*/**** Image B Sound B Extras D+
starring Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah
screenplay by Robert Harling, based on his play
directed by Herbert Ross
by Walter Chaw Submitted for your approval, shrill, neo-Tennessee Williams actress-posturing from the pantheon of late-'80s harpies, featuring a special martyr performance from a Julia Roberts just months away from achieving sociopathic superstardom as a high-priced whore in Pretty Woman. Not being able to relate to Herbert Ross's demographically-precise Steel Magnolias in any way, I nevertheless see in its popularity an opportunity for introspection about how little I actually understand other peoples' tastes. From my vantage, Steel Magnolias is two hours of nattering and bon mots set in a home-salon run by Truvy (Dolly Parton, the very definition of down-home warmth and genuineness), assisted by dizzy Arnelle (Daryl Hannah), and frequented by diabetic Shelby (Roberts), her mother M'Lynn (Sally Field), happy widow Clairee (Olympia Dukakis), and cranky widow Ouiser (Shirley MacLaine). Ouiser basically stalks around swearing like a sailor and getting shat on by birds, Clairee floats on momentum won (and fast flagging) from Moonstruck, and M'Lynn turns into MacLaine from Terms of Endearment. My favourite is when she force-feeds Shelby a glass of orange juice in a vision of Hell I'd like to one day mash-up with the brainwashing sequence from A Clockwork Orange. Along the way, the young ones become pregnant, a stray man wanders through now and again, and each of the grey old iron ladies gets a moment to demonstrate her humanity and humour in the face of life's little, and big, tragedies.
The performances are huge but not good; the script by first-time screenwriter Robert Harling, adapting his own autobiographical stage play, isn't good; and all of it plods along on a melodramatic metronome, humming in time to the episodic dictates of female ritual and ritual births. "Don't worry, honey, women have babies every day!" assures Truvy, and it comes off as more than a bit menacing to the perplexed outsider perspective. (I wouldn't have batted an eye if she'd promised they'd burn Tom Skerritt in a Wicker Man after she finished this he'ah mani-pedi, or at least would've batted the same eye.) The central concern--the demon needing to be exorcised for playwright Harling--is Shelby's escalating illness and her fanatical devotion to having a child, even though there's a good chance--really good chance, trust me on this--that having a baby will cause her kidneys to fail. And they do. Spectacularly. Roberts received a Best Supporting Actress nod for a performance composed entirely of crying, having seizures, and coma acting. If anything, it bolsters the idea that Hollywood is run by a cabal of Jews and gay men. The real tragedy is that Shelby is given the option of adopting a kid instead of killing herself by extruding the fruit of her womb, but chooses to leave the rearing of her moppet to Dylan McDermott...or Dermot Mulroney. Doesn't matter.
The movie is either about how sad it is when people die young or how sad it is when people grow old, I think. Or maybe it's about how anything is possible with friends and good humour. Yes, that's it. Steel Magnolias is two interminable, inscrutable hours of awful jokes and histrionics that lead to the inevitable graveside monologue where Field launches full-bore into an Oscar-ready lament about the unfeelingness of God. This is topped by Clairee offering up Ouiser as a punching bag in what amounts in the film to a literal, hardy-har punchline. That Parton's native, unquenchable warmth and Dukakis and MacLaine's obvious chemistry manage to shine through the Queer Cult Cinema fabulousness to land with something like insight into women's relationships (I guess) is borderline miraculous. That it simultaneously spawned a genre of crap in a devolution chart from its already low bar to the bonding-over-cannibalism flick Fried Green Tomatoes to the bonding-over-coprophagia flick The Help functions as a cautionary tale about what happens when you, Titanic-like, find a new field to strip-mine. Steel Magnolias is a good teaching text for what the Victorian novel looked like, and for what audience it was generally written, before form and function evolved into the modern. It's the muck. That's its appeal.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Twilight Time brings Steel Magnolias to Blu-ray in a limited run of 3000 copies. The 1.85:1, 1080p presentation preserves the late-'80s feel of the piece. (Check out that first scene with Daryl Hannah's arrival into Dagwood--it instantly places the picture.) Essentially, the movie looks like a watercolour left in a damp climate--not runny, exactly, but with the colours just off. Ross was never known as a technical director (Pennies from Heaven notwithstanding), and it shows. That being said, the outdoor scenes are pleasantly Southern--green, leafy, hot as a motherfucker--and the image is fairly filmic. The 5.1 DTS-HD MA track is kept busy by the antic activity of the thing as a half-dozen overwritten lady characters struggle for dominance. It's fine for what it needs to do.
The late Ross offers up a feature-length yakker--originally recorded for DVD, I assume--that is surprisingly engaging for the first half-hour as the director talks about adapting and "opening up" the play and skirts around the purported friction on set between him and a few of the actors. Nobody puts Dolly in the corner. What would have been nice is to hear from the cast on this yakker--after the initial volley of soft-spoken insight, Ross runs out of things to say and sits quietly as his flamboyant baby goes flouncing by. If you wish, you can also listen to Georges Delerue's isolated score, which, while restful, would kind of defeat the purpose of the film, I think--unless you're wanting to insert your own dialogue. Let's face it, the reason Steel Magnolias has legs is that it's so unapologetic in its tackiness. So be it. Follow Walter Chaw on Twitter