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'Steel Magnolias' (PG)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 17, 1989

Watching Herbert Ross's "Steel Magnolias," you feel as if you have been airlifted onto some horrible planet of female impersonators. The film's subject is friendship, in particular the rock-solid camaraderie of six Southern women who talk, gab, gossip, chitchat, needle and harangue each other through the best of times, and cry, caress, comfort and repair one another through the worst. They're soul mates, in that rarefied way that assumes a sort of cult of femininity -- sisters come hell and high water.

They're also gargoyles. Blessed monsters. The setting is The South -- specifically, a small town in Louisiana, where the number one occupation is being eccentrically and flamboyantly Southern. The atmosphere at the outset is one of barely contained hysteria. A wedding is about to take place, and the preparations are being frantically rushed to their conclusion. The bride is Shelby (Julia Roberts), a luxuriant young beauty with a slightly overwrought manner. Her mother, M'Lynn (Sally Field), is like most mothers in similar circumstances -- on the verge of a nervous breakdown. When Ouiser (Shirley MacLaine), the next-door neighbor, comes marching across the lawn for her usual morning snit, her outrage seems a perfect affirmation of the status quo. Situation normal and everyone's nuts.

One by one, the stars make their entrances, as assured in their stardom as the great stage divas of the past. Dolly Parton is Truvy, a beautician, who sports giant hair and sweaters with huge flower and butterfly appliques and runs the beauty parlor that serves as the town's unofficial hub. Olympia Dukakis is Clairee, an elegant widow with a sly, sidelong delivery. Into the midst of all this walks Daryl Hannah as Annelle, a gawky beautician trainee with an addled expression and pointy cat-woman glasses, who comes to work at Truvy's.

The film moves through the seasons, addressing itself primarily to Shelby's childbearing problems -- she has a rare form of diabetes -- her illnesses and declining health. The relationship between Shelby and her mother is the film's core element. The smaller stories -- Ouiser's romance, Annelle's religious transformation, Truvy's troubles with her husband, Spud (Sam Shepard) -- orbit around it. In all situations, the women huddle together, seemingly happy for any opportunity to demonstrate courage and good humor. As Truvy says, "Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion."

That line nails down "Steel Magnolias" about as definitely as possible -- like a bug on a blotter, in fact. The movie is an orgiastic celebration of big, sloppy emotions; it's the film equivalent of "Feelings." And what we're supposed to take from it is a renewed faith in the indomitable strength of women. But with all this big acting and all these stars elbowing for space in front of the camera, the film comes across as something quite the opposite of what was intended, not a tribute to femininity but a kind of grotesque parody -- a corn-pone variation on "The Women."

Stylistically, "Steel Magnolias" runs on gags, pitched to the cheapest seats, and maudlin emotion, pitched to the cheapest sentiments. The script itself, which playwright Robert Harling adapted from his off-Broadway original, is on a degenerated line from Tennessee Williams by way of Hallmark cards. Harling writes in one-liners. All the dialogue is in an exaggerated, folksy patois that's a kind of comic stylization of Southern speech. Each gag is delivered with a nightclub funnyman's crack timing, and some of them are even funny. Unfortunately, the gems are all too much alike -- they're comic zircons. Most of them even have the same structure, the same rhythm. And you get worn down by the sameness.

The actors, too, write their characters in bold headlines. Parton does personable work as Truvy, and you can even imagine that she saw the character as a chance to do something different. Basically, though, the role is custom-cut for her -- she's just wearing fewer rhinestones.

Wearing a mangy wig that makes her look as if she's been snatched baldheaded, MacLaine attacks her part with the ferociousness of a pit bull -- the performance is so manic that you think she must be taking off-camera slugs of Jolt. Even so, she is outdone in twitchiness by Hannah, who blinks uncontrollably whenever the camera gets close.

Harling's strategy is to have his people portray themselves as one kind of character, then in some small but telling way, let it be known that they are really something quite different -- usually, something more tender and caring. With Field and Roberts, though, there is only tenderness and caring. The nurturing is so strong in Shelby that she wants to be a mother even if it kills her. But as she expresses it, "I'd rather have three minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special."

This skewed perspective is all of a piece with the rest of the material. Warm, maternal feelings, hugs, laughing through tears -- these are the things that make you a human being and make life worth living. And by implication, if you don't get all wet-eyed over the sight of kiddies scampering over a sunny hillside, or snuffle helplessly whenever you see a brave young girl hooked up to a respirator (even if you've seen it in countless other movies), then you have to turn in your membership in the human race.

Director Ross is an accomplished pro; there's nothing slipshod about the work he's done. But "Steel Magnolias" is about blindly generic good vibes, and what he accomplishes with it mainly is sentiment-mongering. And impersonal sentiment-mongering at that. The feeling is more Hollywood than the South. We know this brand of goods; we've seen it before, in "Terms of Endearment" and, more recently, "Dad." When Roberts and Field hug each other and smile that knowing, mother-daughter smile, the emotion seems patented. Their smiles are cut on the heartbreak assembly line.

Steel Magnolias is rated PG

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