"Steel Magnolias" is a classic Southern story and a cult-favorite film, and now, 23 years after its film release, it's getting a made-for-TV reboot. Lifetime's "Steel Magnolias" premieres Sun., Oct. 7, 9 p.m. ET with producer Queen Latifah leading the big-name, all-African-American cast as M'Lynn (the matriarchal role Sally Field made famous).
Alfre Woodard plays cranky Ouiser (Shirley MacLaine's role); Phylicia Rashad plays her sidekick, Clairee (Olympia Dukakis' role); relative newcomer (and Phylicia's real-life daughter) Condola Rashad takes on Shelby, the role Julia Roberts originated; Jill Scott plays Truvy (Dolly Parton's role), who runs the salon where they all convene, and her assistant Annelle (originally Daryl Hannah) is played by Adepero Oduye.
HuffPost TV caught up with Latifah, Woodard, Scott and executive producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan to find out what made them decide to do this remake, how they prepped to take on these iconic roles (even though Woodard never even seen the original as Zadan revealed), what updates, if any, they made, and whether or not they'd consider continuing the story with a television series.
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Zadan: "Robert Harling, who wrote the play and the screenplay for the original film ... we happened to be having lunch with him one day and we said, 'Is there ever anything that could be done with "Steel Magnolias"?' and he said, 'Actually, my dream would be to do it again, but do it with an African-American cast. It could be like a completely new film that you've never seen before.' So we called our friends and we made the movie."
An Homage Sally Field, Shirley MacLaine & Dolly Parton
Latifah: "The guys called me and told me what their idea was and said, 'We need you,' and I said, 'I'm there.' It was really kind of that simple. For me, it was important not to really revisit the [original] film because we needed to embody these characters ourselves. What they did was amazing ... we had to become these characters ourselves and make it ours."
Scott: "I got a phone call saying that Latifah and Neil were going to be doing 'Steel Magnolias,' and it was going to be an African-American cast, and I thought, 'I'm in.' I just read the script and did my best to forget everything I knew about this movie that I love. It's a renewal, and I had to approach it that way. Big hair, big t-ts ... [laughs] it's not hard to get that part!"
Woodard: "You want to pay homage to the first wife, but you don't want to ask your husband, 'How did the first wife kiss you?' [Laughs.] So having it just in 2012, in a visual language that they can understand, will make fans hold on to the original even more because it becomes part of a continuum."
Zadan: "We updated one thing, which was the diabetes part of it. In the original movie, she merely had diabetes, and they've come such a long way with medical care that we went to specialists and talked to them about what could work in this movie, setting it in contemporary time. The doctors told us that a kidney complication with the diabetes would make it very dangerous to have the child. So that's the one thing we really changed."
Meron: "That's why we think the material is classic material -- it can live no matter where you put it."
Latifah: "We connected immediately, so we didn't really have to fake being girls in a beauty shop. We just bonded, right away. Condola Rashad, I think is going to be someone you need to watch -- that girl is going to be amazing. We had this young energy, we had boys running around, rapping all day. [Laughs.]"
A Possible TV Series?
Meron: "You know, it seems like a natural ... it's something that's obviously in the air, but nothing is real yet."
What Makes This Story Timeless
Woodard: "I think it's the relationship between women. We are this far along telling the story of how women, out of their experiences from the time they come into the world, how there is an organic bond. I think that's why we get crazy with each other, and the world wants to tell the story that women are catty with each other. But it's such a strong, organic bond that's older than all of us -- it's ancient -- that energy is so kinetic. In the best sense, which usually happens, that energy recognizes each other. That is a place you go when you hurt, when you need to be caught, when you need to be understood, when you need to be angry. Whatever it is, women have that. My daughter, who's 21, knows that energy. My niece, who is 3, knows that energy. It is a universal and classic story that's about something that's ancient."
Tell us: Will you watch the "Steel Magnolias" made-for-TV reboot?
"Steel Magnolias" premieres Sun., Oct. 7, 9 p.m. ET on Lifetime.
More Diversity On TV
On Nov. 15, 1989, the Herbert Ross-directed dramedy Steel Magnolias opened in theaters across the U.S. Based on Robert Harling’s successful stage play and starring Sally Field, Olympia Dukakis, Shirley MacLaine, Dolly Parton, Daryl Hannah, and a promising young actress named Julia Roberts, it told the story of six Southern women who bonded over the comedy and tragedy life dealt them while hanging out at the local small-town hair salon.
Today, Steel Magnolias is considered a classic of that certain genre of films tailored to and marketed toward female audiences—“chick flicks.” In fact, the Wikipedia entry for “chick flick” lists Steel Magnolias as a “prominent example,” and a recent compilation of the “30 Best & Worst Chick Flicks” named it the fourth-best film in the genre and described it as “one of the quintessential chick flicks.” Steel Magnolias is now such an overwhelmingly gendered phenomenon that guys who like it and decide to publicize that fact on the Internet sometimes hedge their opinions with disclaimers like this one: “I am secure enough in my manhood to proudly proclaim that I enjoy chick flicks—good ones, at least.”
But there was a time, 25 years ago—before the molasses-sweet Steel Magnolias had jelled into its place in the grander canon of beloved girls’-night-in movies—when it was less clear what to really make of it. Early reviews were mixed: Some critics found it weepy but ultimately winning; others thought the film’s brassy sentimentality undermined its real emotional impact. And some took issue with its portrayals of men.
There were a few points, of course, that critics largely agreed upon. For starters, this Julia Roberts gal—then frequently identified as the newcomer sibling of established actor Eric Roberts—was a real winner. Mike Clark of USA Today wrote, presciently, that Roberts’ performance offered “further proof that she’s going to be a jumbo star.” In praising Roberts’ performance, Rolling Stone‘s Peter Travers referred to the actress as “actor Eric [Roberts’] radiant sister,” and David Ansen at Newsweek wrote that “Julia Roberts—who sparkled in Mystic Pizza—lights up the screen with her liquid fire.” (Reviews were divided on the rest of the cast. It remains unclear whether Shirley MacLaine, in particular, was the worst or best part of the film.)
Many critics also agreed that Steel Magnolias was some sort of lesser mutation of 1983’s Terms of Endearment. It did, after all, share elements like a mother-daughter bond interrupted by an illness, and Shirley MacLaine. According to the Globe and Mail, Steel Magnolias was “everything Terms of Endearment‘s detractors accused Terms of being.” Newsweek wrote that it “blatantly tries to trigger memories of Terms of Endearment.” Other creative comparisons identified Magnolias as “a sappy, melodramatic Terms of Endearment Goes South” (People), “like a road company version of Terms of Endearment” (the New York Times), and “for all its pretensions, … closer to Miss Firecracker than to Terms of Endearment” (Roger Ebert).
But, looking back, perhaps the most intriguing criticism of Steel Magnolias dealt with whether it did or didn’t have a man problem.
Hal Erickson’s widely syndicated review, for example, expressed some disappointment with the film’s handling of its supporting male characters: “The film stumbles a bit in its depiction of the male characters as fools and deadheads,” he wrote.
Hal Lipper of the St. Petersburg Times, meanwhile,asserted that “regrettably, the men are caricatures.” He and New York Times reviewer Vincent Canby both lamented the film’s decision to have actors play the leading ladies’ husbands, sons, and boyfriends onscreen at all. (In the stage show, the male characters only existed offstage.) “The male characters are no more substantial now than when they were invisible,” Canby wrote.
Robert Novak of Peopletook it a step further when he wrote, “Men in general and Southern men in particular may want to consider drumming this movie’s director, Herbert Ross, and its writer (adapting his own play), Robert Harling, out of the fraternity.”
Novak continued: “So ludicrous are the male figures that the women, their strength and perseverance obviously being manifested in a cartoonish universe, more and more come to seem like caricatures. … There is literally not one strong male figure in the movie,” he concluded. (Shhh, nobody tell this guy what it’s like to be a woman watching an action movie.)
Peter Travers, meanwhile, noted in Rolling Stone that the male characters were scarce and underdeveloped—but then again, he pointed out, male characters also weren’t the point. “Steel Magnolias belongs to its actresses,” he wrote, “who have tapped into some fundamental truths about the strength women derive from one another.”
Peter Rainer of the Los Angeles Times echoed that sentiment. Rainer wrote that the men had been victims of “wimpification,” but that it was at least amusing to observe. “Because few films feature as many women as this one does, their prominence here is a form of pay-back. They’ve seized the screen from the big boys and they won’t let go,” he wrote.
Roger Ebert, for his part, noted that the men “do not amount to much in this movie.” But this, he concluded, was “a woman’s picture.” “The principal pleasure of the movie is in the ensemble work of the actresses … Steel Magnolias is willing to sacrifice its over-all impact for individual moments of humor, and while that leaves us without much to take home, you’ve got to hand it to them: The moments work.”
(Click here to watch Ebert discuss Steel Magnolias with Gene Siskel. They start discussing the movie right around the 10:50 mark—and Siskel is notably less enthused about Steel Magnolias.)
It’s intriguing to note, on a variety of levels, that in 1989, the overwhelming majority of prominent national outlets published Steel Magnolias reviews written by men. A notable, glorious exception, of course, is The New Yorker, which ran Pauline Kael’s unforgettable one-sentence-long review: “Chalk scraping over a blackboard for two hours.” But when Lifetime aired an all-African American remake of Steel Magnolias in 2012, the gender ratio among reviewers was decidedly more balanced.
That’s not to suggest that Steel Magnolias is such a gendered phenomenon that it was ever wrong or unacceptable for men to watch or appreciate it. But there’s a certain poignance to the fact that there was a time, before it was permanently shuffled into the chick-flick canon, when men were the ones talking, often favorably, about Steel Magnolias. Roger Ebert, it’s worth noting, was a fan of the film—a quiet fan, but a fan nonetheless. “I doubt if any six real women could be funny and sarcastic so consistently (every line is an epigram),” he wrote in his review, “but I love the way these women talk, especially when Parton observes: ‘What separates us from the animals is our ability to accessorize.'”