Steel Magnolias: An Oral History
March 27, 2017 4:38 PM   Subscribe

Thirty Years of Steel Magnolias: The untold story of what would become one of the most beloved touchstones of Southern culture.
posted by leesh (25 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
This was a deeply moving read. I haven't watched this movie since it came out, probably, and now I'm off to see if I can find it somewhere.
posted by SecretAgentSockpuppet at 4:56 PM on March 27, 2017 [3 favorites]

Inspiring read overall. I have one nit to pick with the movie itself, though, which they mention here -

But when Olympia came down, all the women in town thought she had the most accurate accent.

Seriously? I thought hers was the fakest in the whole film.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:13 PM on March 27, 2017 [4 favorites]

Dolly very serenely smiled and said, “When I was young and had nothing, I wanted to be rich and famous, and now I am. So I’m not going to complain about anything.”

Amen, sister.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 5:23 PM on March 27, 2017 [22 favorites]

MARGO MARTINDALE: "But we played it like a drama. We all thought it was a drama, and then the first night it was in front of an audience, we were shocked. It was riotously funny and played straight as an arrow. It was never like any of us thought we were doing jokes. We thought we were just talking like the people from that part of the country talk."

I just need to pause to bask in a moment of decades-old vindication.

When I was a senior in high school, 87-88, my high school drama teacher needed a project for his "Advanced Acting" class, and looking around at who we had in class, he got the idea to split the class and do two small productions of Steel Magnolias. My friend and I were directors of one of them. (There being no parts for men, and I was very interested in directing anyway.) And though for sure that makes me biased in thinking my group "did it better," I had a specific reason why I felt I was right about that. And it's right there in that quote: my group played it as a drama, which has the odd effect of making the funny stuff funnier, and the dramatic stuff more powerful. The other group played it as a comedy, which made the funny stuff merely cute, and the dramatic stuff much less deep.

So reading that quote now... I'm just gonna give myself a little pat on the back for having got it right all those years ago.

[Here's an odd thing to contemplate. This was suburban Kansas City (Overland Park, in fact). I'm guessing spring 1988. If the play only premiered in NYC in '87... it's possible my little high school project was the first performance of the play in the Kansas City area. I know it got produced later, I think at the Heartland Theater in Crown Center, but I think my school project happened before that. It wasn't really publicized - we got maybe two performances each? Not promoted nearly as heavily as a regular "School Play" production. You pretty much had to be family or friends to see it.]
posted by dnash at 6:08 PM on March 27, 2017 [13 favorites]

Dnash, it may not have been publicized because the theatre dept may not have been using licensed copies of the play. Which, I didn't realise was a thing until I had a kid in drama classes. Plays are expensive, and often schools don't have the budget for anything in copyright. Example, my kids jr high did . "The Seussification of A Midsummer Night's Dream", and it was ridiculously expensive to buy performance rights, and copies of the scripts, AND the author wouldn't allow any filming of the three performances the kids could afford to do, so grandparents and long distance family couldn't see what these kids spent weeks and weeks learning to do. It made me so mad, I've sworn to never support anything from Peter Bloedel again. (Actually it's just the refusal to let the kids be photographed or filmed doing the play was what really pissed me off. These are 7th graders ffs. Who is harmed by long distance grandparents seeing kids do a school play.)

Anyway, I'd bet your theatre teacher had friends with a copy of the play, and that's how you got to do it well before it would have been commercially available.
posted by SecretAgentSockpuppet at 6:31 PM on March 27, 2017 [3 favorites]

Oh gosh what a read. That's one of those movies that was always on some channel growing up, and if it was on we'd always end up watching it.
posted by tchemgrrl at 7:28 PM on March 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

It's on Amazon's Starz channel, so probably also Starz On Demand if you have that.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:55 PM on March 27, 2017

Dnash, it may not have been publicized because the theatre dept may not have been using licensed copies of the play.

Oh, I think that's quite likely. Almost certain, even. Teacher had at least one copy of the legit Samuel French/Dramatists Play Service script (I forget which company it was - I think DPS), but the rest of us I think were working of Xeroxed copies of it. He'd probably gone to see it in New York and bought a copy. The school was in a state of growing pains - it was only a couple years old, the district was starting to really grow - and he had some big ideas for what he wanted out of the drama program but couldn't yet fully do, so I think our project was a step towards that. At the time I'm sure the school was only budgeting for one big play and one big musical a year, and he was sneaking this in on his own. Looking at the school's website recently, they do a lot more than that now.
posted by dnash at 8:29 PM on March 27, 2017

SHIRLEY MACLAINE It was really hot. There was Dolly with a waist cincher no more than sixteen inches around and heels about two feet high and a wig that must have weighed twenty-three pounds. And she’s the only one who didn’t sweat. She never complained about anything. Never. The rest of us were always complaining.
This quote makes me love Dolly AND Shirley even more.
posted by mochapickle at 10:24 PM on March 27, 2017 [8 favorites]

That was really interesting, and I think I wouldn't have minded if the article was three times as long.
posted by Harald74 at 12:40 AM on March 28, 2017 [8 favorites]

I like this passage:
Olympia lived down the street. Michael Dukakis [Olympia’s cousin] was running for president that summer, so Olympia was all involved and spoke at the Democratic convention. It’s a very Republican area of the country, but there were some people who put Dukakis signs in their yard just to be neighborly.
posted by Harald74 at 12:42 AM on March 28, 2017 [7 favorites]

This comment is going to be too long, but oh well.

I stage-managed a community theater production of Steel Magnolias about 25 years ago. The stage play is different from the movie in that it conserves the Aristotelian unity of place -- the whole thing takes place in the beauty parlor. Two challenges to doing this show in a community theater: the script calls for a hair wash and set to happen during one of the scenes (meaning you have to figure out how to get running water on stage AND drain it off), and beauty parlors have mirrors, which have to be VERY carefully hung so as to give the audience the illusion of there being functioning mirrors for the cast but they can't reflect the stage lights, and they can't let the audience see into the backstage wings, and they can't let the audience see themselves. Two rather minor things, one might think, but these were both technical set problems that took us a while to solve, being a small underfunded community theater.

It was a remarkable play to do. The statements about playing it completely like a drama are entirely true. We didn't rehearse for or assume laughs at all and had a pep talk for first preview about how this play is actually a comedy and to adjust for laughs on the fly. Seriously, the first time you do this show in front of an audience after several weeks of rehearsal is one of the strangest experiences because the rehearsal process is actually pretty intense emotionally. The director (who was also running lights for the show) would get on the headset and give me a "hanky count" during M'Lynn's big speech in the last scene.
M'LYNN ...It's not supposed to happen this way. I'm supposed to go first. I've always been ready to go first. I can't stand this. I just want to hit somebody until they feel as bad as I do. I . . . just want to hit something . . . and hit it hard.
And the more hankies that he reported seeing from the lighting booth, the more gigantic the eruption of laughter when Clairee pushes Ouiser forward and says "Here. Hit this!"

We worked HARD on our scene changes, too. Like, got them down to 15 seconds if at all possible. That kind of stagecraft is immensely satisfying. Between scenes in the first act, time has advanced and it's now Christmas, and we transformed that beauty shop so quickly with holiday decorations the audience would react audibly when the lights came back up.

But the story I like to tell is this one: between scenes in the second act, the actor playing Annelle had to come off-stage, have a stagehand unzip her dress, drop that onto the floor, step forward one step into a waiting, perfectly arranged maternity dress and pregnancy pad sitting on the floor with her arms in position for that to be pulled onto her body, turn around while the discarded costume was removed from her path, be zipped up in the back while the pins holding her hairdo were taken out and quickly fluffed up, hold out her hands to have the beautician tools placed in them she needed for her next scene, and then to walk onto the set to be in place for the lights to come up. All in 15 seconds. The effect for the audience was magical. The way I usually tell the story is that I made Annelle pregnant every night for weeks.

I really enjoyed working on that production so much that I would do it again at the drop of a hat. I don't say that about much theater, because of the work involved. But Steel Magnolias, that's definitely one I'd do again tomorrow.
posted by hippybear at 2:15 AM on March 28, 2017 [23 favorites]

I have the distinct honor of having played Shelby in the world's worst community theatre production of Steel Magnolias. But I don't regret it because when a story is so beautiful and heartfelt that it makes you weep with sadness and laugh out loud AT THE SAME TIME you are experiencing a masterpiece. And even our lame, sorryassed, shitty production couldn't kill that moment.
posted by pjsky at 3:30 AM on March 28, 2017 [6 favorites]

It's odd that I didn't know anything at all about the real life story behind a play I love and a movie I've seen 5000 times or so.

Nothing rings truer than this though:

I’ve never told a living soul who Ouiser is based on. After the play had some success and everybody from Natchitoches went up to New York to see it, I was really worried because Ouiser’s such a crotchety old curmudgeon. And lo and behold, every woman in town was saying, “He based Ouiser on me."
posted by MCMikeNamara at 6:53 AM on March 28, 2017 [10 favorites]

That was a really enjoyable article, and I agree I would have loved it to go on longer. I haven't seen this movie in ages and this just made me realize I'm way overdue. Thank you for sharing, leesh.
posted by widdershins at 7:27 AM on March 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

I also like this article because it confirms that Margo Martindale and Dolly Parton are even more awesome than I thought, and there's somethings I just need to be true.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 7:36 AM on March 28, 2017 [9 favorites]

As much as I enjoyed the movie, (Dolly Parton and Sally Field in particular), I never thought it was as powerful as the play. The movie feels watered down to me. Anyway, I am now old enough to play M'Lynn in the world's second worst community theatre production and I hope I will get that chance someday.....
posted by pjsky at 8:45 AM on March 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

I honestly can't remember if I've seen the movie; it's one of those things that seems vaguely familiar, but maybe that's because all of the actresses are really familiar. I do remember watching a videotape of a community theater production in which my ex-wife played M'Lynn. My ex probably was never as good of an actress as she thought she was, and had pretty much given it up by the time we got together, but I have to say that she killed it as M'Lynn.

I'm also kind of amused that Margo Martindale originated one of the parts, because I know her mostly as herself on BoJack Horseman. (I've seen her in other things, but I can't really remember her from them because she's that good of a character actress.)
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:12 AM on March 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

So, i've had a day to let this piece settle, and while I haven't had a chance to rewatch the movie, the line where the author says he watched how the women were at the wake, when they were in the kitchen without any men, and how their body language, and language, and presence all changed when a man came into the room, and how he realized that the play had to be set both somewhere where there would be only women, and a space that was, at least in the South of that era, inviolate to male gaze, hence the beauty shop.

As I've mulled that over, I've come to realize that his recognition of male gaze, and how it impacts women who feel subjected to it, is the keystone to the magic that makes this story work so well, and why it resonates so deeply with so many women.

I think in my head, I've always gotten this movie and Fried Green Tomatoes sort of mashed up, and besides the obvious parallels, I think it's because both movies excelled at story telling from a female perspective without apology.

Again, thanks for posting this, it's been thought provoking for me. (And for the record, I think I'm old enough to play Ouiser now. I'm certainly mean enough. Heh.)
posted by SecretAgentSockpuppet at 11:52 AM on March 28, 2017 [10 favorites]

I was in high school in Natchitoches when the movie was filmed. I had no role in it, but I do know a few of the extras.
posted by wintermind at 3:46 PM on March 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm rewatching right now, it's fascinating to try to remember that this was Julia Roberts before she was Julia Roberts!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:49 PM on March 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I know dominating popular culture for a decade or so has a lot to do with why Julia Roberts has an inherent "Julia Roberts-ness" star quality when we watch her anything now, but she also brought a LOT of that to the table originally as well, and trying to separate them out (if you're old enough to remember the beforetimes) is a fun exercise.

I imagine it's particular hard in Steel Magnolias because she's surrounded by so many capital-M capital-S Movie Stars.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 7:28 AM on March 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

(Also this now is the second work day in a row that I wish I was at home so I could watch Steel Magnolias.)
posted by MCMikeNamara at 7:29 AM on March 29, 2017 [2 favorites]

Hmm. I may need to give it a watch. I had avoided the film due to Pauline Kael's one line review: “Chalk scraping over a blackboard for two hours.”
posted by jetsetsc at 7:38 AM on March 29, 2017

I would have been interested to read about the all-Black remake from a few years ago, just as a comparison.

I saw this at North Shore Music Theatre in....1989? 1990? with Anita Gillette, and I could have sworn Margo Martindale was in the cast as Truvy. I'm probably way off, though.
posted by pxe2000 at 8:23 AM on March 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

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