Magnolias are an ancient flower that, though beautifully fragile and delicate looking, have stood the tests of time and the seasons of change over thousands of years. The women in this movie are all those things and more, well, except for the thousands of years old part.
“Laughter through tears is one of my favorite emotions,” exclaims Dolly Parton’s character, Truvy in the 1989 film Steel Magnolias. It’s one of my favorite emotions, too. Perhaps that’s why this movie is on the top of my “cry pile”. Whenever I need a good cry and a good laugh, I reach for this one 9 times out of 10. In its 20th anniversary year, the cast, story and soundtrack continue to embody the title: Steel Magnolias.
Set in small town Louisiana, the story revolves around the lives and friendships of six women and Truvy’s Beauty Spot, a carport-turned-beauty-shop which serves as a great metaphor for the way these women bring beauty and depth to ordinary small town life. Written by Robert Harling, directed by Herbert Ross and produced by Ray Stark, it brings together a powerhouse cast of strong, beautiful, funny and passionate women who are all “steel magnolias” themselves.
Daryl Hannah as Annelle
The story opens at Truvy’s where Truvy (whom Dolly plays as sincere, wise and beautiful, inside and out) is calling out to her husband Spud (Sam Shepherd) to finish dying the Easter eggs for the community egg hunt, and is hiring a mysterious new graduate from the College of Hair, Annelle. Truvy tells one of her regular customers, Clairee (Olympia Dukakis), the former mayor’s wife, that she thinks “there’s a story there” since Annelle is married but living by herself on the other side of town in a boarding house. Daryl Hannah masterfully plays this mousy, nervous newcomer as she promises Truvy, “My personal tragedy will not interfere with my ability to do good hair.”
Julia Roberts and Dolly Parton
M’Lynn (the emotional bedrock of her family, played by Sally Field) and her daughter Shelby (Julia Roberts in an Oscar nominated performance for Best Supporting Actress) eventually make it to Truvy’s to get their hair done for Shelby’s wedding later that day and the Beauty Spot comes to life with the lively chatter of women sharing their excitement about the wedding. The new bride’s colors are Blush and Bashful, two different shades of pink that M’Lynn says make the church look like it’s been sprayed in Pepto-Bismol.
Tom Skerritt with Julia Roberts
Shelby’s father, Drum Eatenton (Tom Skerritt who played Sally’s husband in the first few episodes of the current TV drama Brothers and Sisters), is working hard to scare a flock of birds out of the trees in the backyard for the reception with guns and fireworks. All the noise riles up the grumpy, wealthy, eccentric, widow neighbor Ouiser’s (Shirley MacLaine) St. Bernard. You wonder if Shelby’s fiancée Jackson (Dylan McDermott) has any idea what he’s getting into.
Not long after Ouiser (pronounced Weezer) ties her neurotic dog to a tree outside Truvy’s and enters the chatter of the shop, Shelby begins to look pale and feverish. Suddenly, the chatter turns to tense concern as Shelby has a serious diabetic reaction. The new Annelle watches as M’Lynn calmly comes out from under the dryer, Clairee runs to get some juice, Truvy pulls candy out of her drawer, Ouiser moves in to be supportive, and you realize the shared history and strength of these southern women.
The 2000 Special Edition DVD (available on Amazon) released by Columbia/TriStar Home Video includes a wonderful special feature called “Full Bloom” in which the screenwriter and original play write, Robert Harling, tells the story of how he wrote the play as a way to tell the story of his own sister who died of diabetic complications following the birth of her first child, and the community of women that supported her and his mother in their journey. He shares insights into the story itself, but also into the process of translating the play to the screen and the impact of the actresses, actors, director and others on the story. For example, the extras that play the hospital staff in the film were the actual nurses and staff that attended his sister at the end of her life.
The metaphor of the magnolia is the perfect comparison for these true southern belles. And their steely determinationin the face of whatever life throws at them is a testament to how rooted and grounded they are as women and as friends. Toward the end of the film, M’Lynn wonders with her friends in the cemetery at how the men in her family, though supposedly made of steel, weren’t able to stay in the room as Shelby peacefully drifted from life. She can’t imagine moments more precious than to be there at her daughter’s birth as well as her death.
Underneath the hilarious, yet tender story is a richly diverse and rare soundtrack with plenty of Louisiana flavor – you can almost taste the shrimp and jambalaya. The orchestral score provides an emotionally rich base. Composed by George Delerue (Patton, Beaches), it is melodic, lush like the countryside of Louisiana, and optimistic as it depicts this story from one Easter to another a few years later, underlining the themes of laying down one life for another and hope springing eternal.
The cover for the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Unfortunately, the original soundtrack is no longer in print, but is occasionally available for a price on Amazon and includes other songs stirred into the mix that add spice:
– ‘I Got Mine,’ a wonderful Dixieland, medicine show tune written and performed by the eclectic Ry Cooder from his 1976 album Chicken Skin Music (a Hawaiian phrase like our mainland goose bumps).
– ‘Two Step Mamou,’ written by Wayne Toups, Jay Miller and Jean Arceneaux and performed by Wayne Toups and Zydecajun. This energetic non-stop number features Wayne on his signature accordion in a fusion of zydeco, rock, Western swing and probably the kitchen sink. It can be found on his 1990 Johnnie Can’t Dance album.
– A great cover of Hank Williams’ classic ‘Jambalaya (On the Bayou)’ performed by Tommy Funderburk is featured in the film, though it’s not clear if Tommy’s or Hank’s vocals are on the soundtrack CD.
Other tracks used in the film, but not found on the soundtrack include:
– ‘Ma Louisiane’ a fiery zydeco number written and performed by Zachary Richard on his Rounder Records release Zack’s Bon Ton, which originally came out in 1990.
– ‘Cajun Christmas’ and ‘Would You Fly?’ were both written and performed by Monty and Marsha Brown. These great, simply produced acoustic tunes can be downloaded from their Dancin’ Cajun CD on Amazon.
– ‘Gypsy Blood’ rocks with a driving Cajun rhythm, written and performed by Mason Ruffner and released on his album of the same name in 1986.
– The credits list ‘Lookin’ For You’ as being written and performed by successful ’80s country artist Holly Dunn, but it’s not found on any of her albums or other recordings in the sources available to me.
– A cover of George Jackson and Tom Jones, III’s well-known ‘Old Time Rock and Roll’ sung by Tommy Funderburk (Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band recorded a classic of this).
– And a Cajun waltz called ‘Les Grands Bois’ arranged and performed by Jo-El Sonnier.
The soundtrack provides such rich soil in which this story can bloom, and Harling’s tribute to his sister and the strong and beautiful women in her life will carry the strength and beauty of those steel magnolias for generations to come.