When I noticed that my sister had suggested on social media that we review Steel Magnolias (1989), I was initially puzzled. But then I remembered the strange fascination that the 1980s had with Dolly Parton, who plays Truvy Jones, the owner and operator of a hair salon in a small Southern town. My poor sister at that time could not pronounce her name correctly, and we all got a kick out of hearing her say “Dolly Partner.” So I suppose something in her memory was jogged and she wanted to see this one discussed. Now that I have seen it, I kind of wish it had remained in the recesses of her mind.
If you like deep-friend Southern conversation, then Steel Magnolias is the film for you. It has the feel of somebody collecting a bunch of Southern-isms and needing an excuse to put them all in a movie. So they start with Annelle Dupuy Desoto’s (Daryl Hannah) arrival in this tiny Louisiana outpost, being summoned to Truvy’s salon from beauty school to take a position as her assistant. However, the movie is not about Annelle. Instead, it focuses on the relationship between M’Lynn Eatenton (Sally Field) and her daughter Shelby (Julia Roberts). We meet them on Shelby’s wedding day, and these four characters all intersect when they arrive at Truvy’s to do their hair for the coming ceremony. Rounding out the gaggle of gossipy older Southern women are Ouiser Boudreaux (Shirley MacLaine) and Clairee Belcher (Olympia Dukakis), two of the leading ladies of the town who seem to have nothing better to do with their time and riches than to hang around the salon. They are all bantering away when all of the sudden Shelby begins to have a diabetic seizure, which seemed to take the movie in an unexpected direction. Her condition causes her to make pregnancy a dangerous proposition, despite her aspirations to be a mother. After the subsequent wedding and reception, we check in on this group every holiday or so, you know, because nothing else is apparently happening in between those times. Shelby is determined to bear a child, but M’Lynn fears the risks involved and urges her daughter to adopt instead. Shelby goes through with it anyway, and gives birth to a healthy boy. Complications begin a few years later, though, causing her to need a kidney transplant, which her mother provides. But it is not enough. Shortly thereafter, Shelby passes out and falls into a coma. When they feel there is no hope of recovery, her family makes the decision to take her off life support and she dies. Through all these ordeals, Annelle goes from shy newcomer, to small town party girl, to dedicated Christian. And that’s about it.
The lack of a plot in Steel Magnolia made it an irritating film to watch. Still, I did care about Shelby. For starters, she wanted to carry out the vocation to be a mother she took on when she got married. God calls each of us to be procreative, and by doing so we take part in His design by using the gifts with which He blesses us. When we enter into matrimony between a man and a woman, bearing children is one of the responsibilities we assume. And Shelby desires to do this naturally, despite the risks to her. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with adoption. However, I admire her courage and it made her a sympathetic character. My feelings toward her made what happen to her all the more difficult to stomach. Here, again, I fall back on Catholic teaching. What I will not argue is quality of life and whether or not somebody should or should not be kept alive by machines. The Church is clear on the fact that all life is precious, no matter what state it is in. Hence, had I been in the shoes of M’Lynn and her husband Drum (Tom Skerritt), or Shelby’s husband Jackson Latcherie (Dylan McDermott), I would have been demanding that the life support be kept on.
Clearly Steel Magnolias was not aimed at me. I am not sure who it would appeal to today, either. There are some fun colloquialisms that I had never heard before, such as “busier than a one armed paper hanger.” I also appreciated the faith shown by certain characters at discreet moments throughout the film. But I cannot think of anything else to recommend this movie. There is nothing truly objectionable about it. It just has no plot. But if you enjoy listening to others talk about nothing, then go ahead, have at it.