Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Steel Magnolias (1989)

Dir. Herbert Ross
Starring: Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Darryl Hannah

Magnolias are the classic tree of the South. The title Steel Magnolias is a reference to the women who are at the heart of this film. They may look as pretty as the fragile magnolia blossom, but inside they are made of steel. Or I think that’s what we’re meant to take away from here; nowhere in the film is the title referred to.

The ‘magnolias’ in question are beauty salon owner Truvy (Dolly Parton) and her new stylist Annelle (Darryl Hannah), resident retirees Clairee (Olympia Dukakis) and Ouiser (Shirley MacLaine), and M’Lynn (Sally Field) and her daughter Shelby (Julia Roberts). They all have crosses to bear. Truvy has a listless husband and a wastrel son but paints on a bright face every morning; Annelle may or may not be married to a man who may or may not be a criminal but certainly has stolen everything she owns. Clairee mourns the loss of her husband but remains positive and sociable; Ouiser enjoys being the town grouch. And Shelby and her mother have to deal with her worsening diabetes. Over the course of three years these six women, from three different generations, form a support network. This is not just practical support but also spiritual and emotional support. In particular Shelby invites newcomer Annelle to her wedding (where she meets the man she eventually marries); she match-makes between Ouiser and one of her own flames; and she encourages Clairee to invest in the town radio station. Even Ouiser rallies around when M’Lynn finds it hard to go on.

Truvy says that “laughter through tears is my favourite emotion” and that is what the film is about. Even in the midst of tragedy these ladies who laugh find the humour. Their good-natured joshing – the kind that can only come from actually being intimate with each other - is genuinely entertaining. It has to be said that Shirley MacLaine’s crotchety old Ouiser Boudreaux is the source of much of this, whether in her sour-puss phrases (“He’s a real gentleman! I bet he takes the dishes out of the sink before he pees in it!”), her grimaces (such as when she uses her mirror to peer around the locker room), or just as the butt of others’ jokes (such as when Clairee lightens a very dark moment by trying to get M’Lyyn to punch Ouiser). It is all part of the seasons of life. There is a time for crying and a time for laughing. There is birth and there is death in the film. And there is the cycle of the seasons and their commemorations – Easter, 4th July, Halloween, Christmas. The use of the different seasonal events actually worked well to give a sense of the passage of time without having to spell it out overtly..

Men are very much background elements here (in fact, I recall that there are no male characters in the original stage play at all). Whether they are husbands, sons or beaus the men are just one more burden for the women to stoically bear. Maybe that is why the film – and even more so the play – is set around a beauty parlour. It is the one place where women can be themselves and speak their minds without fear that their men folk will turn up unexpectedly.

It is an all-star cast – and the brightness of the stars can be gauged from their listing on the poster. Sally Field and Dolly Parton get first listing, then the veteran MacLaine and the starlet Darryl Hannah, and then finally Dukakis and Roberts. In many ways if Julia Roberts was first noticed in Mystic Pizza this was her star-making role; her Oscar nomination and Golden Globe win for Best Supporting Actress for Steel Magnolias at age 21 would certainly not hinder her career. To a modern film-watcher her career has overshadowed that of all the others (though maybe someone of an older generation would claim that MacLaine is still the bigger star). In the end I suppose it doesn’t matter. Together they all gel as neighbours who have developed into friends.

Ladies who Laugh: M'Lynn, Annelle, Clairee, Ouiser and Truvy
realise their names are just Scrabble hands

What have I learnt about Louisiana?
Mostly I have learnt that they all have weird names: Ouiser, M’Lynn, Truvy, Annelle, Shelby, Clairee, Drum, Spud. They clearly have a very… individual approach to naming their children.

We can tell a bit about life in Louisiana towns. Church is at the centre of town life. Even if few are as religious as Annelle they still all attend church on a Sunday. Towns have their own radio statios and American football teams. They have their own traditions, from Easter egg hunts to Christmas light festivals. In general the characters seem pretty wealthy. The Eatentons can hold Shelby’s wedding reception in their back garden and Clairee can buy a radio station on a whim. Ouiser has “more money than God”. Truvy is maybe not as fortunate, but by the end she is able to expand her salon.

Oh, and Louisiana lawyers do well, whether they want to or not.” Apparently.

Can we go there?
The film is set in ‘Chiquapin Parish’. This does not exist. However, playwright Robert Harling (who cameos as the minister) based the community upon his home town of Natchitoches, in north-west Louisiana. This was where his own sister lived and died from diabetes, providing the emotional heart of the drama. The film was also shot there. In fact some of the same doctors and nurses that tended to his sister reappear in the hospital scenes here.

If visiting Natchitoches on a film pilgrimage fans really have to stay at the Steel Magnolia House. Formerly known as the Henry Cook Taylor House, this was used for the Eaterton residence in the film; there are five rooms named after Shelby, M’Lynn, Truvy, Clairee and Jackson. They can also arrange the ultimate fan experience, being guided around the film’s locations by the local lady who played Jackson’s mother. Shelby and Jackson married at the Trinity Episcopal Church. Other scenes were shot on Front Street by the river and the campus of Northwestern State University. Maybe visit at Christmas for their real-life Festival of Lights.

Overall rating: 3/5

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