movies

"All I wanted was for her to be remembered." The true story that inspired Steel Magnolias.

It’s unlikely we’ll ever in our lifetime see Daryl Hannah, Shirley MacLaine, Dolly Parton, Sally Field and Julia Roberts gathered in a hair salon talking about boys, dropping pearls of Southern wisdom and exchanging witty repartee as they go. But it happened once, in the 80s, in a little film called Steel Magnolias that is forever in our hearts.

Watch the official trailer for Steel Magnolias below and bask in the glory of the enormous hairstyles. Post continues after.

Thirty years ago today, the epic cast and their comically large hair took to the silver screen for the film adaptation of a stage story we’ve found ourselves quoting for decades to come. And for those who haven’t seen it, you’ve probably picked up and adopted a quote here and there without even realising.

Come on, you’ve DEFINITELY heard Julia Roberts’ iconic line “I would rather have 30 minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special” thrown around in conversation at least once in your life.

And also this:

The film revolves around six small-town Louisiana women who regularly catch-up at a local beauty salon to gossip about the latest goings-on. On its surface, it is what most would unequivocally categorise a chick flick, but in actuality it's a tale of the power of female friendship in the face of tragedy. One which mirrors the true story of the sister of its creator, Robert Harling, who penned the original stage version about his sister Susan, who died of complications from Type 1 diabetes.

ADVERTISEMENT

Shortly after giving birth to a baby boy in 1983, Susan's circulatory system and kidneys began to fail. A kidney transplant from her mother, and dialysis, did little to help. She died during minor surgery in 1985 at the age of 33. The very same year, Harling started writing with one person in mind: his nephew.

Afraid his two-year-old nephew would never know who his mother was, Harling began to write the bones of Steel Magnolias - and immortalised his sister in the character Shelby, played by Julia Roberts.

"All I wanted to do was have somebody remember her," he told Country Living of the play's beginning.

Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah, Sally Field , Dolly Parton, and Julia Roberts.

He started the tale as a short story - "that lasted about half a morning" - before switching to a stage script format he felt more comfortable with as an actor. Soon enough, he told a friend, who worked as a receptionist at a talent agency, about his script, and she passed it on to an agent.

The 1989 film's tag line on release was “the funniest movie to make you cry”, but prior to opening night, Harling had no intention of the film being viewed as a comedy, long envisioning it as a tragedy.

"It wasn't until audiences came in and started responding to the way the women talked and how wonderful the actresses were that we realised, I guess this is funny - until it's not," Harling recalled.

The characters' were modelled on Harling's mother's friends, as he remembered them from his childhood.

"I always thought the women in my community were so witty and clever," he said. "It was like a witty one-upmanship [between them]. In a lot of ways, they talked in bumper stickers."

Dolly Parton, Robert Harling and Daryl Hannah Steel Magnolias premiere in 1989. Image: Getty.
ADVERTISEMENT

But initially, he worried that the real-life Ouiser, a woman defined in the film by her cranky and brutally honest nature, would recognise herself and take offence.

In fact, it was quite the opposite.

As women from Harling's hometown began to see the play, "they all said they were Ouiser", and when casting for the film, Shirley MacLaine's first choice of part was, without skipping a beat, "the really bitchy one."

He had created an icon.

"People would like to feel they were the person who always had the snappy comeback and would always speak the truth," Harling said of the thousands who identified with Ouiser. "I think honesty is becoming a much more admired quality as the years go by."

As for the title of the film, Harling says the juxtaposition of strength and fragility is apt for Southern women - who the story ultimately celebrates.

"My mother would always say to handle magnolia blossoms carefully because they bruise so easily. You think of this flower that is so delicate and has to be handled with care, but is actually made of much stronger stuff," he explained to Country Living.

"Part of their mystique and their allure is the fact that [Southern women] are completely unpredictable and undefinable," he added.

Harling's longtime friend Shirley MacLaine believes the playwright's ultimate goal, to help his sister Susan leave an impact on her son, has more than been achieved.

And he tends to agree.

"It's my sister's story, I just happen to be the one who wrote it down."

He adds that Susan's son, now in his mid-30s, knows she was special, particularly as it took "the biggest star in the world to play her".

"It took Julia Roberts to interpret the personality of his mother," Harling said, recalling a time his nephew had trouble with school.

Harling asked if everything was OK, to which the then-teenager replied, "Oh no. Don't worry about me. Everybody likes me. They think I'm really cool."

The reason? His mum was played by Julia Roberts.

"He doesn't remember his mother, but he did know as a teenager that his mother was so cool, it took the biggest star in the world to play her," he said.

"That hit me like a tonne of bricks," he added.

00:00 / ???