Steel Magnolias (1989)

Dir. Herbert Ross. Starring Sally Field, Julia Roberts, Dolly Parton

Whaddaya like?

You like coming home to a kiss?

Somebody with a smile at the door?

Whaddaya like?

You like indescribable bliss?

Then whaddaya wanna get married for?

Just as Company makes sense in the New York City of the late ’60s, Steel Magnolias makes sense in Louisiana of the late ’80s. In both stories, there’s a fundamental alienation between men and women, especially the married ones. The first act of Company is hilariously hyperbolic about how fraught a marriage can be, whether one is just getting into the business (“Getting Married Today”) or many years in (“The Little Things You Do Together,” “Sorry-Grateful”). Steel Magnolias is not so much concerned about how fraught marriage is as it is the separation that happens when one finally pulls the trigger. Annelle (Daryl Hannah) and Sammy (Kevin J. O’Connor) are never nearer than when he makes her a cherry coke at a wedding; later on, Annelle becomes nearer her God to she, but Sammy, with a string of profanities, never quite keeps up. The most memorable scenes, witnessed or otherwise, between Shelby (Roberts) and Jackson (Dylan McDermott) come before they get married. At Truvy’s, Shelby recounts a story about how the two of them went to Frenchman’s Lick, went skinny-dipping, and fought most of the time. On the day of the wedding, Jackson checks in on Shelby and asks if she wants to marry him; it seems romantic and young and characteristic, for a minute. Maybe Jackson is just a reasonably handsome, cool as a cucumber, and unsurprisingly smartalecky lawyer; during the reception, M’Lynn (M’Sally Field) struggles to get a straight answer out of him when she wants him to act more seriously. The movie’s patience pays off here: Jackson is mentioned more than seen during the rest of the picture, and that wiseacre distance, that wedding day check-in, play as defense mechanisms in retrospect as opposed to a personal wryness. M’Lynn and Drum (Tom Skerritt) are rarely in the same place as one another—the most memorable scene with both of them together is memorable because he leaves—and Shelby calls her out on it. I’ve been trying to tell you and Dad that I’m pregnant, she says, but I can’t seem to run into you at the same time. (Appropriately, Drum is nowhere to be found while M’Lynn is baking; not all of the traditional women’s spaces are proclaimed quite as loudly as the beauty parlor Truvy runs.)

The most interesting couple is Truvy (Parton) and Spud (Sam Shepard), who actually share the same frame as often as any other married couple, but who are powerfully distant from one another. She doesn’t know which one is a socket wrench; he doesn’t know which goop he’s sticking a popsicle stick in. (I’m sure it’s not called a popsicle stick, but I’m sure it ain’t a tongue depressor in this context either.) There’s disappointment in the past somewhere. Truvy frequently laments her son’s shortcomings; Spud is unable to hold onto a job, and his business frustrations are a rusty ray of light in a movie where everyone seems unquestionably comfortable in that bourgeois Southern way. Shelby and Jackson’s wedding is as pink as one of those Mary Kay Cadillacs. There’s some acrobatic swing dancing going on that wouldn’t be out of place at Kappa Alpha or Kappa Delta semi-formal, and thus it’s impossible to imagine Spud with that crowd. (It’s difficult for me to imagine the kind of solidarity regardless of social class that these women share in. Maybe I’m underestimating the power of friendship among women to do so, but I dunno, maybe the movie is weirdly optimistic about how much contact the idle rich have with their hairdressers. How many middle-class people can imagine getting some corny speech at their daughter’s graveside from their mechanic or a waitress at a favorite restaurant?) Before Shelby’s funeral he all but apparates in front of Truvy wearing a shirt and tie, asking if the tie matches. He says he wants to go to this funeral, says he can’t imagine going through Jackson’s situation himself. It’s a fine piece of understated acting from one of the great understated actors of the time in Shepard, and Truvy is touched.

It’s the closest any man gets to seriously telling a woman that he loves her in this movie—Jackson manages to squeeze that in with Shelby, after mentioning how sweet a VCR from the registry is—and it seems to mollify Truvy. Whether or not that’s enough to mollify someone is another question entirely, or whether it’s slightly horrifying that people in this town seem to accept that married folks seem completely unable to relate to one another in their daily lives. To the best of my recollection, no one says the word “divorce,” but it means something that the best marriage that any of these women belongs to the widow, Clairee (Olympia Dukakis). There’s a real darkness in this movie that has nothing to do with diabetic comas or generational conflict. If Truvy’s shop is a kind of paradise for these women, then it must be as exclusionary as any other heaven, one that no man would step into. It isn’t a question of blame for these women, because if anything the men they’re married to are even less interested in their marriages than the ladies are. But it’s representative of a world in which women are supposed to get married and then…no one really says. If Drum were more supportive, would M’Lynn need to hear from Annelle about Shelby the guardian angel? If Spud put something into his marriage beyond his own ennui, would Truvy have as much time to sink into Annelle? If Clairee’s husband were still alive, would there be as much of that sisterly teasing with Ouiser (Shirley MacLaine)? The answer is that all of those, especially that last, are eminently possible. But the reason the relationships these women share in Steel Magnolias feel so urgent is because they don’t have anyone outside of their group, and without that urgency Steel Magnolias is less successful.

Steel Magnolias is also totally comfortable with cramming its starry leads into this Louisiana locale and letting them roam free with their accents. Boy! We sure could talk about the different Southern accents that we have in this movie, and how none of them are particularly Louisanian! But everyone’s doing something! This is, naturally, part of the fun. Louisiana in our country’s film history is so rarely about authenticity and so frequently about strong emotions, more or less like India for British movies, but without the profound specter of imperialism hanging over it. There are other issues with giving Louisiana this kind of role in our cinema, like the essentializing of Southerners by coastal elites, but Robert Harling’s bona fides stretch from Natchitoches to New Orleans. Without them this would all feel a little more exploitative and whatever the heck Julia Roberts is doing would be much more annoying. Nor is it really about the South; it happens to be a Dixie setting for this sort of friendly Main Street vibe the picture’s aiming for. Ergo, we can slowly accept a grown twice-married woman named “Ouiser,” said like the “Buddy Holly” people, or the possibility that maybe the best way to get birds of out of a tree is to shoot fireworks into it, or a groom’s cake in the shape of an armadillo. (This armadillo is a gift that keeps on giving. The description Sally Field gives of it at Truvy’s paints a good enough picture, but there’s nothing quite like seeing a quadruple-amputee armadillo with red velvet stumps. Ouiser, who is not a fan of Drum, cuts him the buttpiece as he sidles over. With the kind of timing that aspiring comics kill for, Skerritt sizes it up. “Thanks, Ouiser,” he says. “Nothing like a good piece of ass.”) Significantly more work is done by colloquialisms, which are wonderfully evocative. Shirley MacLaine’s grumpy performance is reason enough to watch this movie, but as sensational as her retorts are—delivered with the grace and might of a particularly wicked return at the ping-pong table—there’s nothing about them that needs to come from a woman living in small-town Louisana. Instead, sign me up for “walk on my lips” as a replacement for “eat my hat.” Or, in what is quite possibly Roberts’ most authentic moment in the picture, I’ll trade “spit nails” for “breathe fire.”

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