With rare exceptions, Hollywood actresses tend to work in the shadow of male stars. And a movie in which a gang of famous women share top billing is highly unusual. Steel Magnolias, which opens this week in most urban centres across North America, is exactly that. And its cast features one of the most eclectic troupes of female stars ever assembled: Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Sally Field, Olympia Dukakis, Daryl Hannah and relative newcomer Julia Roberts. Their onscreen chemistry causes sparks to fly, especially between MacLaine and Dukakis. But, in separate interviews with Maclean’s earlier this month in New York City, all six actress raved about the camaraderie that they shared during last year’s shoot in Louisiana. “We’re all very different,” said Hannah, “and I know it probably sounds a little corny, but we bonded immediately—we’re all inseparable buddies now.”
A tale of friction and friendship among six women in a small southern town, Steel Magnolias is a broad, buoyant comedy with a deceptive undertow of tragedy. It is closely based on a hit play of the same title, now in its third year off-Broadway. Novice playwright Robert Harling, a former actor from Louisiana, adapted his own script to create the screenplay for Steel Magnolias. In the stage version, every scene takes place in a beauty parlor, where the women meet to get their hair teased and their gossip fluffed. Men are discussed, but never appear onstage.
Filmed in Harling’s home town of Natchitoches, the screen version shifts some of the action outside and sketches in the male family members. It also embellishes the play’s simple structure with a gaudy string of festivities, including Easter, Halloween and Christmas. And Hollywood veteran Herbert Ross, whose 20 previous movies include such hits as The Goodbye Girl, coats the production with a honeyed glaze of sentiment. But the movie remains faithful to Harling’s ironic vision. Much of the dialogue comes directly from the play, which is a needlepoint of sharp one-liners. And the six actresses are superbly cast.
The story—inspired by a real-life tragedy involving the playwright’s mother and sister in Louisiana—spans a two-year cycle of marriage, birth and death. At its emotional core is Shelby (Roberts), a beautiful young diabetic who decides to have a baby, defying medical warnings that pregnancy and childbirth could
endanger her fragile health. Her mother, M’Lynn (Field), tries to dissuade her. But Shelby is adamant. “I would rather have 30 minutes of wonderful,” she says, “than a lifetime of nothing special.”
The plot switches without warning between extremes of tragedy and humor. MacLaine is hilarious as the acid-tongued Ouiser, the town crank. Dukakis brings a serene sense of mischief to the role of Clairee, an insolent grande
dame who delights in Ouiser’s misery. As Annelle, Hannah tries to shed her bimbo image by portraying an unglamorous nitwit who takes a job in the hair salon. And as Truvy, the salon’s boss, Parton serves as the group’s folksy philosopher with such lines as “There is no such thing as natural beauty.”
Steel Magnolias is about small-town women with big hair in the Deep South—all familiar territory for Parton. According to Hannah, “Dolly was our southern barometer on accents and attitudes. She kept everybody in line.” For media interviews in New York, the cast’s authority on Dixie charm showed up clad in skintight black leather from head to toe. A dietslim but top-heavy miracle of female architecture, Parton, 43, wore stiletto heels so high
that her feet were almost perpendicular to the floor. Her fingers sported inch-long magenta nails. And her hair was a sundae whip of blond curls, garnished with a black leather band.
Discussing the significance of big hair, Parton said, “It just comes from a country girl’s ideas of what glamor is. When you’ve grown up with nothing, you want more of everything— and certainly more hair.” She would have become a beautician if she had not gone into show business, she added. And before filming began in Natchitoches, both she and Hannah spent several hours a day on location studying hairdressing. “I learned how to cut real good,” said Parton. “And now I get the job of cutting everybody’s hair, especially my husband’s— he’ll never go back to a barbershop.”
Sequestered for three months in a town of 20,000 inhabitants, the cast members were easy prey for southern hospitality. “I would
sing with the local band at a little beer joint on the edge of town,” recalled Parton. “People would always be having parties and inviting us onto their boats. They would bring us big baskets of tomatoes and cabbages from their gardens.” Some of Parton’s costars were at first leery of the townsfolk’s generosity, she added. “They thought these people were going to squirrel us to death, that they’re gonna get on our nerves something awful—but Shirley and Olympia really loosened up.”
While the male actors, principally Sam Shepard and Tom Skerritt, worked only briefly in Natchitoches, the women in the cast formed a tight-knit group. “One of the reasons we became such good friends is that there were no men to fight over,” said Parton jokingly. “And
we certainly couldn’t screw around, ’cause in a small town everyone would know.” She added that Shepard, who has a small role as her character’s taciturn husband, “looks and acts” just like her own husband. “But Sam, he was only on the set for eight days,” she giggled. “It’s probably a good thing he left.”
The cast brought together some wildly different personalities. Parton’s good-ol’-girl Christianity and MacLaine’s New Age mysticism are worlds apart. “Shirley analyses everything,” said Parton. “She’s always writing a book. When you’re talking to her, you better make sure that’s what you want in the book, ’cause it’s going to be in there.”
MacLaine, 55, arrived in violet slacks and a blouse, her auburn hair in a pixie cut. Her freckled frame is much trimmer than it was a year ago—MacLaine says that she gained 30 lb. for the movie. “I didn’t do it as a planned thing,” she said. “I did it because I was playing this ugly old curmudgeon, so why not be fat at the same time? There I was with the chocolate pecan pie—I just wanted to let loose.” But the actress said that it was “scary” to watch herself get fat. “There are people who go the
Shelley Winters route—who corner that market. But it’s too soon to do that.”
In Steel Magnolias, MacLaine’s onscreen sparring partner was Olympia Dukakis, 57, winner of an Oscar for the 1987 movie Moonstruck and cousin of defeated U.S. presidential
candidate Michael Dukakis. Attired in a black suit with a strand of pearls, she reminisced fondly about the shoot. “Making films is usually male-dominated,” she said. “With this one, whenever there was a problem, the women tended to converge on it, but very quietly.”
Dukakis added that she was especially impressed by Field, who unleashes the movie’s most cathartic scene. “She could make an emotional commitment and maintain it for hours, not just when the camera was on her, but for all the other takes. And because there were so many takes, it became a thing about Sally, about her pain and her ability to endure.” Added Dukakis: “She’s really a wonderful actress.”
Field—the double Oscar winner who has yet to live down her gushy “you really like me” acceptance speech at the awards presentation in 1985—has made a speciality of sincerity. Dressed in blue cashmere with a discreet diamond at her neck, she called Steel Magnolias “something I have longed for all my life that God just presented on a plate.” Said Field, age 43: “It was the kind of feeling that you have in high school or college when you have a group of women friends. You stay up all night and drink wine and talk and laugh and play games. You fix each other’s hair. You’re part of each other’s life, the serious part and the raunchy part. I mean, we were so lewd and crude, the guys in the crew said, ‘That’s enough; we’re repulsed.’ ” Field developed a special tie with Julia Roberts, 22, who portrayed her daughter in the movie. She said that it was “an extremely
close, loving relationship.” Roberts is the only one of the female cast members who is not an established star. But since her beguiling performance as a Portuguese-American waitress in last year’s Mystic Pizza, a modest gem of comic romance, her career has taken flight. Said Field: “Julia’s hotter than a burning tree right now.”
Roberts arrived in a bigshouldered tweed jacket, a white T-shirt and blue jeans.
Speaking in a soft Georgia drawl, the auburn-haired actress said, “I didn’t think I’d have the strength to play Shelby,” adding that she sees herself as more of “a tin daisy” than a steel magnolia.
“But I learned a lot of personal stuff on this movie.”
Roberts says that Field was so maternal towards her that she did not feel the need to phone her own mother for advice.
On location, Roberts found it hard to escape from her character. She went home to a rented house that had pink furniture and pink carpets—Shelby is obsessed with pink. The young actress also became romantically involved with the actor who portrays Shelby’s husband in the movie, Dylan McDermott. They recently put off their own marriage plans, she said,
because “there’s just too much going on.” Since completing Steel Magnolias, she says that she has turned down more Hollywood roles than she expected to be offered in a lifetime. The previous day, she was shooting a movie until 5 a.m. in Chicago. “I got on a plane, came to New York, did Donahue, Oprah and Letterman, went home and became dust,” she said. After playing a Portuguese pizza girl and a diabetic southern belle, Roberts is cast as a prostitute opposite Richard Gere in her next movie, 3000. Creating different personalities for each of her roles, she has avoided typecasting.
Daryl Hannah, 28, has had less luck in that regard. But in Steel Magnolias, the actress who swam to stardom as a mermaid in Splash finally subverts her image as the dumb blonde by donning glasses and a frumpy brown wig. In New York, Hannah was back to normal, looking stylish in jeans and a cowboy shirt embroidered with gold cacti. Everything about her seemed fragile: the fine features, the pale hair, the shy whisper of a voice. Hannah said that she rarely does interviews—they make her nervous—but that the other cast members bolstered her confidence. She recalled that they also “rallied around me
in the first week of shooting, when I was very insecure.”
Hannah recalled that she had some difficulty proving to the director that she could look mousey enough to play Annelle. But she showed up for the audition wearing her reading glasses, which became part of her costume. “I had a very specific idea of how she should look,” said Hannah. “I even tried to find illfitting underwear so that her panty Une would show through the skirt.”
After the interviews with the actresses were over, the movie’s screenwriter sat in his hotel room and reflected on his sudden success. “I feel I’ve gotten away with this one,” said Harling, 36, who was an obscure actor doing chicken and chili commercials before his offBroadway success. Because of the play, he added, “I’ve been accused of understanding women. But I don’t think I’m a particular authority—just an observer.”
Harling was with the cast for the entire shoot in his home town. “They are all very intelligent, funny actresses,” he said. “And they thought, ‘Here we’ve got the guy who lived the story—let’s wring him dry.’ ” On location, the screenwriter became a big brother in the cast family. “Sally was the mother,” he explained. “Julia was the baby, Daryl the puppy, Shirley the spiritual adviser, Olympia the sergeant-at-arms—and Dolly was the life of the party.” On the set of Steel Magnolias, there was no room for wallflowers.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.