Upon hearing the premise of “Steel Magnolias” (1989) – a group of southern women share secrets and advice in a Louisiana beauty parlour- I was a tad skeptical as to whether this flick would be any good. However, the inclusion of renowned actresses such as Julia Roberts, Sally Field, Daryl Hannah and Shirley MacLaine in the cast, not to mention the successful stage play off which it is based, I was convinced to check out this movie. And boy, am I glad I did.
As the story opens, nurse Shelby (Julia Roberts) is due to be wed to Jackson (Dylan McDermot), a hotshot lawyer. Her loving, yet shielding mother, M’Lynn (Sally Field), frantically assists her in preparing for the nuptials. Also at the centre of the story are sunny beautician Truvy Jones (Dolly Parton), Annelle (Daryl Hannah), her demure, recently appointed assistant with a questionable past, and Ouiser (Shirley MacLaine) and Clairee (Olympia Dukakis), a pair of wealthy widows who occasionally butt heads more often than not.
These six women are there for each other, through thick and thin. When Shelby, a diabetic, announces her pregnancy shortly after the wedding, M’Lynn is cautious of the risks having a child could potentially bring to her daughter’s body, but is nevertheless supportive of the decision. As Shelby’s disease starts to take its toil on her, M’Lynn soon realizes that she needs the friendship of the group at the beauty salon more than ever…
The playwright behind “Steel Magnolias”, Robert Harling, based the character of Shelby on his sister, Susan, who also battled against diabetes for most of her life, and eventually finally succumbed to the condition. Harling himself cameos as the pastor who marries Jackson and Shelby at the beginning of the movie.
While the male actors are decent enough, with Dylan McDermot, Tom Skeritt and Sam Shepard all delivering strong performances, this is ultimately a woman’s picture, as their distinctive personalities and problems drive the story along. They are all given a chance to come into their own. MacLaine and Dukakis offer some comic relief in addition to the harrowing main story line with their witty verbal banter. Daryl Hannah is unrecognizable as the initially frumpy Annelle, who gradually becomes her own person throughout the flick, thanks to the nurturing of Dolly Parton’s Truvy. Hannah was seen as being too attractive to portray Annelle at first, but the filmmakers reconsidered when Hannah turned up to her audition dressed dowdily.
At the heart of the story is Shelby’s relationship with M’Lynn. The two actresses are suitably effective, with Field giving her performance her all as the distraught mother determined to do right by her daughter. Roberts is just as impressive in one of her earliest roles, going on to receive an Oscar nomination in the process.
I hereby award “Steel Magnolias” a total of four out of five stars for its ability to tug at the heartstrings. Be warned, you will need plenty of tissues on hand towards the end! I would also recommend the 2012 television version, featuring Queen Latifah as M’Lynn.