Monday, September 20, 2010

Steel Magnolias: The Ultimate Chick Flick

I may be female, but I feel I don’t really match that cliché about women and their favorite films. Sure, I’ve been adolescent (“The Goonies” for example), nostalgic (“Summer Magic”), and music-happy (“The Sound of Music” – which I’m going to see this weekend at the Hollywood Bowl. Yea!). But I don’t think I’ve truly discussed anything in that category of favorites that most people would expect from your average woman…until now. I can’t help it but I must talk about a movie I can quote backwards and forwards today. It’s time to be truly girly and talk about “Steel Magnolias” (1989).

I don’t know a single woman alive during the 80s who doesn’t love this film. I didn’t get to see it in the theaters, but I can’t count anymore the number of times I’ve watched it since. I’ve even done scenes from it for auditions. I wanted to play the part of Shelby, M’Lynn, Ouiser, Truvy…basically all of them. (I still would love to play them, though Shelby’s out of the question now.) The lines are so much fun to say too. I can’t help saying “This is it. I have found it. I am in hell” without that Southern, Louisiana accent coming out with it. Ouiser’s lines are truly my favorites, the best quips ever. She started my love of curmudgeonly characters that to this day is still going strong.

Released in November of 1989, the film stars a great cast of women, including Sally Field, Shirley MacLaine, Olympia Dukakis, Dolly Parton, Daryl Hannah, and Julia Roberts. Based on the 1987 play by Robert Harling, it follows these women (and I must point out now that there are spoilers to come if you do not know this story yet) as they deal with the struggles of life and loss in a small Louisiana town. Harling, a lawyer-turned-actor-turned-writer, was having difficulty making it in New York City. Then the unthinkable happened. While giving birth, his younger sister Susan died due to complications arising from her struggle with diabetes. Unable to cope with the loss, his friends and family told him to write all his thoughts down. He did just that and in only ten days, “Steel Magnolias” was born.

During its successful Off-Broadway run, producer Ray Stark mentioned to director Herbert Ross that he should see it. Ross loved it immediately and hired Harling to adapt his play for the screen. This involved expanding it quite a lot, because the entire play took place on only one set (Truvy’s beauty shop) and included only the six female characters. So, with Ross’ guidance, Harling wrote more scenes of the wedding, the homes, the hospital, as well as adding the male characters that were only talked about in the play, like M’Lynn’s, Truvy’s and Shelby’s husbands (played wonderfully in the film by Tom Skerritt, Sam Shepard, and Dylan McDermott). Then, for authenticity, the production went down to Harling’s home town of Natchitoches, Louisiana to film the movie.

As for casting, Ross sent Shirley MacLaine (whom he had worked with before on “The Turning Point,” as well as Skerritt) and asked her which part she would like to play. According to her memoirs, MacLaine practically jumped at the chance to play the curmudgeonly Ouiser. Her best friend Clairee, played by Olympia Dukakis, was a departure for the great actress. Dukakis had spent her career until then playing ethnic characters, so to make sure she fit the environment, she hired dialect coaches and worked hard to master the Southern accent. Sally Field almost didn’t get the part of M’Lynn because the producers thought she just was too young to have a 21-year-old child…you know, until she reminded them that she actually did have a 21-year-old son. Daryl Hannah also almost missed out on the part of shy, plain Annelle because the producers thought she was just too glamorous for the part. So she proceeded to dress up as Annelle, completely dulled down, for the audition. She did such a great job at it that no one recognized her when she arrived.

Of course, the role of Shelby was the most difficult character to cast, and at first Stark and Ross were looking at Winona Ryder for the role. But after much discussion, she was deemed too young for it. So Field brought up Julia Roberts to them, then practically an unknown (she only had three movies to her name at that point). She won the part, but Ross was still a little nervous about the novice, and made things tough for her on the set. Ross, who came from a dancer’s background, demanded Roberts live a ballerina lifestyle while filming, like only eating 1000 calories a day. Roberts held her own against him though, which impressed the experienced older cast greatly. All of them admired Roberts’ talent and professionalism from the moment she walked into rehearsal, and treated her like an equal for the entire production (something that helped calm Roberts a lot, working with such greats). Julia went on to be the only member of the cast to receive an Oscar nomination (for Best Supporting Actress). She didn’t win but her career, of course, skyrocketed, and the rest is Hollywood history.

Dolly Parton also had a bit of a difficult time with Herbert Ross’ directing style. One time, he even got so frustrated, he flat-out told her she couldn’t act. In a “no kidding” response, she replied with, “I'm not an actress, I'm Dolly Parton. I'm a personality who has been hired to do this movie. You're the director. It's your job to make me look like I'm acting.” Even with those beginning frustrations, they all got along great. It was a wonderful experience for them all. For a few months, all of them, cast and crew, lived close together during a hot Louisiana summer. There were no egos with the actresses as they worked with each other and the townsfolk (who are all the extras in the film), worked in their houses (the only set built for the film was inside Truvy’s shop. Everything else were actual locations and homes), and met some of the real-life people who inspired Harling’s story (to get that authentic feel in the hospital, Ross hired the actual doctors and nurses who cared for Harling’s sister. Harling himself even makes a guest appearance as the minister who marries Shelby and Jackson).

So, this week, admit you have a girly side too, and watch the great women at work in “Steel Magnolias.” And don’t forget to have that box of tissues at your side. Have a wonderful week, everyone, and I’ll be back Friday with more great suggestions!

(Post-tidbit: CBS tried in 1990 to turn “Steel Magnolias” into a sitcom after the film’s success, continuing the story of the ladies after the film’s end. It starred Cindy Williams as M’Lynn and Sally Kirkland as Truvy, but the series was not picked up. The pilot did air though, so if anyone has it, be sure to post it!)

Video treat for today: Julia Roberts’ first appearance on Late Night with David Letterman

No comments:

Post a Comment