Each post, I revisit a film I loved
as a lad, most of them inappropriate given my tender age at the time,
and decide if they still pass muster.  Stream of conscious rambling and
massive spoilers ahead, always.

“For Christ’s sake, between this movie and all these f-ing episodes of Golden Girls you two watch, I feel like I’m in a retirement home!” –Mary Anne Raymundo, mother of my best friend Kristin, upon discovering us wasting another sunny afternoon inside watching Steel Magnolias, circa 1994

Steel Magnolias (November 5, 1989)

The Joey Gist:  Yet another first-viewing anniversary date I cannot recall but much like my last entry, Just One of the Guys, it’s a film I, for better or worse, seem to know inside and out–thanks in part to my dear friend Kristin Ann Raymundo, who still refers to me as a “pig from hell” and reassures me that she loves me “more than my luggage.”  (If you’re unfamiliar with these references, you are certainly missing out.)

The Film’s Gist:  Based on Robert Harling’s play, Steel Magnolias chronicles a few years in the lives of a gaggle of Southern belles who congregate and gossip at a Louisiana beauty salon: matriarch M’Lynn (a very softspoken and flinchy Sally Field); her daughter Shelby (a very young and, let’s be honest, mediocre Julia Roberts); acerbic widow Ouiser (Shirley MacLaine, as a grouchier Auora Greenway); her exuberant frenemy Clairee (an all-smiles Olympia Dukakis); Annelle, a quiet newcomer with an unfortunate past (an unusually strong Daryl Hannah); and bubbly, half-glass-full salon owner, Truvy (Dolly Parton, as chesty and cheerful as ever).  Though there are several concurrent storylines, the main arc follows the relationship between M’Lynn and Shelby, and the tension that erupts when Shelby, a severe diabetic, defies doctors’–and M’Lynn’s–orders and decides to get pregnant despite the involved risk to her health.  And, well, if you’ve seen this tearjerker, you know homegirl shoulda listened.

What I Thought Then:  Let’s put it this way: Kristin and I were so into this movie we once actually attempted the infamous “Cupa Cupa Cupa” recipe that Truvy recommends.  In case you’re unfamiliar, it (allegedly) goes something like this:

1 cup sugar
1 cup flour
1 cup fruit cocktail with the syrup
Bake at 375 until golden bubbly
Spoon over ice cream

Um. That recipe tastes like straight-up shit and looks like puke.  Don’t try this at home.  Let our middle-school stupidity serve as your warning.

But yeah, that’s how much we loved those sassy broads.

What’s Still Good:  Steel Magnolias is a film I revisit maybe once a year, when it’s on HBO around the holidays, and while I find something new to cringe at each time, I also find something new to admire. As far as chick-flicks that transcend that limiting categorization and make themselves accessible to all viewers, this one’s right at the top*.  Rule of thumb for a movie like Magnolias is that, if you can identify an aunt, a grandmother, a mother, a sister, or a beautician from your youth in one of the characters, you can probably sit through it just fine. And, screw it, whatever, I like a good chick flick–except the 2009 remake of The Women. Seriously, that actually knocks Gus Van Sant’s shot by shot remake of Psycho out of the top-spot for Most Useless Remake of the century.  Ugh. Anyway.

The dialogue, though still very stagey and occasionally forced-sounding even in the most talented of the lot (read: Field, MacLaine, Dukakis), remains pretty darn clever.  If you’ve seen the film, you know it’s composed nearly entirely of memorable one-liners and emotional monologues, and because of–in spite of?–this construct, the film really works.  The cast is a true ensemble, and though I’m sure there are Broadway purists out there who greatly lamented the original actresses being traded in for big Hollywood names (I myself was livid that Bebe Neuwirth was traded in for Catherine Zeta when Chicago finally hit the big screen, though I’d never seen Chicago; I kind of hate musicals, actually, but Bebe, that girl’s all right), these ladies get the job done.  Sure there are some unfortunate accents abound–I’m looking straight at you Julia–Best Supporting Actress nomination, my jockstrap–but the performances are all equally heartfelt and bright.

Sally Field’s uncomfortably sad and intense breakdown at Shelby’s funeral will always remain one of the most devastating things I’ve ever seen in my life, and I challenge someone to sit through it and not feel that terrible burn behind your eyes or itch in your nostrils.  Yes, I know the strings are a bit much, but trust it. And if you can endure Field’s bitter, shrieky, manic circle-walk outburst, you’ll be rewarded handsomely, in the form of Dukakis offering up MacLaine for Field to hit as hard as she can.  That’s some funny, funny shit.

So many things Kristin and I delighted in are still just as fun–the armadillo groom’s cake, Annelle’s husband’s frustration with her bible-thumping, the rivalry between Field’s husband (played expertly by Tom Skerrit) and MacLaine.  And, finally, it’s always a treat to watch Ms. Parton act.  Sure, she’s just Dolly being Dolly, but hey, as my brother Vinny says, ain’t nothin’ wrong with that.

What’s Not So Good:  Well, having acquired some real good friends from the deep South over the years and visited myself a number of times, I find myself asking–who allows these actors to get away with such horrendous and inaunthetic southern accents? Magnolias isn’t the only film or TV show guilty of it (I support you Kyra Sedgwick in all you do and The Closer is a fine show, but c’mon now) of course, but perhaps since there are so many characters who constantly have to talk over one another louder and more vivaciously it’s more apparent. And more grating.

The film’s fairytale score, as I briefly mentioned before, is almost enough to embarrass you and dissuede you from watching at all*.  In keeping this blog, I’ve realized I’m a big stickler for a score because I’ve realized how important the right music is.  It can really destroy an otherwise decent movie (case in point: any Sam Mendes film). 

Otherwise, my only big complaint is just how thin and unimpressive Julia Roberts’ performance is.  This was right after she’d charmed everyone in Mystic Pizza and right before she blew up in Pretty Woman, and the film serves as an interesting document of a young actress in transition. But, honestly, she’s the weak link in an otherwise effortlessly dynamic group of actresses.  Her infamous diabetic freakout allowed to see just how big that flat-tire top lip of hers can get, though, so that’s something.  More seriously: once Shelby’s sick, the film tries to make her seem like its emotional center, the special soul that touched everyone’s lives profoundly, but that never really comes across prior to that.  We’re suddenly just told that she’s one in a mil, when in truth, her character is probably the least interesting.

The Current Gist:  See this movie if you:
- enjoy any of the abovementioned actresses
- recognize that Terms of Endearment is a masterpiece, but you can’t handle the 48 hours of depression that follow when the film ends and would like something a bit lighter
- have been able to sit through more than two episodes of Designing Women–in a row, not in your lifetime

If none of these apply, you should probably skip it. 


Moment of reflection: My college roommate Hunter and I bonded over our mutual “ha-ha aren’t we so funny and liberal arts school ironic” love of this movie but when push came to shove and we decided to watch it, we drew the curtains, turned off the lights, and sat very close to a low-volume television so our neighbors wouldn’t know that we were in the dorm.  Watching Steel Magnolias.  And, if memory serves, eating sweet potato pie his great-aunt Clara Fed-Exed from Raleigh, North Carolina.  See what I mean?