The true story and secrets behind the film Steel Magnolias

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The honesty, the deep friendships, the fierce clinging to a life worth living – while we love an array of movie genres, sometimes you just can’t beat heartfelt female-led drama. And from the different classics out there, Steel Magnolias outshines them all.

Hitting theaters in 1989, steel Magnolias featured a slew of stars of different ages and fields, including country superstar Dolly Parton, Academy Award winner Sally Field, a young, pre-Pretty Woman Julia Roberts, and up-and-coming ingenue Daryl Hannah, still wet from her star turn in Splash. This film would launch Roberts into stardom after she captured the hearts of many viewers with her incredible performance.

The movie sends us on a rollercoaster of emotions, making us laugh uncontrollably, before passing the box of tissues around as we sob our hearts out at the tragic ending. We are introduced to Shelby, a young woman who is determined to live her life on her own terms, not to compromise despite the type one diabetes she is suffering from. She chooses to live her life enjoying the happy moments, rather than having no joy but living longer.


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The film is set in Louisiana and features a largely female cast. Steel Magnolias shows us how this small group of friends band together during some of the worst times of their lives, and how they deal with the death of one of their members. There was plenty of drama on the screen, but incredibly, there was just as much off it too.

We have found plenty of secrets and stories behind the making of Steel Magnolias to give you an insight into the ups and downs of making the movie, and the tragic real story behind it all.

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The film was based on a play

The film is based on the real-life experience of playwright Robert Harling after his sister died following some complications during her battle with diabetes. The title, Steel Magnolias, is in reference to the fact that the female characters in the story can be both delicate, like the flowers, and tough as steel. He changed the name of his sister, but her story remains the same. She was determined to fall pregnant despite the risk that she could die as a result. Not put off by this fact, his sister stated that she would rather have 30 minutes of happiness with her child than a lifetime without that joy.

His real-life nephew

As this story was written about Harling’s real sister, the playwright checked in on his nephew who was left without a mother following the complications following the pregnancy. Harling caught up with his nephew as he made it to high school, and by all accounts, he was doing really well. His nephew told him that everyone thought he was cool thanks to the fact that the filmmakers had cast someone who would become one of the biggest film stars in the world to play his mom. Although he was too young to remember her when she died, at least he will always have his mom’s memory immortalized in the 1989 drama.

A quick comeback

During the filming of the movie the director, Herbert Ross began having doubts about one of his cast members. After one take that went particularly badly, Ross approached Dolly Parton and asked her if she could even act. While this might have been insulting to many people, Parton fired back with a quick retort. She told Ross she couldn’t act and it was his job to make sure it looked as though she could. All we can say is, don’t mess with Dolly Parton!

Roberts needed thick skin

Although Dolly Parton and Sally Field were confident enough in their own abilities to stand up the director Herbert Ross, Julia Roberts couldn’t say the same. Ross was notoriously hard to work with, and would often put immense pressure on his actors to try and get the best out of them. Often he would verbally attack the actors and actresses, and Julia Roberts ended up in tears following his rants and tirades. In a show of solidarity, the older women on set grouped together to look after the then inexperienced actress.

Dealing with the pressure

The constant negative feedback from Ross to Roberts left the young actress feeling extremely insecure about her performance in the film. She reportedly told Shirley MacLaine that she thought she was doing a terrible job and was questioning her place on the set among these other great actresses. Sally Field thought Ross was in the wrong after going after Roberts so aggressively, despite it being her first major film. Roberts ended up being the only actress nominated for an Oscar though, so clearly she was doing something right.

Paparazzi dodging

Dolly Parton was, and still is, a huge star, especially in the south of America. The film was shot in Louisiana, so people would recognize her anytime she stepped out in public. Parton found it really hard to remain unnoticed by the public and had to change where she stayed several times as the paparazzi would keep finding her. She stayed in hotels before moving to costar Shirley MacLaine’s house. The reason she wanted the privacy was reportedly to allow her the chance to sunbathe without any clothes.

Hiding beauty

Daryl Hannah really wanted the part of Annelle in the movie. The initial feedback from her first audition was that she was too attractive for the role, so, instead of giving up, Hannah went about fixing the problem. She underwent a transformation to try and make her look less attractive. It worked, as studio security tried to keep her out of the second audition, not recognizing her. It all paid off as she nailed the second audition and got the part she so desperately desired.

Winona was almost Shelby

The producers of the movie really liked Winona Ryder and wanted her for the role of Shelby. There was just one problem though, she was only sixteen and was deemed too young to be able to portray the young woman adequately. Although Roberts was not the first choice, it worked out pretty well for the young actress. Roberts received both an Academy Award nomination and won the Golden Globe for Best supporting actress. The role really was her breakout, as this was the film that launched her into Hollywood’s A-list.

Meg misses out too

Although the producers wanted Winona Ryder for the role of Shelby they decided she was too young, so they turned their attention toward Meg Ryan. They had a verbal agreement in place with the actress but because she hadn’t signed a contract she was free to sign up for another movie, which she did. Ryan went on to star in romcom When Harry Met Sally which meant Steel Magnolias was still looking to find an actress to play Shelby – until Roberts came into the picture…

Messing with nature

The film was set and shot in Louisiana, and the filmmakers were determined to make sure the movie did justice to how beautiful their surroundings were. As a result, extra blossoms were added to the magnolia trees to make them appear more like something out of a fairy tale than a real tree. Director Herbert Ross insisted that the film crew transport oak trees onto the location to give the actresses more shade. This was seen as a step too far, and the huge oak trees were not shipped in the end.

The heart wants what it wants

Julia Roberts stepped onto the set as a 19-year-old actress in a long-term relationship with 35-year-old actor Liam Neeson. It was a pretty high-profile relationship, but Roberts fell in love with her Steel Magnolias co-star Dylan McDermott which ended her relationship with Neeson. In the film, the pair had noticeably fiery chemistry together, and Roberts put that down to the fact that the couple had hit it off so well in real life. Their real-life affair had helped make their performances seem more believable.

Humor in a dark time

The writer of the original play, Robert Harling, thought he was writing a serious piece of drama in the memory of his lost sister. Although the message is a poignant one and is definitely touched with sadness, there are also a large number of hilarious moments. Harling discovered that the female characters he had created were really funny and so the majority of his play turned out to be hilarious. This humor made for a stark contrast to the tragic final moments in the film.

Liz Taylor wanted in

Liz Taylor had seen the story unfold on the stage and was so enamored by the tale that she really wanted to be a part of the film. While ultimately the producers couldn’t find a role for the legendary screen actress, they did still find a way to get her into the movie. She was the subject of a joke about suffering, though Harding was worried how she would receive the line. It turns out Taylor loved it and burst out laughing when she heard it.

Crow handlers required

Robert Harling describes his hometown in Louisiana in meticulous detail, even down to the group of crows that used to cause havoc to residents of the town. Instead of hoping to get lucky filming a large group of crows in the wild, the filmmakers turned to a bird circus to give them the footage they were looking for. The birds had to be trained for six weeks to perform exactly how the director wanted them to; flying in a large group from one tree to another.

Field fought for the role

Sally Field had to try really hard to convince the producers that she was right for the role. They did not deny her acting ability but were skeptical that audiences could believe she had a 22-year-old daughter. Believing she looked too young, they were turning their attention to other actresses. Field fought back, however. She told the producers that her own son was, in fact, 22 years old which convinced them to put her in the picture. Field was cast as Shelby’s mother M’lynn after winning her battle with the filmmakers.

Trouble in Hollywood

As the film went into production, there was a strike in Hollywood. The Writer’s Union were not helping out on any films, so the producers of Steel Magnolias were unable to contact Harling to get advice on how to shoot the movie and help with rewriting some of the script. Although the producers flew to Harling’s hometown, officially they were not allowed to contact the playwright, but luckily they managed to work something out without the Writer’s Union finding out.

Initial concerns

Harling sent his script to a literary agency but received some unjust criticism. Although they liked the idea and story, they were concerned because it focused on a bunch of women in a beauty parlor. Liking the story, they sent it out with little hope any producers would pick it up. Much to their surprise, there were plenty of female producers wanting to get in on producing it. The play was written to highlight the things many women were keeping hidden from men at the time.

Keeping it a secret

Harling had written the play about his family but dreaded telling the two people in the world it would affect the most – his parents. This play was, after all, about their daughter. He didn’t tell them about it until a week before the show opened. He was worried that it would put them through the pain once again but wanted them to know about it before finding out from someone else. Once his mother had read the play she cried but thought it was beautiful because it was undeniably true.

Ice cold

As they were shooting the movie during the summer in Louisiana, it was undeniably hot, which was made even worse by the fact that they were shooting Christmas scenes. While many of the cast were left sweating buckets, there was one who took it all in her stride. Dolly Parton, wearing extra layers as she had a corset on and standing tall in her heels, did not drop a single bead of sweat. Even under the weight of her full wig, she was the only cast member who didn’t sweat.

The reason behind the play

Harling was understandably hurting after the death of his sister, which led him to write about her life. He was a little concerned that she had been forgotten in the buzz of the movie and cited that people thought it was wonderful that he got to sit next to Princess Diana during the royal premiere of the film. What he wanted people to remember that for all of that to happen his sister had to pass away and he wrote it to make sure that people would remember her.

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