That six straight, small-town, presumably Republican women laughing, weeping, cracking wise, and spilling stupid for two hours has become something like a modern classic among gay, urbane, presumably Democratic men should convince the most fiercely partisan among both respective camps that there’s some hope left for the spirit of unity. Just so long as we all agree to helplessly blubber crocodile tears over the winsome, pecan-pie sweet but tragically diabetic young girl whose number one goal in life—to vacate a tawny, presumably Republican little boy from her vagina, rather than adopt a disadvantaged child and leave her loins fully raveled—leads to her premature death. “I would rather have 30 minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special,” says Shelby (Julia Roberts) regarding her choice between creating life and sustaining one. Paging Miss Hannigan!
Though director Herbert Ross leans extra hard on the moral incalcitrance at the heart of fresh Shelby’s decision, playwright Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias was born from a very real heartbreak in his own domestic life. Harling wrote the play as a form of “healing fiction” (to borrow Stephen King’s term used in reference to his short story “The Woman in the Room”) upon the death of his own sister, who passed away from the trauma of childbirth. Rather than zeroing in on the painful experience, he instead chose to frame it with a tribute to her and all the other very Southern women from his upbringing. That way, her fictional stand-in’s fate could be heartwarmingly folded into that wild and unpredictable progression of Hallmark-holiday display windows we call life, in all its joy, pain, sunshine, and rain. Preferably all at once. “Laughter through tears,” enthuses Dolly Parton’s hairdresser Truvy, “is my favorite emotion.” Words to live by among members of an overdramatic species for whom one solitary emotion is simply not enough.
If the pampered-and-pink veneer of chick-flick prestige courtesy of Ross and producer Ray Stark (whose participation explains why Barbara Streisand was probably not out secretly field testing her Southern accent) constantly exposes—rather, make that outright celebrates—Harling’s most awkward emotional gear shifts, the cameraderie of its six principal actresses (in particular, the three who had Oscars to their name prior to the film’s 1989 production) more often than not keep the entirely-too-neat mess afloat. Sally Field, playing Shelby’s mother M’Lynn, shrewdly moves beyond her obligatory first-reel screwball tizzy, before the introduction of her daughter’s life-threatening affliction draws her into an uncomfortable cocoon that doesn’t crack until it’s too late and her own worst fears have been realized, fuelling one of the undeniably great graveside breakdowns in pop-movie history. Olympia Dukakis radiates such conviviality that she manages to digest some of the script’s worst punchlines, be they merely tepid (“The only thing that separates us from the animals is our ability to accessorize”) or downright ghoulish (“In my day, you could tell by a man’s carriage and demeanor which side his bread was buttered on”).
Best of all, though, is Shirley MacLaine, who turns the role of Ouiser, a rich bitch one smidge less gleefully misanthropic than Gremlins’s Mrs. Deagle, into a perpetually surprising and well-rounded portrait of acerbic wit that flirts with but never lapses into curmudgeonly rot, no matter how hard and often Steel Magnolias tries to degrade her. Her byplay with Dukakis suggests more than the script ever could how these two women could have anything in common other than their status as wealthy widows. MacLaine grabbing Dukakis by the bangs, shoving her head back with a sneering “Have your roots done,” radiates more feminine fellowship than a dozen sisterhoods of the travelling pants. Not bad for a movie that alternates the tragedy of dying young and beautiful against the comedy of growing old and bitter.
Twilight Time usually reserves its limited-run Blu-ray pressings for movies from a vintage, well, when Olympia Dukakis was still in her childbearing years. Whatever spurred them to commit Steel Magnolias to a 3,000-disc run, the results look generally pretty good. Herbert Ross movies rarely look better than mildly sophisticated, but this is still a clean print with acceptable colors, though the pinks look more bashful than blush. There are two separate audio tracks, one boasting the master audio in DTS-HD, the other isolating Georges Delerue’s bloody red-velvet music score. As there’s no third option to remove Delerue’s overexertive work entirely, I’m docking its score a full star.
Ross is a man whose talent for recording commentary tracks is evidently as absent as his flair for framing a shot. The longer the film goes, the less often he interjects. And when he does, it’s invariably to point out that they were shooting on location in Robert Harling’s own town. A point he makes over and over. And over.
If Claree’s nephew meets gay men by comfirming they have track lighting in their homes, I filter my dating prospects by checking to see if they have a copy of Steel Magnolias on their shelf.