To kick off our Maudlin Mondays series, which looks at some of the biggest, most manipulative tearjerkers ever to grace a screen, I want to begin with a look at a relatively recent film–one that many down here in the South (well, many women, anyway) consider a modern classic–1989’s Steel Magnolias.
Let me insert a spoiler warning here: I’ll be discussing the ending of the film, so if you’ve never seen it and don’t want the ending ruined for you, stop reading now.
Why go with this film as opposed to the myriad of weepy classics from which I could have chosen? Well, partly because I’ve never cried so much at a movie than I did the first time I saw this one. In fact, I cried so much, I gave myself a migraine that lasted for a day and a half.
Now THAT is a tearjerker.
And in truth, this movie (along with Fried Green Tomatoes) is like a rite of passage for a good Southern girl. Everyone I know has seen both of these movies. I have never heard anyone say they did not like them, either. Seriously, talk about your beloved films–in this neck of the woods, it’s akin to blasphemy to say that you dislike one or both of them.
Revolving around the complex relationship between an overprotective mother, M’Lynn, and her dangerously diabetic daughter, Shelby, Steel Magnolias examines the friendship formed between six very different women with two things in common–a strong, distinctly Southern point of view, and a steely (get it?) determination to support one another through farce and celebrations, triumphs and tragedy. The film is derived from a play by Robert Harling, who based the character of Shelby on his own sister, Susan, who died of complications from diabetes.
The movie begins with a wedding and ends with a funeral and an Easter celebration. There’s an obvious cycle here–from hope to sadness to rebirth (how appropriate that the final scene feature a woman going into labor on Easter Sunday, huh?), and there is as much to laugh at as there is to cry about–a veritable ping-pong match of emotional turbulence. Such an overabundance of feelings can be somewhat tough to take in a mere two-hour running time, so if you’re in an especially vulnerable frame of mind, watching Steel Magnolias is probably a bad idea (though if you’re like the character Truvy, who claims that “laughter through tears is my favorite emotion,” you’ll probably be fine. Stock up on tissues anyway before watching).
As much as this film puts the viewer through an emotional ringer, it’s worth it for the bon mots offered by the script. This is one damn quotable movie. And having seen it as many times as I have, I can pretty much quote the entire thing verbatim. Recently, my friend Michelle and I watched it with one of her sons, and he left the room in disgust after five minutes because both of us kept speaking the dialogue in unison (yes, with this movie, we’re those kind of people).
In 1998’s You’ve Got Mail, Tom Hanks’ character, Joe Fox, refers to The Godfather (1972) as the “I Ching,” claiming that a quote from that film is the answer to every possible question. Well, far be it for me to challenge Mr. Hanks, but for the people I know, it’s this film.
What’s your favorite color? “Pink is my signature color.” How do you know that man is gay? “All gay men have track lighting. And all gay men are named Mark, Rick, or Steve.” Don’t you feel bad for being mean? “Well, you know what they say: if you don’t have anything nice to say about anybody, come sit by me!” Why are you mad at me? “You are a pig from hell!” What’s for dinner? “Bleedin’ armadillo groom’s cake!”
Ohh, that armadillo groom’s cake. What joys does it not provide? It gives us the title of this post (as a belligerent Ouiser gives the father of the bride the hindquarters of the cake in retaliation for his earlier insults) and a running joke at practically every Southern wedding featuring a separate cake for the hubby.
But the intervals of laughter don’t last very long in this movie, as every good moment is counterbalanced by a moment of heartbreaking anxiety. For every hilarious line of dialogue, you get a speech like this, as M’Lynn reflects on her daughter’s recent death.
“I find it amusing. Men are supposed to be made out of steel or something. I just sat there. I just held Shelby’s hand. There was no noise, no tremble, just … peace. Oh, God. I realized as a woman how lucky I am. I was there when that wonderful creature drifted into my life, and I was there when she drifted out. It was the most precious moment of my life.”
And … the waterworks.
Part of the reason this film works so well is the cast. The only weak link is Daryl Hannah, whose Annelle goes from sad sack to slut to holy roller in the quickest religious conversion since Moses saw the burning bush. I can’t help but think another actress at the time (Sarah Jessica Parker–who is a better comedienne than she is sometimes given credit for–or maybe a pre-crazy Sean Young) could have done wonders with this character. Surprisingly (to me, anyway) Julia Roberts, an actress of whom I have never been very fond, does a wonderful job of conveying Shelby’s progression from spoiled brat to self-sacrificing mother. And Dolly Parton, in her best film role since 1980’s 9 to 5, is a bright spot of comedy as beauty-shop owner Truvy.
But the film truly belongs to the other three actresses. Olympia Dukakis (Clairee) and Shirley MacLaine make a hilarious duo, and demonstrate an easy camaraderie on screen that really makes you believe these characters have been the best of frenemies for years. There’s a sense of love even at the heart of their most biting insults (Clairee: “The older you get, the sillier you get.” Ouiser: “Yeah, well, the older you get, the uglier you get.”). And I also love Ouiser’s interactions with M’Lynn’s husband, Drum (“Ouiser, you look like hammered shit.” “Don’t you talk to me like that!” “Oh, I’m sorry. You look like regular shit.”).
The heart of the movie, however, is Sally Field’s performance as M’Lynn. She transcends the maudlin material and comes up with a performance that is simple and lovely. The scene in the cemetery after Shelby’s death is a particularly brilliant juxtaposition of heartbreak and hilarity, as M’Lynn finally expresses her anger at Shelby’s death while Clairee attempts to soothe M’Lynn’s sorrow … at Ouiser’s expense.
If you’re looking for a movie that will give you a good, solid crying fit, Steel Magnolias is the one for you. Break out the tissues, pop a couple of Tylenol to prevent that inevitable crying headache, and just get ready for the roller coaster to follow.
Our Maudlin Meter rating for this film: