STEEL MAGNOLIAS

PG, 1989, 118 minutes, closed-captioned, RCA/Columbia, $91.95.

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. They're also gargoyles. The setting is The South -- specifically, a small town in Louisiana, where the number one occupation is being eccentrically and flamboyantly Southern. The picture stars Julia Roberts, Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Olympia Dukakis, Daryl Hannah and Shirley MacLaine, and one by one they make their entrances, as assured in their stardom as the great stage divas of the past. 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 above-the-title 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 grotesque parody -- a corn pone variation on "The Women." Hal Hinson

LAMBADA

PG, 1990, 104 minutes, Warner Home Video, $89.95.

THE FORBIDDEN DANCER, 1989, 90 minutes, closed-captioned, RCA/Columbia Home Video, $69.95.

So many lambada movies, so little time. "Lambada" promises to "go all the way," while "The Forbidden Dance" teases, "If the night were any hotter, it wouldn't be dancing." A pelvic slam dance from Brazil, the lambada may sizzle, but neither movie is going to set the night on fire. Both are pandering and exploitive and pit ethnic protagonists against snotty gringos from Beverly Hills. Heavy-handed and mean-spirited, "The Forbidden Dance" is a slapdash message movie, about as subtle as clogging, while "Lambada" is far lighter on its feet with a flashier look and professional cast. It's basically a dimwitted "Stand and Deliver," with bump-and-grind choreography -- not just lambada but funk numbers as well. Shabba-Doo, the choreographer, also costars as a truculent barrio dancer, Ramone, one of a colorful troupe of troubled youths who dance and study advanced mathematics at an East L.A. nightclub. Their teacher, Kevin (J. Eddie Peck), a Mexican orphan who was adopted by Anglos, has a day job as head of the math department at snotty Stonewood High School. At night he satisfies not only his passion for trigonometry and dirty dancing, but also his obligations to his people. The trouble begins when a beautiful Stonewoodian (Melora Hardin) throws over her boyfriend for Kevin, even though he is happily married to an understanding woman who doesn't mind that he stays out late dancing with spandex-wrapped teenagers. The whole megillah finally comes to a head during a Math Off between the gringos and the lambada dancers (you will simply never guess who wins). It's predictably but enthusiastically written and directed by Joe Silberg, and the stars are at least able actors and dancers, which cannot be said for Laura Herring and Jeff James, the awkward leads of the "The Forbidden Dance." Herring, a former Miss USA, plays a Brazilian princess determined to save the rain forests from destruction by an L.A.-based multinational. Upon arriving in California with her faithful medicine man, she is prevented by a hired gun from seeing the chairman of the board of the company. While working as a maid for about two minutes, she meets and goes off dancing with her rich, racist employers' son. His girlfriend becomes jealous and drives off the little "beaner." Alas, the princess finds herself dancing in a Hollywood honky-tonk, where she shakes her maracas for money till she is rescued by Jason and the two enter a national dance contest. Should they win, they will have an opportunity to appear on TV and tell America to stop destroying Brazil's rain forest. Both movies remind us continually that the lambada is addictive and steamy and that it is the rage the Hollywood publicists believe it is. But basically it's just refried salsa. Rita Kempley

PICNIC

1955, 113 minutes, RCA/Columbia Home Video, $19.95.

Five minutes into "Picnic," from the William Inge play, William Holden takes off his shirt and a small Kansas town promptly goes gaga. They never saw such a bushel of pecs. Heavily dated and stagily posed despite the location filming, Joshua Logan's movie still has sensual charm, mainly thanks to Holden's famous slow dance at the eponymous Labor Day picnic with sullen costar Kim Novak. As unforgettably scored by George Duning, this was a high point in '50s eroticism, which tells you something about the '50s. Even Holden knew he was too old for the part of the randy drifter who sets small-town hearts aflutter and tongues awag, but that gives his too-much-spin performance added pathos. The supporting cast includes Rosalind Russell as the pathologically repressed "old maid schoolteacher" Rosemary Sidney, who utters the immortal taunt, "What would people say if I walked down the street and showed 'em my pink panties?" We never find out. But "Picnic" does deliver on the Midwestern atmospherics, and Columbia's bold decision to release the film in the wide-screen "letterbox" format keeps James Wong Howe's spacious compositions intact. Not a good movie, but a warm entertainment for sultry summer nights, and a keyhole on the rigid sexual stereotyping of another time and place. Tom Shales

WHEN THE WHALES CAME ...

PG, 1989, 100 minutes, closed-captioned, CBS/Fox Home Video, $89.98.

Clive Rees's "When the Whales Came" is an eco-conscious fable with the most honorable intentions and not a clue as to how to put them across. The picture is about a small island off the coast of England and the 70-year-old curse that befalls it after the inhabitants kill a whale that had beached itself there. The story begins in 1914, and to tell it, Rees and screenwriter Michael Morpurgo have assembled an impressive cast -- among them Paul Scofield, Helen Mirren, David Suchet and David Threlfall -- most of whom must have been attracted to the material's uplifting social message. Or else they were extremely hard up for work. Not only do the scenes not flow together in a dramatically coherent fashion, but on their own they seem vague and listless. From moment to moment you're never quite sure what the picture wants to say -- that is, beyond its endorsement of kindness to animals. When the whales come, they do the only thing any right-thinking, self-preserving mammal would do -- they get out while the getting's good. Hal Hinson