Steel Magnolias (1989)

January 26, 2013 | By

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Film: Good/ BR Transfer: Excellent/ BR Extras: Good

Label: Twilight Time/ Region: All / Released: September 11, 2012

Genre: Drama

Synopsis: Friends and family support a fragile newlywed as her pregnancy begins to endager her life.

Special Features: Audio Commentary by director Herbert Ross / Isolated Stereo Music Track / Liner notes by Film Historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment




After being prompted by longtime producer ray Stark to catch a stage performance of Steel Magnolias, director Herbert Ross was soon developing a film version of Robert Harling’s 1987 play, with the author expanding the material to more filmic dimensions. The original play was a creative outlet for Harling to deal with the recent loss of Susan, the sister who died while giving birth to her only child, and undoubtedly helped the author work out seething conflicts, especially her decision to have a child in spite of her fragile health due to diabetes.

The final screen story follows the marriage of delicate Shelby (Roberts) to Jackson Dylan McDermott), her decision to have a child, and the stress which ultimately claimed her life in spite of successfully giving birth to her child. The film’s through-line is hair stylist Annelle (Daryl Hannah) who arrives just as Shelby’s wedding is about to be staged; gets hired by hairdresser Truvy (Dolly Parton); marries a local boy (Kevin J. O’Connor); and becomes a born again zealot when she’s unable to balance her own (barely disclosed) past tragedies with her current friends and husband.

The film’s prolonged finale is largely about grief, and it’s those scenes lacking dialogue and focusing on nuances and characters silently absorbing the shock of loss and processing the loss of Shelby that almost save the film from being thoroughly grating.

Like the classic The Women (1939), Magnolias is primarily about women interacting and discussing aspects of their lives with men excluded from the drama. Harling in fact added male roles because there simply wasn’t any way to maintain any visual scope by sticking with the core group of female characters talking in the play’s singular set – Truvy’s beauty salon. The male characters enabled Ross to stage Shelby’s wedding, her death, the funeral, and the egg hunt finale, but neither father, husband, brothers, or other minor male characters are especially memorable. (Prior to Shelby’s funeral, Sam Shepard is given a short scene with Parton, and it is memorable for the way Ross has the actors imply their character’s attempts to bridge a marital gap. Beyond that moment, though, Shepard has little to do in the other brief moments he’s on screen.)

Magnolias is an ensemble piece, but there’s no genuine central character; besides the relationship between Shelby and her mother, the dialogue scenes provide equal time arguably, robbing us of a genuinely developed character. From start to finish, there’s really no change: Shelby merely becomes more fragile, but the relationships among the women remains static – a positive only to audiences wanting the story to hover around a group of characters whose dynamics never changes.

Ross does pitch the film’s tone rather cleverly, such as the diabetic seizure which is horrifying after a lengthy preamble of light and playful bickering between her mother and friends. There’s also the beautifully directed death montage that’s bereft of dialogue, covering the full process of characters slowly processing their emotions over the course of an early morning.

Harling’s dialogue is at its best when there’s genuine conflict and characters are dealing with control issues, or when sparse words imply greater issues, but the humour feels forced; it’s not particularly amusing, and was added or enhanced to steer the film away from pure maudlin melodrama.

Magnolias is a special type of ensemble drama that either hits the right audience with its small town characters and extracts a full flood of tears, or drives the unconvinced into states of boredom and frustration, especially when the resolution involves a clichéd rebirth allusion through another character’s more successful pregnancy. Magnolias probably has some kitsch value as well (the hairstyles are huge, the clothes disturbing) if not curiosity value in seeing a superb cast comprised of skilled veterans (Field, MacLaine, Dukakis), relative newcomers trying to prove their mettle in a drama (Roberts, Parton, Hannah), and small roles filled by up-and-coming actors, especially Janine Turner, McDermott, and O’Connor (with full hair!).


The Extras

In addition to Ross’ spotty commentary track, Twilight Time’s Blu-ray ports over the isolated stereo score track featuring Georges Delerue’s lovely score (reportedly a replacement after the first composer was dismissed). Julie Kirgo’s essay contextualizes the film for 2012 audiences, but oddly not included are 5 deleted scenes (:32 – :30 + :21 + :10 + :42) and a making-of featurette from the 2000 DVD. The bonus scenes are literally short scene extensions that add nothing new, but the featurette – “In Full Bloom: Remembering Steel Magnolias” (23:20) – fills in a lot of background regarding Harling’s play and his late sister, and features interviews with the author, director Ross, and actress Shirley MacLaine. (The remaining Sony extras – Cast Talent Files and related trailers – are negligible.)

Fans of the film will be impressed by the sharp transfer, and John A. Alonzo’s cinematography is really beautiful, featuring lovely compositions and a colour palette that doesn’t date the film whatsoever. Delerue’s score in the new 5.1 remix is nicely balanced, and sound great in uncompressed DTS.



Harling would later parlay his success with the cult favourite Soapdish (1991) – a vapid, grating satire of a daytime soap series – and with a smaller group of central characters have more success with The First Wives Club (1996). Attempts to give Magnolias new life included the pilot for an unsold TV series in 1990, and a 2012 teleplay featuring a largely African American cast.

Roberts, who earned an Oscar Nomination for a rather flat character, hit gold the next year with Pretty Woman yet was enticed by Flatliners (1990) director Joel Schumacher to appear in the related weepie Dying Young (1991), where the tragedy is flipped to the male lead.

Herbert Ross’ prior relationship dramas include Funny Lady (1975), The Turning Point (1977) with MacLaine, and I Ought to Be in Pictures (1982).



© 2013 Mark R. Hasan


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