The film success of Steel Magnolias in 1989 opened the door in short order for the likes of Fried Green Tomatoes, Thelma and Louise, Hope Floats, Where the Heart Is, and Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. One wonders, what is it about Steel Magnolias that made it that kind of power source and has kept its appeal so alive?
It’s interesting that women, in all of the movies above, are front and center and, come what may, they are steel, they are magnolia (=Southern), and they are funny. Steel Magnolias was a play before it was a movie and the play, in an audience-tested way, had figured out how to yoke two seemingly incompatible things: sparkling comic dialogue AND a heartbreaking story sourced in Louisiana writer Robert Harling’s loss of his sister. Being funny could be a way of being serious. And further, no men need have roles of consequence for the whole package to work. The magnolias could carry the show.
So who’s your favorite among the six–Shelby, M’Lynn, Truvy, Annelle, Ouiser, or Clairee? That question has been a guaranteed conversation starter for three decades now. My favorite is Truvy (you know, Dolly Parton), the “glamor technician.” Listen up whenever she says “Honey” because a one-liner is on the way. “Honey, time marches on and eventually you realize it is marching across your face.” “I haven’t left the house without Lycra on these thighs since I was 14.” “Smile! It increases your face value.” As breezy as she is, her wisecracks go beyond wit into wisdom by story’s end. “Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion,” she says. That paradox goes right to the core of the play, doesn’t it? So does, I’m told, “I don’t know how you’re doing on the inside, honey, but your hair’s just holding up beautiful.”
As soon as I favor Truvy, however, I start hearing the claims of Clairee and Annelle. They are close behind. Clairee, having recently lost her husband, represents another turn on the theme of finding life after sorrow: “I really do love football but it’s hard to parlay that into a reason to live.” The Chinquapin aristocrat of the bunch, she does leave her rue behind, however, and rises to her role in the band of sisters, even delivering the immortal spirit-lifter, “The only thing that separates us from the animals is our ability to accessorize.”
Annelle, for her part, undergoes more changes than anyone in the cast. Her wits are slow and her fortunes low at the outset but you have to have hope for someone who declares, “I promise that my personal tragedy will not interfere with my ability to do good hair.” Her evolution from wallflower to wildflower to zealot is a sight to behold. She travels a long way to her touching moment in the spotlight as graveside wisdom-bringer. Then finally there’s her retort when Ouisa says she’ll not be coming to any kind of service at Annelle’s church; she might have to eat a live chicken. “Not on your first visit,” says Annelle. That zinger is not only Annelle’s return to balance; it’s also the sign that she can hold her own with the Beauty Spot crew from now on.
The play covers a lot of ground–wedding, birth, death, wedding, birth–a one and two-thirds trip on the big wheel. Not all the turns are happy. The nail polish was too dark, it turns out, and “Blush” and “Bashful” are shades of pink that just won’t last. M’Lynn’s grief is a crucial scene of course. But the most melancholy moment may be when Shelby tells her mother she wants to have a Jackson Jr. because “I think it would help things a lot.” Harling’s play delivers lots of big laughs, yet it also, in some quiet moments, delivers more than that.
Dept. of English
Mark Lucas is the Jobson Professor of English at Centre College. Lucas writes about the American South and is currently at work on a study of the connections between Southern Gothic literature and Southern Gothic music.
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