Happy 30th Anniversary, Steel Magnolias
The Story Behind the Making of Steel Magnolias, an interview with the author
From Garden & Gun, April/May 2017, by Julia Reed
This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of Steel Magnolias, a play Robert Harling wrote just months after his sister, Susan, died of complications from diabetes. Written as a tribute to the strength of his sister, his mother, and the coterie of women who supported them, the work broke records at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in Manhattan, where it ran almost three years. It has since been performed in dozens of countries, including Sweden, South Africa, India, South Korea, and Japan. Less than a year into the play’s run, the legendary producer Ray Stark bought the film rights, and in 1988 it was made into a movie starring Sally Field and Julia Roberts as the mother/daughter characters, M’Lynn and Shelby.
Harling, who grew up in Natchitoches, Louisiana, did not set out to be a playwright. While a student at Tulane University Law School in New Orleans, he sang with a big band and performed in summer community theater. When he graduated, he chose acting over lawyering—“He didn’t even pick up his diploma,” says his dad, Bob Harling—and moved to Manhattan with a promise of a month or two of support from his parents. He arrived in 1977 without a coat in the middle of a snowstorm. “I cried for an afternoon,” he says, “and then I got the list of auditions.” He had some success in regional theater and was cast in lots of commercials (his agent told him he had a great “food face,” meaning he was photogenic even while eating). Then, eight years after his arrival, his beloved younger sister, Susan, who had been a diabetic since she was twelve, got sick. Harling’s mother donated one of her kidneys, but in the end, the transplant couldn’t save her daughter.
ROBERT HARLING Susan was incredibly supportive after I came to New York. She was familiar with my frustration in terms of auditions, and she used to say, “You know what really makes me mad is the fact that I can’t do anything for you. I can make food for Johnny [Harling’s younger brother], I can whip Mama and Daddy into line, but I don’t know how to help you, and I wish I could.” Even when she was sick, she’d come home from the hospital and make a box of brownies and send them to me.
Everything they talk about in the play is true. Not every diabetic is the same, but because of her particular condition, the doctors were concerned that carrying a child would affect her. But she wanted a child, she went ahead and had a child, and then, sure enough, her metabolism started to fail—circulatory system, kidneys, the whole thing. It was much grimmer than I portrayed it in the play. Nobody could sit through the actual health dilemmas that my sister went through. It was so powerful to me because here was this incredibly strong woman—my mother—who had really fought Susan when she said she was going to try to have a baby. And now here was Susan having to turn back to her and say, “Mama, you need to help me now.” When she needed a kidney, we were all tested to see if we were matches, but my mom basically said the buck stops here, and that’s how it was.
The last time I talked to Susan was on her birthday, October 7 . She was on dialysis and they were going to put in some shunts to facilitate it, and that required some minor surgery. I actually had to get off the call because I was going to an audition. She said, “Good luck,” and they rolled her down to the operating room. She never woke up, and I told her story.
Harling says he went to a place of “rage and anger,” a state exacerbated by the fact that his sister’s widower remarried shortly after her death. Even more difficult was the fact that his nephew began calling his stepmother “Mama.” Harling was afraid Susan would be forgotten.
ROBERT HARLING I had two dear friends, Kathy and Michael Weller. Michael is a wonderful playwright [Moonchildren, Spoils of War].
They saw what I was going through, and Michael suggested I write
something. Such a saga of strength and tolerance had gone on, and I kept
saying, “This kid won’t know anything about it.” I wasn’t a writer, so I
fought that demon for a while and then one day I said, “Why not?” I’d
planned to write a short story, and I was a couple of pages into it when
I realized I wasn’t capturing the way these women talked. So I started
writing in dialogue form. When I was a kid, the mystique of the beauty
parlor was that guys were never allowed. You didn’t know what went on in
there, and they all came back different somehow. I realized this
hermetically sealed environment would be the best place to have these
women express their true feelings.
Harling didn’t want to use real names, so he gave the character based on his mother the name of a close friend from Alabama, who was called M’Lynn. After a search through a family tree, Susan became Shelby, after one of his mother’s cousins. “It’s that Southern thing of using a family name as a first name,” Harling says. Clairee came from “a fabulous aunt” in South Carolina, and his sister’s best friend was named Ouiser. “She in no way resembled the character,” he says. “But there was just something about the name that fit.”
ROBERT HARLING All the characters were based on real people, Mama’s friends. I’ve never told a living soul who Ouiser is based on. After the play had some success and everybody from Natchitoches went up to New York to see it, I was really worried because Ouiser’s such a crotchety old curmudgeon. And lo and behold, every woman in town was saying, “He based Ouiser on me.”
ROBERT HARLING So I put these
ten characters in a beauty shop, and it only took me ten days to write
it. When I finished the play, I took it to the receptionist at a
literary agency, and she gave it to one of the agents. The feedback was
“It’s not commercial because it’s a bunch of women and it takes place in
a beauty parlor, but we’ll send it out.” Well, all these people wanted
to do it.
Shortly after the play became successful, Hollywood came calling with offers for a movie, and every big-name actress turned up at the theater to see if there might be a screen role for her.
ROBERT HARLING Joan Rivers came, Lucille Ball came, Cher, Bette Davis, all of the Golden Girls. It became a nightly thing to see who was the huge star in the audience. Somebody had told Elizabeth Taylor that M’Lynn was the perfect role for her, and when word got out that she was coming, they had to shut the street. I was thinking at the time, “Elizabeth Taylor’s going to sit there and hear the line ‘When it comes to suffering, she’s right up there with Elizabeth Taylor.’” No one laughed harder than she did. It made the nightly news.
ROBERT HARLING Part of the deal was that I would get the first crack at the screenplay. Herbert gave me the greatest, simplest advice: “Always remember who the important person is here,” meaning my sister. “Go back and ask what would amuse her, how she would edit, what would be too vulgar, where she would put her foot down.” So we got a draft of the script together, and Ray was happy.
ROBERT HARLING Herbert (Ross, director) had this way—he was from Brooklyn and started out as a chorus boy, but he became this acclaimed director and managed to talk like British gentry. So over dinner one night at Orso [the evergreen New York theater district restaurant], he said, “Rawbuht, how would you feel about Sally Field playing your muthuh?” I couldn’t speak. Then he said, “I was thinking that I’d love to see Dolly do Truvy.” And I almost choked on my pizza bread.
ROBERT HARLING Just after my dinner with Herbert, Olympia Dukakis won the Oscar for Moonstruck. Ray called and said, “Olympia’s doing Clairee.” I knew Olympia from her work in New York theater, so I knew she could do anything, but I was worried that she wasn’t Southern. Shirley is from Virginia, and Sally had done Places in the Heart and Norma Rae, and then of course there’s Dolly. But when Olympia came down, all the women in town thought she had the most accurate accent.
Next, Herbert said, “I really like Daryl Hannah for…” I thought he was going to the Shelby place, but before he got there, he said Annelle. I couldn’t imagine it. She was one of the great goddesses of cinema [Hannah had already starred in Splash and Roxanne]. Herbert said, “It’s a wonderful Hollywood move. She will jump at the chance to wear a bad wig and glasses.”
All that was left was Shelby. We’d decided on Meg Ryan, who had just had some success with Top Gun. The day we offered it to her, she came back and said, “I just got offered this movie with Billy Crystal, When Harry Met Sally, and that’s my chance to be a leading lady. In Steel Magnolias I’d be part of an ensemble.” We went back to the list: Laura Dern, Winona Ryder, all the hot young stars. Ray said, “You know what, we’ve got a lot of Oscar winners and stars. Let’s open it up.” The casting director said, “There’s this girl. She hasn’t been able to audition because she’s been off making some movie about a pizza.” [Roberts had just finished filming Mystic Pizza.] Julia came in, and it was like somebody bumped up the lights. She smiled that smile. She was the essence of the great Southern gal: spicy, witty, smart, with a layer of compassion underneath. [Roberts grew up in Smyrna, Georgia.] Lee Radziwill, who had just started dating Herbert, said, “She’s it. She’s Shelby.” I thought, “Okay, I can breathe now, my sister’s in good hands.”
During the casting, Stark also made the decision that the movie would be filmed on location, an extraordinary move at the time.
ROBERT HARLING Ray said, “Why don’t we shoot it where it happened?” That was unheard-of—normally you’d find your locations in the Valley and in L.A., but Ray insisted. It helped that Natchitoches is gorgeous. Anywhere you point the camera you’re going to frame a good shot. It’s the oldest town in the Louisiana Purchase. It has a sense of history you could never capture in Pasadena. But first a lot of stuff had to happen. They had to start bringing in all these people and all this equipment to this little tiny place. Finally, the date was set, and we started shooting at the end of June 1988. The circus had come to town.
The filming lasted from June through Labor Day 1988, and all the stars lived in houses in Natchitoches.
SHIRLEY MACLAINE ("Ouiser") We became protective. We became one. We really did make fast friends, all of us, and have been ever since. I don’t know what it is about the subject matter in the movie, but going through that makes you friends for life.
ROBERT HARLING I’m still working out the ramifications of this whole insane journey that only art can let you move through. Because what is art other than taking the pieces around you and re-forming them into some vision that satisfies you and enriches others? My mom and dad had their own kind of come-to-Jesus moments with all this stuff. But you know, my sister died and I wrote about it and people look at it and think it’s all limos and glamour and sitting next to Princess Di at the royal premiere. My sister had to die for all that to happen. So almost daily I think about what my life would be if she had lived. It can take you to an uncompromisingly dark place sometimes. Then I just have to go back to the honesty of the first impulse, that I just wanted somebody to remember her.