CLOSE
getty images
getty images

23 Facts About Steel Magnolias

getty images
getty images

They came. They cried. They conquered. Director Herbert Ross (he of The Goodbye Girl and Footloose fame) assembled an all-star female cast of a half-dozen of Hollywood’s most popular leading ladies—including one newcomer named Julia Roberts—to adapt Robert Harling’s play, Steel Magnolias, into one of the top-grossing films of 1989. Here are 23 things you might not know about the late-’80s weepie.

1. IT’S BASED ON A TRUE STORY.

Writer Robert Harling wrote Steel Magnolias as a way of coping with the passing of his sister, Susan, who died from complications related to diabetes in 1985. In the play, Susan became Shelby.

2. IT TOOK JUST 10 DAYS TO WRITE.

“The events that inspired it were so powerful that, after I found the story arena, it just poured out into my typewriter in a 24/7 tsunami of Southernness,” Harling told Garden & Gun in 2013 about the lightning-fast writing process. “I had no idea what I’d written. I asked the first person I gave it to if it even looked like a play. I wasn’t really sure. All I knew was that I felt it portrayed my sister’s life and spirit accurately, and that was enough for me.” 

3. THE PLAY WAS AN INSTANT HIT.

Harling’s original Off-Broadway play opened on March 28, 1987 at the WPA Theatre in New York City. It closed on February 25, 1990 after 1126 performances. 

4. THE MOVIE DEAL HAPPENED RATHER QUICKLY.

The play’s immediate success led to some fast and furious interest in purchasing the movie rights. “It happened so quickly,” Harling told Garden & Gun. “With the buzz around the play in New York, there was a constant stream from Hollywood coming to check it out. Ray Stark bought the rights and promised me he’d film it in my hometown of Natchitoches, which really clinched the deal.”

5. BETTE DAVIS WANTED A PIECE OF STEEL MAGNOLIAS.

Bette Davis saw the play in New York and immediately began a push to be cast in the film as Ouiser (Shirley MacLaine’s part). She also thought that Katharine Hepburn could make a fantastic Clairee and Elizabeth Taylor would be a perfect Truvy. In 1989, Harling told The Morning Call how Davis had invited him to tea to lobby for the part. As he left, Davis told him, “You may give the role of Ouiser to someone else. But you and they will hear from Bette Davis.”

6. NICOLE KIDMAN PLAYED SHELBY IN SYDNEY.

One of Nicole Kidman’s earliest roles was playing Shelby in a Sydney stage version of the play. 

7. BEFORE SHE WAS SALLY, MEG RYAN WAS SHELBY.

Meg Ryan was briefly attached to the film to star as Shelby, but dropped out in order to take the lead in When Harry Met Sally… 

8. WINONA RYDER WAS ALSO A CONTENDER TO PLAY SHELBY.

Though the producers and director loved Ryder for the part of Shelby, she was ultimately deemed too young (she would have been just 16 when the movie began filming). Laura Dern was in the running, too, but the casting director insisted that the producers audition Julia Roberts, who was filming Mystic Pizza at the time.

9. AS SOON AS JULIA ROBERTS WALKED IN, HARLING KNEW SHE WAS IT.

“She walked into the room and that smile lit everything up and I said ‘That’s my sister,’” Harling told the Daily Mail. “So she joined the party and she was magnificent.” 

10. DARYL HANNAH WAS TOO ATTRACTIVE TO PLAY ANNELLE.

But she really, really wanted the part. When she showed up to audition, she was barely recognizable. "For Daryl, who had never played a character role up unto this point, it was a real departure and she sought out the role and convinced me and Ray Stark that she could handle the role," director Herbert Ross recalled

11. HERBERT ROSS WAS NOTORIOUSLY HARD ON HIS ACTRESSES.

“Herb Ross was basically a choreographer,” MacLaine said at a 2013 screening of the film. “That means he could be sometimes very stern and sometimes very harsh. My deepest memories of the film were how we bonded together after he told one of us or all of us we couldn't act.”

12. ROSS TOLD DOLLY PARTON TO TAKE SOME ACTING LESSONS.

At the same screening, MacLaine and Sally Field recalled how Ross once suggested that Dolly Parton take acting lessons. “You don't say that to Dolly Parton,” said Field. “Dolly Parton is absolutely the funniest, wittiest and filthiest, and she will cut you to ribbons.”

13. ROSS WAS PARTICULARLY HARD ON JULIA ROBERTS.

“He went after Julia with a vengeance,” Field recalled of the director. “This was pretty much her first big film.” MacLaine added that Roberts “would come to my house every night and say, ‘I think I'm terrible. What am I doing?’ and she really was in tears.” 

14. THE FILM EARNED JULIA ROBERTS HER FIRST OSCAR NOMINATION.

Despite a gaggle of A-list co-stars, Julia Roberts’ Best Supporting Actress Oscar nod was the only nomination the film received, though she lost to Brenda Fricker for My Left Foot. It would take Roberts another two nominations and 11 years to actually bring home the golden statue (she won her first and so far only Oscar in 2001 for Erin Brockovich). 

15. THE FILM WAS CRITICIZED FOR THE MALE ROLES’ LACK OF SUBSTANCE.

But the guys are lucky there were any roles for them in the film at all. Though the men are often talked about in the stage play, no men appeared on the stage at any time. In his review of the film for The New York Times, Vincent Canby noted that “The men in their lives are played by Sam Shepard, Tom Skerritt and Dylan McDermott, among others, but the male characters are no more substantial now than when they were invisible.” 

16. ROBERTS AND MCDERMOTT’S ON-SCREEN CHEMISTRY WAS REAL.

When filming began on Steel Magnolias, Roberts was dating Liam Neeson, her co-star in Satisfaction. She allegedly broke up with Neeson to begin dating McDermott, and the couple eventually became engaged before breaking up in 1990.

17. THE FILM PUT NATCHITOCHES ON THE MAP.

It was important to Harling that the film be shot in his hometown of Natchitoches, Louisiana, and its impact is still being felt today. "“For everyone who has seen the movie outside of Natchitoches it is synonymous with the movie," Arlene Gould, executive director of the Natchitoches Convention and Tourism Bureau, told The Shreveport Times. "It had a tremendous impact on the tourism trade and on our community.” 

18. STEEL MAGNOLIA TOURS ARE STILL BIG BUSINESS.

Visitors to Natchitoches who want to visit some of the film’s main locations can take an official tour

19. YOU CAN EVEN SLEEP IN M’LYNN’S HOUSE.

The bulk of the images of M’Lynn’s home are of the town’s Cook-Taylor House, which was built in the 1840s. A residential home at the time, the family who occupied the Natchitoches landmark relocated to an apartment during filming so as not to disturb the filmmakers. In 2003, the property was turned into a bed and breakfast and renamed The Steel Magnolia House

20. THE DOCTORS AND NURSES IN THE HOSPITAL SCENES ARE NOT ACTORS.

Intent on filming the story in as realistic a way as possible, Ross hired the actual doctors and nurses who looked after Susan Harling in her final days to do the same for Shelby on the set. The nurse who turns off Shelby’s life support in the film did the same for Susan in real life.

21. A TELEVISION SERIES BASED ON THE MOVIE DIDN’T TAKE OFF.

Though the series was not picked up for a full season run, CBS did air the Steel Magnolias series pilot in August 1990. 

22. A 2012 LIFETIME MOVIE PROVED MUCH MORE POPULAR.

In 2012, Lifetime remade Steel Magnolias with Queen Latifah, Phylicia Rashad, Alfre Woodard, Jill Scott, Adepero Oduyem, and Condola Rashad, which ended up becoming the channel’s third most watched original telecast of all time. But Harling was not a fan; though he was impressed by the remake’s caliber of actors, he didn’t appreciate that the story needed to be cut up in order to make room for commercial breaks.

23. SHIRLEY MACLAINE DOESN’T CONSIDER STEEL MAGNOLIAS A CHICK FLICK.

“To say it’s a women's film I don’t think that’s correct,” MacLaine told Entertainment Tonight. “If you've got women in your life bring them to see this film and you'll know much more about them when you go home.”

nextArticle.image_alt|e
John P. Johnson, HBO
arrow
literature
Charles Dickens Wrote His Own Version of Westworld in the 1830s
John P. Johnson, HBO
John P. Johnson, HBO

Charles Dickens never fully devoted himself to science fiction, but if he had, his work might have looked something like the present-day HBO series Westworld. As The Conversation reports, the author explored a very similar premise to the show in The Mudfrog Papers, a collection of sketches that originally appeared in the magazine Bentley's Miscellany between 1837 and 1838.

In the story "Full Report of the Second Meeting of the Mudfog Association for the Advancement of Everything," a scientist describes his plan for a park where rich young men can take out their aggression on "automaton figures." In Dickens's story, the opportunity to pursue those cruel urges is the park's main appeal. The theme park in Westworld may have been founded with a slightly less cynical vision, but it has a similar outcome. Guests can live out their heroic fantasies, but if they have darker impulses, they can act on those as well.

Instead of sending guests back in time, Dickens's attraction presents visitors with a place very similar to their own home. According to the scientist's pitch, the idyllic, Victorian scene contains roads, bridges, and small villages in a walled-off space at least 10 miles wide. Each feature is designed for destruction, including cheap gas lamps made of real glass. It's populated with robot cops, cab drivers, and elderly women who, when beaten, produce “groans, mingled with entreaties for mercy, thus rendering the illusion complete, and the enjoyment perfect.”

There are no consequences for harming the hosts in Westworld, but the guests at Dickens's park are at least sent to a mock trial for their crimes. However, rather than paying for their misbehavior, the hooligans always earn the mercy of an automated judge—Dickens's allegory for how the law favors the rich and privileged in the real world.

As for the Victorian-era automatons gaining sentience and overthrowing their tormenters? Dickens never got that far. But who knows where he would have taken it given a two-season HBO deal.

[h/t The Conversation]

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Library of Congress (LOC), Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
arrow
entertainment
10 Fascinating Facts About Ella Fitzgerald
Library of Congress (LOC), Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Library of Congress (LOC), Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Today marks what would have been the 101st birthday of Ella Fitzgerald, the pioneering jazz singer who helped revolutionize the genre. But the iconic songstress’s foray into the music industry was almost accidental, as she had planned to show off her dancing skills when she made her stage debut. Celebrate the birthday of the artist known as the First Lady of Song, Queen of Jazz, or just plain ol’ Lady Ella with these fascinating facts.

1. SHE WAS A JAZZ FAN FROM A YOUNG AGE.

Though she attempted to launch her career as a dancer (more on that in a moment), Ella Fitzgerald was a jazz enthusiast from a very young age. She was a fan of Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby, and truly idolized Connee Boswell of the Boswell Sisters. “She was tops at the time,” Fitzgerald said in 1988. “I was attracted to her immediately. My mother brought home one of her records, and I fell in love with it. I tried so hard to sound just like her.”

2. SHE DABBLED IN CRIMINAL ACTIVITIES AS A TEENAGER.

A photo of Ella Fitzgerald
Carl Van Vechten - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Fitzgerald’s childhood wasn’t an easy one. Her stepfather was reportedly abusive to her, and that abuse continued following the death of Fitzgerald’s mother in 1932. Eventually, to escape the violence, she moved to Harlem to live with her aunt. While she had been a great student when she was younger, it was following that move that her dedication to education faltered. Her grades dropped and she often skipped school. But she found other ways to fill her days, not all of them legal: According to The New York Times, she worked for a mafia numbers runner and served as a police lookout at a local brothel. Her illicit activities eventually landed her in an orphanage, followed by a state reformatory.

3. SHE MADE HER STAGE DEBUT AT THE APOLLO THEATER.

In the early 1930s, Fitzgerald was able to make a little pocket change from the tips she made from passersby while singing on the streets of Harlem. In 1934, she finally got the chance to step onto a real (and very famous) stage when she took part in an Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater on November 21, 1934. It was her stage debut.

The then-17-year-old managed to wow the crowd by channeling her inner Connee Boswell and belting out her renditions of “Judy” and “The Object of My Affection.” She won, and took home a $25 prize. Here’s the interesting part: She entered the competition as a dancer. But when she saw that she had some stiff competition in that department, she opted to sing instead. It was the first big step toward a career in music.

4. A NURSERY RHYME HELPED HER GET THE PUBLIC’S ATTENTION.

Not long after her successful debut at the Apollo, Fitzgerald met bandleader Chick Webb. Though he was initially reluctant to hire her because of what The New York Times described as her “gawky and unkempt” appearance, her powerful voice won him over. "I thought my singing was pretty much hollering," she later said, "but Webb didn't."

Her first hit was a unique adaptation of “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” which she helped to write based on what she described as "that old drop-the-handkerchief game I played from 6 to 7 years old on up."

5. SHE WAS PAINFULLY SHY.

Though it certainly takes a lot of courage to get up and perform in front of the world, those who knew and worked with Fitzgerald said that she was extremely shy. In Ella Fitzgerald: A Biography of the First Lady of Jazz, trumpeter Mario Bauzá—who played with Fitzgerald in Chick Webb’s orchestra—explained that “she didn't hang out much. When she got into the band, she was dedicated to her music … She was a lonely girl around New York, just kept herself to herself, for the gig."

6. SHE MADE HER FILM DEBUT IN AN ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MOVIE.

As her IMDb profile attests, Fitzgerald contributed to a number of films and television series over the years, and not just to the soundtracks. She also worked as an actress on a handful of occasions (often an actress who sings), beginning with 1942’s Ride ‘Em Cowboy, a comedy-western starring Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.

7. SHE GOT SOME HELP FROM MARILYN MONROE.

“I owe Marilyn Monroe a real debt,” Fitzgerald said in a 1972 interview in Ms. Magazine. “It was because of her that I played the Mocambo, a very popular nightclub in the ’50s. She personally called the owner of the Mocambo and told him she wanted me booked immediately, and if he would do it, she would take a front table every night. She told him—and it was true, due to Marilyn’s superstar status—that the press would go wild. The owner said yes, and Marilyn was there, front table, every night. The press went overboard … After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again. She was an unusual woman—a little ahead of her times. And she didn’t know it.”

Though it has often been reported that the club’s owner did not want to book Fitzgerald because she was black, it was later explained that his reluctance wasn’t due to Fitzgerald’s race; he apparently didn’t believe that she was “glamorous” enough for the patrons to whom he catered.

8. SHE WAS THE FIRST AFRICAN AMERICAN WOMAN TO WIN A GRAMMY.

Ella Fitzgerald
William P. Gottlieb - LOC, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Among her many other accomplishments, in 1958 Fitzgerald became the first African American woman to win a Grammy Award. Actually, she won two awards that night: one for Best Jazz Performance, Soloist for Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook, and another for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Irving Berlin Songbook.

9. HER FINAL PERFORMANCE WAS AT CARNEGIE HALL.

On June 27, 1991, Fitzgerald—who had, at that point, recorded more than 200 albums—performed at Carnegie Hall. It was the 26th time she had performed at the venue, and it ended up being her final performance.

10. SHE LOST BOTH OF HER LEGS TO DIABETES.

In her later years, Fitzgerald suffered from a number of health problems. She was hospitalized a handful of times during the 1980s for everything from respiratory problems to exhaustion. She also suffered from diabetes, which took much of her eyesight and led to her having to have both of her legs amputated below the knee in 1993. She never fully recovered from the surgery and never performed again. She passed away at her home in Beverly Hills on June 15, 1996.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER