Steel Magnolias (1989) is one of a number of films that focus on the 20th-century Southern community as a warm and sustaining force. I don't know when these films began to appear. Intruder in the Dust (1949) focuses on the Southern community, but there community is a force of racism and oppression. In Steel Magnolias community is a positive force. Although the film is contemporary to the time of its making, it is infused with a nostalgia more geographical than temporal. By this I mean a tendency of typical viewers (demographically, they live mainly in urban and suburban areas) to believe that in "other" parts of the nation—that is, in small towns located away from large cities—there is a different kind of life—a simpler life with traditional values, where individualism as opposed to the cult of the corporate masses is not only accommodated but even encouraged. This is part of the myth of the small town that Americans yearn for, believing that it offers a better world than the one in which they live. This is the world Steel Magnolias portrays.
The title expresses the paradox that is the crux of the film—the primary women characters have all the characteristics of the traditional Southern magnolia—grace, courtesy, friendship—but at the same time they possess a steely resilience and a resolve to survive.
Steel Magnolias is a melodrama about the lives of women in a small Southern town. The Southern setting to an extent provides a rationale and context for the characters and their lives—they are all individuals of one sort or another, they live in a traditional world where marriage and family are expectations (they have met these expectations in different ways), and they cope as best they can through support of one another. One could imagine a film that gives more emphasis to the dominance of men—a film in which women have to strategize and navigate their ways through the efforts of their husbands and lovers to control and suppress them. Such is the terrain of Tennessee Williams. In this film, however, men for the most part are ineffectual and marginal. The women outsmart them (though there is only rare need for this) or mostly tolerate and ignore them. There is no direct conflict. Even so, the film at least implies the male-dominated world in which these women live.
The problems the women in this film encounter have little to do with the region in which they live. Their problems are ones that all women (all people, for that matter) confront—marriage, illness, difficulties in work or domestic relations. This becomes especially so in the film's second half, where a character's worsening health dominates the attention of the others. Here, the community of women becomes a source of support in a difficult time, but one could imagine how this might be so in many other geographical settings as well.
The film falls neatly into halves. The first half introduces the characters and their lives and relationships. M'Lynn Eatenten (Sallie Fields) is the mother of Shelby (Julia Roberts)—when they first appear they're in the final stages of planning for Shelby's wedding. Truvy Jones (Dollie Parton) is a hairdresser married to an unhappy man having difficulties finding work (Sam Shepard). Clairee Belcher (Olympia Dukakis) is a widow. She is good friends with Ouiser Boudreaux (Shirley MacLaine), a bitter and hilarious iconoclastic woman who has gone through two unhappy marriages. Annelle Desoto (Daryl Hannah) is a younger woman recently separated from her husband (he's disappeared after involvement in some kind of drug scandal). She's not at first a member of the group, but when Truvy hires her to work in her beauty salon, she soon becomes one. The group ranges in age from very young to sixty or so—lower to middle class white women. (The film shows the progressive racial attitudes of the women by including a few black characters in party and community scenes. However, it also shows a few black domestic workers—these are the only real acknowledgments that there is a racial dimension to the American South. As with many other films about the South, Steel Magnolias finesses the South as a landscape for racial conflict by ignoring it). (The names of these characters are one of the only nods the film makes to its Louisiana setting).
The second half of the film focuses on Shelby's medical problems—her severe diabetes makes pregnancy for her a dangerous risk. After she has a child, her kidneys fail, and she receives a transplanted kidney donated by her mother. Her body rejects the kidney, and she dies. The group gathers around and supports M'Lynn in her grief.
Much of the action involving the central group takes place in Truvy's beauty salon or in M'Lynn's home. Truvy's salon is reminiscent of the beauty parlor in Welty's "The Petrified Man." That story in numerous brilliant ways explores the beauty parlor as a symbol and expression of sexual tensions. Those tensions are barely hinted at in Steel Magnolias. One thinks also of the novels of Lee Smith, which sometimes portray an similar group of characters. Smith's novels are more subtle and do not rely as much on stereotypes.
Each woman in the film has her own set of complicated issues, and the first half of the film is devoted to exploring them.
The basic message of the film is that "Life goes on" and that you need friends around to support you. One would expect from the film's first half that some sort of plot complication would grow out of Annelle's recent unhappy marriage, or Truvy's struggling marriage to her husband—some sort of difficulty that would throw this community of women into conflict with their men or their male-dominated community. But this film does not seek controversy. Instead the dramatic center of the film is Shelby's illness.
Most of the acting in the film is undistinguished. Dollie Parton plays the same stereotypical character she plays on stage and in other films—the down-to-earth country persona of a folksy women who hides her own problems and who is always spouting earthy, corny witticisms. Example: "Sammy's so confused he don't know whether to scratch his watch or wind his butt." Dukakis is poor in her role. She hardly seems to know where she is, or what a Southern accent is. Has she ever been to the South? Sallie Fields is effective, and when her daughter dies and she erupts in a fit of anger and grief that is one of the best performances in her career. The most interesting character in the film is Ouiser. As played by Shirley MacLaine, Ouiser is full of venom, bitterness, and caustic humor. She insults everyone, friends and strangers, but all the friends know what to expect from her, so they're not bruised. We are given to know that bad marriages and ungrateful children have made her bitter. However, rather than exploiting her character more fully, the film shows how after she becomes romantically involved with an old flame she gradually softens. At the end of the film she even admits to praying. Thus while the film offers this edgy, interesting character, it also sets about to demonstrating that, after all, she's just like the other women in the film. The other characters frequently laugh at her behind her back or play jokes on her—she's disarmed, rendered powerless as a result.
In short, none of these characters comes across as especially authentic. They're someone's ideas of what people in a small Southern town might be, but they seem designed more for dramatic or comedic effect. The film's view of the Southern community is idyllic and utopian and not convincing. There are certainly individuals like Ouiser around in the South, and there are individuals around like the others, but how frequently they interact with one another, how genuinely tolerant of eccentricity and deviance from normal standards of morality and behavior the residents of a small Southern town would be, I don't know. This film is more interested in portraying its own view of "what ought to be" than in portraying representations of reality.
Sentimentality, stereotypes, and shallow writing are weaknesses of this film. With the exception of Shelby, by the end of the film all the characters' difficulties have been resolved—Truvy's husband finds work on an oil rig and their marriage improves; Annelle gets pregnant and finds God and another husband; Ouiser finds love; M'Lynn finds in her grandson and her friends hope and a way of getting past her daughter's death. Even though Shelby is dead, she did die the mother of a young child, and she says while arguing with her mother about her pregnancy that "I would rather have thirty minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special." So even she gets what she wants.
However, the scenes involving the aftermath of Shelby's death—the funeral and the grieving—are moving and accurate.
The humor in the film mostly derives from Ouiser and her bitter pronouncements and insults, and the antics of the men on the margins. The humor mostly operates on the level of a "You might be a redneck if . . ." routine by Jeff Foxworthy.
This film for various reasons—Shirley MacLaine is one of them—reminded me of the 1983 film Terms of Endearment. There the character Aurora Greenway had much in common with Ouiser. There also, the melodrama of the film ends up focused on the illness and death of one of the main characters, as if the writers couldn't find another way to wrap things up. There also the message of endurance and mutual support in tough times is central.