-earned heartstring-tugging. 

The film falls firmly within the confines of the dubious “illness drama” genre, as the narrative is structured around the youngest of these women, Shelby (Julia Roberts), a carefree southern belle who doesn’t take her type 1 diabetes seriously enough. The story begins with Shelby’s mother M'Lynn (Sally Field) preparing for her daughter's wedding, and it ends with M'Lynn dealing with the consequences of Shelby’s decision to have a child despite doctors warnings that pregnancy could put her life at risk. Field gives one of her finest performances in Steel Magnolias, embodying a role that many actresses (including Field at other points in her career) could have easily overplayed. The calm, controlled fashion in which Field’s M'Lynn conducts herself is entirely correct for the character and it sets the tone for the rest of the cast, many of whom play familiar types that could easily be exaggerated into caricatures. Of course, Harling’s screenplay—which he adapted from his play in a rare case of stage-bound material feeling effortlessly recreated for the screen without diminishing what made the play special—smartly avoids overt melodrama and saccharine sentimentalism.

I’m sure Ross is due much credit for establishing and maintaining a consistent tone throughout the picture and unifying each member of his headstrong cast. When we look at female-driven ensemble pictures in the vein of this one—everything from The Women (1939) to The Help (2011)—there is often a level of competition in the performances that the filmmakers seem to be encouraging. Such is never the case here. Each actress has several scenes in which they individually shine, but they work all the better when they’re together. Some of the roles, especially the frumpy, grouchy old Louisa "Ouiser" Boudreaux practically beg to be overplayed. And with Shirley McLaine in this part, it could have gone that way. But McLaine, like Field, plays her character as a real woman not a mere comical stereotype. As Ouiser’s friend and verbal fencing partner, Clairee Belcher the wealthy widow of the former mayor, Olympia Dukakis gets her most delightful film role since Moonstruck. And as Truvy Jones, the proprietor of the Beauty Salon, we’re treated to Dolly Parton in a role that’s probably the closest to the real Dolly we’ve ever seen on screen—warm, funny, humble, and deeply kind.

The weakest link in the picture is Julia Roberts, who never turns Shelby into a fully realized woman in her own right. We mainly experience Shelby in relation to her mother, which isn’t the movie’s intention as it provides her scenes with many of the other characters including her husband-to-be, played blandly by Dylan McDermott. In the previous year’s Mystic Pizza, Roberts created a richly textured character from a part written as a bit of a cliché, so it’s unfortunate that she can’t do the same here with a potentially more distinctive role. But she doesn’t really hurt the film any more than it hurt her—indeed Roberts won a Golden Globe for Steel Magnolias and was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar paving the way for her launch into superstardom in the following year’s surprise runaway hit, Pretty Woman

Twitter Capsule:
Winning ensemble comedy/drama about Southern belles sharing laughs and struggles is elevated above similar heartstring-tuggers by an all-star cast of great actresses working harmoniously in a successful attempt to NOT upstage each other.

Directed by Herbert Ross
Produced by Ray Stark

With: Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis, Julia Roberts, Tom Skerritt, Sam Shepard, Dylan McDermott, Kevin J. O'Connor, Bill McCutcheon, Ann Wedgeworth, Knowl Johnson, Jonathan Ward, Bibi Besch, and Janine Turner

Cinematography: John A. Alonzo
Editing: Paul Hirsch
Music: Georges Delerue

Runtime: 117 min
Release Date: 15 November 1989
Aspect Ratio: 1.85 : 1
Color