From Alice Guy-Blaché to Ava Duvernay, women have been integral to cinema for the last 120 years. Broad Cinema is a new column that will feature women who worked on films that are playing this month at the Alamo Drafthouse. From movie stars to directors, from cinematographers to key grips, Broad Cinema will shine a spotlight on women in every level of motion picture production throughout history.
This week we are celebrating Steel Magnolias. Get your tickets here.
When I think of Steel Magnolias, I think of bridezillas, cakes shaped like armadillos, and misconceptions about diabetes that I held onto far longer than I should have (for years, I was convinced diabetics could not, or should not, have children). The 1989 film based on the Robert Harling play of the same name presents many archetypes about women in the South. It's a movie that has the perfect blend of comedy and drama, the way life tends to be. The women of Steel Magnolias could easily be the women of any girl-group dynamic; they are all human, and they are all relatable. They are all people we know.
Shelby Eatenton Latcherie
When we first meet Shelby (Julia Roberts), it’s amidst the chaos of her wedding day, and she is bitching about her nail polish drying “too dark”. She needs a delicate pink, dammit! She will NOT have her honeymoon car covered in condoms (spoiler alert: too bad)! Blush and Bashful are her wedding colors— just two shades of probably indiscernible pink. She has the most perfect husband (Dylan McDermott) who is promising her the most perfect life. Shelby is your friend that is super girly and super flawless; the one you regret agreeing to be a bridesmaid for because now you have to drop $500 on a dress, the one who freaks out over a bad manicure but makes you laugh with how ridiculous she is being for freaking out over a bad manicure.
Shelby’s biggest downfall is her stubbornness—she desperately wants a baby, regardless of how dangerous it is for her medically (an aside: I always thought Shelby’s diabetic reaction at the salon was over the top until I dated a diabetic and saw him have one). But beyond all those bitchy, sassy, bullheaded layers, deep down Shelby just wants her mother’s support. When she chops off her hair, she is only comforted by her mother’s approval (and she keeps that haircut right through the filming of Hook).
I truly feel for M’Lynn (Sally Field), with her useless doofus sons and her nightmare daughter and her bird-shooting husband. She is visibly upset as Shelby makes small talk in the salon about wanting to grow old, wanting children and grandchildren. M’Lynn frets over Shelby like she’s still a child. She’s the type of mother I am— anxious, panicky, neurotic. And she’s the type of loudmouth most mother are: telling the group Shelby’s doctor says she should never have kids like it’s everyone’s business. All women watching this movie are reminded of their mother telling the entire town that they just got their first period.
M’Lynn is so codependent on Shelby that she even goes along with the suggestion that buying a baby—not adopting, BUYING, is a better alternative to giving birth to one. She throws a lot of shade at Shelby’s husband, accusing him of not taking anything seriously, and Shelby accuses her of being jealous because she is not in control of her anymore, which may be true. Mother/daughter relationships are very complicated. But Shelby is her only daughter, and she is sick, so M’Lynn is overcome with worry all the time. When Shelby ultimately dies from her kidney transplant rejection—a kidney M’Lynn donates! — her grief becomes the audience’s grief; it’s hard to watch a parent let their child go. When Shelby dies, M’Lynn is the perfect example of a mother, knowing what outfit her daughter should wear, what funeral home they’ll use. M’Lynn is the ultimate matron of the group.
“Oh, I’m just screaming at my husband, but I can do that any time.” Truvy ((Dolly Parton, a national treasure who should be protected at all costs) is a ray of positive sunshine, even though she’s saddled with an inattentive husband and shady son. “There is no such thing as natural beauty” she tells Anelle, but not in a bitchy way. I suspect Dolly Parton truly believes this—we are all wonderful, but everything can be improved on. Like most hairdressers, she knows everything about everyone in town and gossip gives her a reason to live. She tries to coerce M’Lynn, who works in mental health, into giving her the dish on the locals’ issues. She fat shames. She even likes listening to stories of couples fighting, because the “making up can be so romantic”.
Truvy is your friend that is a hopeless romantic, even if she’s not in the best relationship herself; she’s always looking at the silver lining. Poor Truvy just wants her husband, Spud (the late Sam Shepard), to love her again, even though the spark died long ago and he is obviously clinically depressed. Most people get emotional over M’Lynn’s monologue at the end of the movie, but to me, the saddest thing is how Truvy and Spud bond over Shelby’s death, the sad hopefulness of him saying he doesn’t know what he’d do if she died.
Oh, this movie made me fall in love with Daryl Hannah, who shows up to town all meek with her cat’s eye glasses and her absentee husband. A new beauty school graduate, she’s hired at Truvy’s salon and is thrust into the cacophony of the Steel Magnolias ladies’ frantic chatter.
After a brief stint as a hussy once her divorce is finalized, Anelle becomes super religious, but for some reason is unable to keep contacts in. Anelle is someone I wish had more screen time, because she gets so boring once she finds God. I want a sequel that shows what happened in between her arriving to town and her conversion to hardcore Christianity. She even dumps out her boyfriend’s beer, proclaiming it to be sinful, which is just unacceptable to me. But she gets married on Halloween, which seems out of character. Anelle’s is a weird storyline because one minute she is fighting with her boyfriend and the next moment she is married, pregnant, and planning to name her child after Shelby, which is strange because I feel like they talked twice their whole lives.
Anelle is your friend that is religious but not really problematic, so you love her regardless of her constant “praying for you” routine.
Clairee (Olympia Dukakis) needs to know everything about everyone, instantly zeroing on Anelle’s name and past. She’s the late mayor’s wife, so she is a very important person politically, but she isn’t malicious. She is loaded, but is kind, truly invested in her friends and their lives. She misses her late husband, but does not let her grief stop her from furthering her successes. She buys the local radio station and becomes a sports broadcaster, and let’s be honest: does Clairee look happier ever than when she’s in a football locker room? She even has a gay nephew—scandalous, but she seems progressive about the whole thing.
Clairee is not a character Steel Magnolias delves into a whole lot, but she is a delight. And her passive aggressive relationship with Ouiser is #squaadgoals. Clairee is your friend that has a lot of money, so she’ll always foot the bill, but doesn’t let her social status impede on her kindness.
Louisa “Ouiser” Boudreaux
What a nightmare woman Ouiser (Shirley MacLaine) is, with her barking, frantic Cujo dog and her incessant screaming at everyone she meets. I love her. “Hi Ms. Louisa”, the Eatenton sons say in unison. “Ah, leave me alone” she sneers at them. She is my absolute hero.
Ouiser demands to know everything about Anelle upon meeting, coaxing out the fact that her husband is on the run. “Men are the most horrible creatures” she says to a sobbing Anelle. “They will ruin your life.” Ouizer has a terrible history with men, and even her children hate her, and she believes people are only friends with her because she is rich. Ouiser is close with Clairee, and often points out how ridiculous she can be (“No one cares about this grape shit!” she says when Clairee won’t shut up about the football uniforms). She recognizes why Shelby’s pregnancy is a bad idea. Ouiser looks at life with a bleak but realistic filter, while everyone else tends to look on the bright side of things.
Ouiser is your negative, bitchy friend that you just can’t help but love. She’s crass and mean and direct and amazing.
I love the support the women of Steel Magnolias give each other. All the women, sans Shelby, comfort M’Lynn when Shelby’s pregnancy is announced (much to M’Lynn’s obvious agitation)—this is the first time we see them as a team, as best friends, instead of just people who are friendly. When Shelby admits she needs a new kidney and that M’Lynn is donating hers, they rally around both women, trying to be as supportive as possible. When M’Lynn breaks down after Shelby’s funeral, they share the grief, unable to understand how someone so young could be taken so quickly. Anelle’s speech about how Shelby is now in a place of beauty and eternal youth seems short sighted at first, but her explanation of her faith being the only way to make sense of the situation is ultimately lovely and touching.
During M’Lynn’s monologue, she states that the men left the room when Shelby was taken off life support, even though they’re supposed to be the strong ones. But it is the women who are steel magnolias, fragile but also tough. This is a clique that loves each other regardless of their personality differences. We could all stand to be like these women, working together as separate parts to make a solid whole.