Following a group of women from a small southern US town as they cope with the death of someone very close to them, Steel Magnolias is a heartwarming tale that, despite receiving mixed reviews upon its release in November 1989, was a big box office success.
Featuring a stellar cast that includes Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis and Julia Roberts, it’s an extremely funny film that also tugs on the heartstrings. In fact, it was marketed under exactly this premise, opting for the tagline of “the funniest movie to ever make you cry.” Make sure you have a box of tissues at the ready as we present the following 30 fascinating facts about Steel Magnolias.
30. It’s based on a true story
Steel Magnolias was written by Robert Harling, who based it on his experience of his sister Susan dying from complications arising from type 1 diabetes. To process his grief, he reimagined the last three years of her life as a play, with encouragement from the acting class workshop he attended in New York City.
When the play gained critical acclaim, Ray Stark bought the film rights and began developing a movie adaptation with help from production designer Gene Callahan, an old friend from Louisiana.” Harling, Stark and Callahan were all committed to keeping the film as authentic as possible. But during the film’s shoot, a major Hollywood writers’ strike came into place, meaning that Harling was not allowed to get involved in any rewrites. Nevertheless, Harling visited the sets incognito so that he could stay involved with his passion project.
29. Julia Roberts was only the third choice to play Shelby
Julia Roberts was only the third choice to take on the role of Shelby, the young woman based on Harling’s sister Susan. She was only hired after Meg Ryan dropped out to star in When Harry Met Sally… And before even Ryan was considered, the then-teen star Winona Ryder was in line for the role. Fresh from her successes in Heathers and Beetlejuice in the previous year, Ryder was eventually deemed too young for the role.
In the end, it was Julia Roberts who most reminded Robert Harling of his late sister, as he recalled in a 2014 interview with the Daily Mail. “She walked into the room and that smile lit everything up and I said, ‘that’s my sister’, so she joined the party and she was magnificent,” he said.
28. Daryl Hannah had to prove she could be unattractive before she got the role
Daryl Hannah was originally told that she was “too attractive” to play Annelle, a trainee beautician who is new to the area. But the Blade Runner and Splash star decided not to take no for an answer. When she turned up for an audition, she had disguised herself so entirely in character that she was unrecognisable to the crew or even the front door security.
Speaking to Turner Classic Movies, the director Herbert Ross noted that Daryl had never really played a “character role” before. “It was a real departure,” he noted, “and she sought out the role and convinced me and [producer] Ray Stark that she could handle the role.” Hannah also appeared in Crimes and Misdemeanours in the same year, taking the uncredited role of Lisa Crosley.
27. The film’s director at one point asked Dolly Parton if she “even knew how to act”
After singer-turned-actress Dolly Parton made a mistake with the delivery of one of her lines, the film’s director Herbert Ross asked her if she “even knew how to act.” Parton responded in the best way possible, telling the Footloose director: “no, but it’s your job to make me look like I can.” Herbert Ross was reportedly a challenging director to work with at the best of times, often criticising the performances of his stars – the 22-year-old Julia Roberts in particular.
But the actresses bonded over the gruelling regimen, and they would stand up for each other against Ross. Years later, Shirley MacLaine said in an interview with US Weekly: “I remember the day Herb said to Dolly Parton, ‘Why don’t you take some acting lessons?’ Equally shocked at the remark, Sally [Field] exclaimed: ‘You don’t say that to Dolly Parton! Dolly Parton is absolutely the funniest, wittiest and filthiest, and she will cut you to ribbons.’”
26. The hospital staff were all genuine medical professionals
Instead of using actors to play the hospital staff who attend to Shelby, filmmakers asked real doctors and nurses to fill the roles. Not only that, but the medical staff that appeared in the film were the same ones that cared for Robert Harling’s sister Susan during her final days. The nurse who turns off Shelby’s life support was played by the real-life nurse who provided palliative care for Susan.
Despite it being a scene that must have hit very close to home, Robert Harling’s mother insisted on being on set whilst Shelby’s death was being filmed. Harling remembers being astonished at his mother’s decision, telling her, “I can’t believe you put yourself through that.” But she was keen to stay until the end so she could see Julia Roberts get up and walk away once filming stopped.
25. Julia Roberts got engaged to on-screen husband Dylan McDermott
Julia Roberts’ on-screen husband was played by Dylan McDermott. McDermott’s character, Jackson Latcherie, is a lawyer who cares for his ailing wife. Off-screen, Roberts reportedly broke up with Liam Neeson to date her Steel Magnolias love interest instead. Despite them later getting engaged, the romance between Roberts and McDermott ended in 1990.
McDermott would later win fame for playing another lawyer – Bobby Donnell in the TV series The Practice. He won a Golden Globe for this following role, as well as a Primetime Emmy Award nomination. Meanwhile Julia Roberts starred in Pretty Woman, Flatliners and Sleeping with the Enemy soon after her Steel Magnolias success.
24. The title refers to the hidden strength of flowers
The name Steel Magnolias comes from the hidden strength of what at first seem like extremely delicate flowers. In a 2017 interview with Country Living, writer Robert Harling said, “My mother would always say to handle magnolia blossoms carefully because they bruise so easily. You think of this flower that is so delicate and has to be handled with care,” Harling continued, “but it’s actually made of much stronger stuff.”
This combination of steeliness and gentleness inspired the name of his award-winning play and subsequent film. As for the magnolia trees that actually feature in the film, set decorator Lee Poll bought artificial flowers and stuck them amid the real ones, to give the plants an overwhelming, otherworldly bloom. The director also considered purchasing oak trees and transporting them to the set at great expense, so that he could film in more shade – but eventually the plan was scrapped.
23. A TV sitcom based on the film was planned but failed to get past the pilot stage
A Steel Magnolias sitcom pilot was broadcast in August 1990, but it failed to get picked up by a TV network. The pilot starred Cindy Williams as M’Lynn, Sally Kirkland as Truvy and Elaine Stritch as Ouiser. Polly Bergen and Sheila McCarthy also took part in the pilot, which served as a sequel to the events of the film. In 2012, Lifetime created a remake television movie, which also took place in Louisiana and had an all-black leading cast.
With Queen Latifah as M’Lynn and Jill Scott as Truvy, this film won critical praise, and it is the third-highest-viewed Lifetime Original movie of all time. In a review for the New York Times, Mike Hale wrote: “This Steel Magnolias is mostly restrained and relentlessly tasteful, qualities the original could not have been accused of.”
22. You can book a room in the house that was used during filming
The historic house in which Steel Magnolias was filmed is a bed and breakfast where fans can book themselves in for the night. Its website promises a “traditional bed and breakfast experience, with a full breakfast, along with true Southern hospitality.” The four-storey building was built in the 19th century by two Italian architects, with bricks imported from France.
The house’s rooms are named after the film’s characters, so you can choose to stay in Clairee, Ouiser and Annelle among others. During filming, it was a regular family home, which had to be vacated by the owners, the Taylor family, who rented an apartment instead. The façade of the house is used for all external shots, as well as the film’s garden scenes.
21. The set decorator revamped the local beauty shop after ‘borrowing’ the old version of the store for the movie
The characters of this film meet each other in a small beauty parlour, which becomes their de facto clubhouse and refuge. In charge of finding the perfect spot for filming, set decorator Lee Poll decided she would meet as many of the real business owners behind Harling’s tale as she possibly could. Poll found the woman who owned the salon frequented by Harling’s mother, and she felt that this authentic store would be perfect for filming.
“I met all the people who were the real people from the story,” Poll later recalled. “One was the lady with the beauty shop, a lovely lady. It was a funny little old beauty shop with everything exactly as I needed it,” she noted. “I said to her, ‘Would you like all new equipment?’ She said, ‘Oh, would I?’ So I took her whole shop for our set and bought her all new equipment to replace it,” she remembered.
20. Dolly Parton and Daryl Hannah studied hairdressing to get into character
Much of the film’s dialogue takes place while Truvy and her trainee Annelle expertly style their customers’ and friends’ hair. During the very first scene in the beauty shop, Parton’s Truvy has to prepare Shelby’s hairdo before her wedding. As a result, both Parton and Daryl Hannah had to study hairdressing, to avoid any burns, miscuts or slip-ups while in character.
In the original Steel Magnolias stage play, all of the action takes place in the beauty salon. Despite playing a stylist in this movie, Dolly Parton has said in an interview with Hollywood Reporter that she often feuds with professional stylists, being very particular about her appearance. “I have to have my hair a certain way,” she said. “I have to have my makeup a certain way. I have to be comfortable. That’s why I could never be fashionable.”
19. There were no men at all in the original stage play
Just like the characters in the film, the leading figures in the play form a close female friendship group. However, there is one key difference that makes the action and dialogue in the play all the more unusual. Although the play characters do speak about men, no man ever sets foot on the stage. Perhaps the most significant male character in the film version is Shelby’s father and M’Lynn’s husband, Drum Eatenton.
This jovial character is overjoyed at the news that his daughter will be having a baby, whereas his wife is much more concerned about their daughter’s health. He’s played by Tom Skerritt, who brought some very different acting experience to this cast. He had previously starred in horror movies like Alien, Poltergeist III and The Devil’s Rain.
18. The work for extras from the town was so gruelling, the next film in the area struggled to hire local people
Steel Magnolias was shot in Natchitoches, a small town in Louisiana that was the home of writer Robert Harling. When it came to recruiting extras, some of the requests that the crew made to local folk were pretty tough. One of the challenges faced by the crew was the problem of conjuring up a Christmassy atmosphere at the time of filming – which was a stiflingly hot summer.
The extras piled on Christmas jumpers, hats and gloves for the festive scenes despite the sweltering weather. This film proved to be so much work for the extras that it was apparently difficult to find local workers who were willing to help out when another film crew arrived in town. This film was The Man in the Moon, the 1991 coming-of-age drama starring Reese Witherspoon.
17. An extra became the town’s official Steel Magnolias tour guide
Lori Tate was the manager of the Holiday Inn restaurant in Natchitoches when the cast and crew of Steel Magnolias moved into the hotel. She soon befriended the Hollywood team, and producer Bill Dance asked her where he might be able to find extras. Tate herself expressed an interest in taking part, and she was cast as Shelby’s husband’s mother.
Although she has no lines in the film, Tate does appear at the wedding, reception and funeral. Since Natchitoches hit the big screen for this box office triumph, Lori Tate has given tours around her neighbourhood for Steel Magnolias fans. Sites like local businesses, streets, parks and the cemetery all crop up throughout the movie.
16. Dolly Parton was plagued so badly by paparazzi she ended up having to move in with Shirley MacLaine
While the relatively lesser-known actresses like Julia Roberts could maintain a low profile in 1989, Dolly Parton was not so fortunate. Apparently, her stay in Natchitoches was frequently interrupted by the paparazzi, eager to catch a shot of the 9 to 5 star. Parton actually moved between several different houses and hotels in search of privacy, to no avail.
Eventually, Parton moved into the house that Shirley MacLaine was renting, and the pair became close friends during their time as housemates and co-stars. Parton was instantly recognisable in the 80s thanks to her music career, as she was transitioning from country music to a more mainstream pop style. Aside from Steel Magnolias and 9 to 5, Parton took roles in Rhinestone and The Best Little Wh**ehouse in Texas in the same decade.
15. A flock of blackbirds was trained for the movie
Robert Harling’s play often refers to the great flocks of blackbirds that are gathering in the town’s treetops, causing a lot of noise. In real life, Natchitoches residents do struggle with noise and mess from the birds, which collect in huge numbers over rooftops and back yards. But in the opening scene of Steel Magnolias, rather than relying on the natural world, the producers brought in a team of professionally trained birds.
A company in Los Angeles transported the birds to the town in advance, where they spent six weeks preparing the animals for their Hollywood debut. They were trained to fly between two groups of trees on-demand with help from blank-loaded gunshots. The so-called ‘bird circus’ was packed up and sent back to California after filming wrapped.
14. The baby who plays Jack Jr is a girl – and she later became an actress and director
Credited as C Houser, the character of Jack Jr was in fact played by a baby girl rather than a boy. This very young star was Clara Gabrielle, who has ended up with a career in show business. As the film takes place over several years, the elder version of Jack Jr – aged about three – is played by Daniel Camp. Before she hit her teens, Gabrielle starred in the family comedy Operation Splitsville, playing a character who shares her name.
In 2020, she directed and starred in The Uncanny, a horror movie about a therapist who’s looking to escape her past demons. Gabrielle has also worked as a set dresser and costumer and screenwriter over the past ten years.
13. The filming process often had Julia Roberts in floods of tears
Many of the leading actors felt the director’s frustrations during the intense filming process for Steel Magnolias. However, it was the youngest of the stars, Julia Roberts, who reportedly received some of the harshest criticism. In a 2013 interview with US Magazine, Shirley MacLaine noted that Ross’ directorial style was more like a strict “choreographer”. “That means he could be sometimes very stern and sometimes very harsh,” MacLaine explained.
“My deepest memories of the film were how we bonded together after he told one of us or all of us we couldn’t act,” she added. She went on to highlight Roberts’ struggles with Ross: “[Roberts] would come to my house every night and say, ‘I think I’m terrible. What am I doing?’ and she really was in tears.”
12. The film earned Julia Roberts her first major acting award
Julia Roberts’ performance as Shelby Eatenton-Latcherie earned the actress a Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe Award, her first major acting honour. Roberts was also nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award, but she lost out to Brenda Fricker for My Left Foot. “I think this movie kind of shows a real support system in women, and that we can help each other, support each other and love each other,” she said at the time of the film’s release.
Roberts’ starring role in Steel Magnolias came along impressively early in her career. Her film debut took place only a year earlier, in the comedy-drama Satisfaction. She was also praised for her role in Mystic Pizza, in which she plays an adventurous young woman in a quiet fishing town. But it was not until 1990’s Pretty Woman, her very next film after Steel Magnolias, that Roberts established herself as a leading lady.
11. Shirley MacLaine’s lines are a throwback to one of her earlier roles in a Clint Eastwood movie
The grumbling Ouiser, played by Shirley MacLaine, at one point recollects her much more entertaining younger days. She fondly remembers how she and her friends would don nun costumes and go on bar crawls in their heyday. Funnily enough, these lines are not so far from MacLaine’s own background as an actress. In Two Mules for Sister Sara, MacLaine plays a revolutionary who disguises herself in a nun’s habit to avoid the authorities but still drinks whiskey.
In Cannonball Run II, MacLaine once again wore a nun costume, in the role of Veronica. Her next project after Steel Magnolias was the critically acclaimed comedy-drama Postcards from the Edge, in which she co-stars with Meryl Streep.
10. Bette Davis wanted to make the movie starring herself, Katherine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor
Bette Davis first saw Steel Magnolias on Broadway in New York City, and was charmed immediately. She started to dream of playing the part of Ouiser, but she also had a full fantasy cast in mind. Davis loved the idea of Katherine Hepburn playing Clairee, and Elizabeth Taylor starring as Truvy alongside her.
In a 1989 interview with The Morning Call, Robert Harling said Bette Davis met him for tea to try and persuade him to cast her. Reportedly, just before leaving, Davis turned to him and said: “You may give the role of Ouiser to someone else. But you and they will hear from Bette Davis,” she warned the stunned writer on her way out.
9. Nicole Kidman played Shelby in the stage production
She’s now known for being an Academy Award-winner, Emmy Award-winner and one of the highest-paid actresses in the world. But among Nicole Kidman’s earliest roles was the part of Shelby in Harling’s original Steel Magnolias play. She won the part in the Sydney production, which also happened to be her professional stage debut.
Her co-stars at Sydney’s Seymour Centre and Melbourne’s Athenaeum Theatre included Nancye Hayes and Maggie Dence. This classic tale has been staged in Japan, France, Poland, Sweden and Ireland, as well as the UK’s West End. The first-ever actress to play Shelby was Blanche Baker, who went on to win an Emmy for her supporting role in the TV miniseries Holocaust.
8. The “greatest American playwright of his generation” is among the cast
One of the supporting characters in Steel Magnolias is Spud Jones, a labourer who struggles to hold down jobs. He’s the husband of Truvy Jones, who owns the beaty shop, as well as father to Louie. In the film the character is played by Sam Shepard, who was a prolific actor in the 80s.
He starred in a film in every year of that decade except 1988, while he was working on Steel Magnolias. But it was in writing and directing that Shepard received his greatest critical acclaim, as he penned 58 play scripts. In 1980, New York Magazine described him as “the greatest American playwright of his generation.”
7 The film helped to raise awareness about organ donation
Following Shelby’s pregnancy, she develops kidney failure and is put on dialysis, her life in danger. Her mother M’Lynn readily donates a kidney to her daughter, although the operation ultimately fails to save Shelby’s life. At a time when organ donation was not widely discussed, Steel Magnolias helped to make it a more mainstream topic.
Years later, Robert Harling received an email from one fan who was deeply moved by the film’s portrayal of donating. He decided to donate a kidney to his neighbour, specifically because of Steel Magnolias. He later messaged Harling to say that the neighbour had recovered, and he was preparing to celebrate his 35th wedding anniversary.
6. Shirley MacLaine insists Steel Magnolias isn’t a “woman’s film”
Though widely loved as a “chick flick”, and often named as one of the best, some of Steel Magnolia’s stars disagree with this label. In a 2014 interview with Entertainment Tonight, Shirley MacLaine said, “To say it’s a women’s film, I don’t think that’s correct. If you’ve got women in your life bring them to see this film and you’ll know much more about them when you go home,” she said of male viewers.
On the other hand, the film was lauded as an unusual alliance between leading ladies in Hollywood. “[Steel Magnolias] put to rest the idea that women can’t work together, can’t really collaborate,” Olympia Dukakis said in the same interview. This is really proof of a wonderful collaboration,” noted actress Clairee Belcher with pride.
5. Some critics complained about the flimsiness of the male characters
While the female characters of Steel Magnolias received praise on the stage and screen, some moviegoers felt that the film’s male characters don’t have much substance. In a review for the New York Times, Vincent Canby was among the critics to point out this difference. “The male characters are no more substantial now than when they were invisible,” he wrote, referring to the characters’ absence in the stage version.
He went on to describe Steel Magnolias as “pop entertainment of an especially condescending, superficial sort.” But Tom Skerritt praised his character, Drum, noting, “The thrust of the film is a very serious issue. Drum is one who’s not going to let that run his life, nor let that permeate his whole family,” he said.
4. Harling described writing the film as a “tsunami of Southern-ness”
In a 2013 interview with Garden & Gun, Robert Harling said that he raced through writing the Steel Magnolias script, finishing it all in one go. “The events that inspired it were so powerful that, after I found the story arena, it just poured out into my typewriter in a 24/7 tsunami of Southernness,” he said. “I had no idea what I’d written,” he recalled. “I asked the first person I gave it to if it even looked like a play. I wasn’t really sure.
“All I knew was that I felt it portrayed my sister’s life and spirit accurately, and that was enough for me,” he said. But Hal Hinson, a critic for The Washington Post, felt that the movie was disconnected from its Southern roots. “The feeling is more Hollywood than the South,” he wrote, noting, “the emotion seems patented.”
3. The film raced from stage to screen in no time
The Broadway play’s success rapidly attracted a stream of filmmakers, actors and directors, all hoping for the rights to put Harling’s tale on the big screen. The number of offers Harling received was a little overwhelming at times, he has since noted. “It happened so quickly,” he reminisced in a 2013 interview with Garden & Gun, where he also described the huge crowds of actors in line to see his play.
“With the buzz around the play in New York, there was a constant stream from Hollywood coming to check it out,” he said. By promising to keep the film as authentic as possible, it was the producer Ray Stark who clinched the film deal. “Ray Stark bought the rights and promised me he’d film it in my hometown of Natchitoches, which really clinched the deal,” Harling explained.
2. Director Herbert Ross and actress Shirley MacLaine hid a throwback to The Turning Point in the movie
In the scene where M’Lynn breaks down in tears after her daughter’s funeral, Clairee has a stroke of inspiration about how to cheer her up. She suggests that the pained M’Lynn throws a punch at Ouiser to vent some of her emotions. This idea soon has all of the women, excluding Ouiser herself, in fits of laughter.
The way that the tension is broken in this scene mirrors an earlier Herbert Ross movie: The Turning Point. In this 1976 film, the characters Emma and Deedee break into a fistfight, which suddenly turns to hysterical laughter as the pair hug and make up. Shirley MacLaine plays Deedee in The Turning Point, while she takes the role of Ouiser in Steel Magnolias.
1. It was only one of two movies about diabetes to hit the international market that year
Steel Magnolias shows a woman suffering with type 1 diabetes, undergoing a kidney transplant, and ultimately dying from her condition. But this wasn’t the only movie about a diabetic character to reach international audiences in 1989. The horror movie Warlock, directed by Steve Miner, also featured a diabetic hero in the same year.
The character Kassandra, played by Lori Singer, is a waitress with diabetes who gets embroiled in fighting dark forces. She carries her medical equipment with her everywhere to administer her insulin shots. Her syringe ends up as a weapon in the movie’s final showdown against the magical villain.