Yesterday, I went with a group of girlfriends to see the thirtieth anniversary rerelease of Steel Magnolias.
Now, I’ve kind of grown up with Steel Magnolias. I was in high school when the film came out, and of course I loved it right away. In college, I felt a huge bond with the Shelby character, as she was based on a real-life woman (playwright Robert Harling’s late sister Susan Robinson) who’d been, like me, a member of Phi Mu Fraternity. Not only did Shelby, Julia Roberts’ character, have big curly hair, a Southern accent, and an obsession with the color pink (just like me…), she was my sister. There were little tributes to Phi Mu all over the film: pink carnations, a Phi Mu composite, a Phi Mu badge on Shelby’s wedding reception suit, etc; when I was in college at Transylvania, our Phi Mu chapter loved to watch the film as a sisterhood event and note these details. And, of course, the mother-daughter pair of Shelby and M’Lynn had that sometimes rocky, always honest and unshakeable bond that only happens when both the mother and the daughter have strong personalities and deeply-held convictions. Ask me how I know…
It’s really odd and lovely to go to a theater and revisit a film you’ve loved for decades. You’re not flipping through commercials or taking breaks or getting distracted by your phone. You’re giving the film your entire attention, and you notice things you’ve forgotten along the way. And, I have to say, there are A LOT of differences between watching a film at 13 or 23 and watching it as an adult.
At one point in the film, Dolly Parton’s character, Truvy, says “Time marches on and sooner or later you realize it is marchin' across your face.” Now, in 1989, the year that Steel Magnolias was released, stars Dolly Parton and Sally Field were both 43 years old, the age that I am now. Olympia Dukakis was 58 and Shirley MacLaine was 55. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by this, but I found that, in watching Steel Magnolias yesterday, I identified way more with those actresses’ characters than with the then-22 year-old Julia Roberts.
Of course, Dolly was, is, and always will be The Queen. I think basically anyone who’s read my blog or followed my instagram knows that I’m obsessed with Dolly Parton. Her Truvy is the moral center and the comic relief of Steel Magnolias. Previously, I hadn’t really thought about the portrayal of Truvy’s marriage and the arc of her depressed, out-of-work husband, but Dolly and Sam Shepard really do convey a lot of big statements about relationships in a relatively brief number of scenes. It isn’t one of the laugh-out-loud, imminently quotable storylines, but it’s beautiful, as is the late-in-life, reluctant romance between Shirley MacLaine’s character Ouiser and her sweet suitor Owen. (The character Owen was played by the late actor Bill McCutcheon who, IMDB tells me, is from my husband’s Kentucky hometown. Small world!)
Watching Steel Magnolias in my forties, I realized I felt more kinship with M’Lynn’s pragmatism than Shelby’s dreamy optimism. Like Ouiser, I grow vegetables, wear funny hats, am not as sweet as I used to be, and would donate a kidney to my dog. And, like Truvy, I firmly believe there’s no such thing as natural beauty. It’s interesting to see how my tastes and opinions have grown up in relation to a film I love. It’s also interesting to see elements I may have missed when I was younger, like dialogue in which Robert Harling signaling his own gay identity at a time when sexual orientation politics were far more coded than they are today. I’d also forgotten how very terrible Daryl Hannah’s Southern accent is, and hadn’t realized that Harling himself appears in a cameo as the wedding minister.
It was great to see that Steel Magnolias holds up as an incredible film after 30 years. All of the quotes you remember are as hilarious and heartbreaking and all-around perfect as you remember. I loved being able to celebrate female friendship with a group of dear friends, including a lovely mother and daughter pair. If you can make it out to a showing of the film this week (there are additional showtimes in Lexington and Louisville on Tuesday and Wednesday!), you absolutely should. And, if you love the film as much as I do, you should probably check out the coverage that Garden & Gun has given the play and the film in recent years, especially their excellent podcast episode.