Friday, July 15, 2022

Sit a Spell for a Heapin' Helpin' of Southern Fried Cinema

Meet the "Steel Magnolias"--they're just like you, only prettier.

 How-dee, movie lovers.

 Released in 1989, "Steel Magnolias" had four Oscar winners in its cast, a script based on a hit play and a solid Hollywood hand (Herbert Ross) in the director's chair. It was also a box office hit.

So what's a movie like that doing on a blog like this?

Simple: underneath "Steel Magnolias" A-List pedigree is a predictable, manipulative, laugh-through-your-tears rom/com no different (and no better) than the down market twaddle peddled on the Hallmark Channel or Lifetime. It's just more expensive twaddle.

 "Steel Magnolias" may have been based on true events, but no trope about southern life is neglected: mangy dogs, dim husbands, petty feuds, big hair, puffed sleeves, beauty queens, Bible thumpers and references to the Piggily-Wiggily. There's also Movie-of-the-Week staples like the over-protective mama, the grouchy eccentric and the local flirt who twitters, "That Jackson is one big hangin' man!" Instead of something more original, "Steel Magnolias" is merely a mash-up of "The Andy Griffith Show", "Peyton Place" and "The Bold and the Beautiful".

 M'Lynn (Sally Field) is worn slap out over the craziness surrounding her daughter's wedding.

In other words, it's a bad movie pretending to be a good movie. And that's why "Steel Magnolias" is on this blog.

Still not convinced? Read on.

 Chinquapin Parish is the sort of idyllic small town that only exists in Hollywood movies about idyllic small towns: nobody locks their doors, pies still cool on kitchen window sills and everybody knows your name. During a picture-perfect spring day, M'Lynn Eatenton (Sally Field, Oscar winner #1) is putting the finishing touches on daughter Shelby's (Julia Roberts, Oscar winner #2) wedding, which has her finding new champagne glasses for the reception, helping Shelby locate the right nail polish and foiling her teenage sons' plans to decorate their sister's honeymoon get-away car with rubbers--all at the same time. Whew! Did I forget to mention M'Lynn has also deputized husband Drum (Tom Skerrit) to shoo away a flock of neighborhood birds? No wonder she's happy to escape to Truvy's Beauty Spot (run by Dolly Parton), where the local ladies not only get their hair done, but gossip, swap one-liners and find relief from their daily trials.

Other Beauty Spot regulars include aristocratic widow Clairee (Olympia Dukakis, Oscar winner #3); town Grinch Ouiser (Shirley MacLaine, Oscar winner #4), who has a running feud with M'Lynn's husband; and Annelle (Darryl Hannah), Truvy's new shop assistant who is loath to discuss anything about herself or her missing husband, Bunky.

Although everything feels homey and congenial when these ladies gather together, there are disquieting currents churning below the Southern Belle surface--because there has to be, right? I mean, this is a romantic/comedy/drama/slice-of-life/chick flick, so there have to be complications. You'll never stumble upon a romantic/comedy/drama/slice-of'-life/chick flick without them. Complications are what it's all about! So bring on the complications!

"Well, I declare...": Two locals from Chinquapin Parish trade information under the hairdryer.

Complication #1: Bride-to-be Shelby has a rare form of Type 1 diabetes and her doctor has told her getting pregnant is too dangerous. She's crushed and worries fiancee' Jackson (the hunky Dylan McDermott) is throwing away his chance to have a family. Shelby has other concerns about her forthcoming marriage, but she never lets the audience in on them. Thus, when Jackson tells Shelby, "I'm going to make you very happy", and she whispers to herself, "We'll see", you're left to wonder what gives.

Complication #2: Mom M'Lynn has watched over Shelby like a hawk since day one and she's finding it hard to loosen her grip. She's also convinced Jackson doesn't take Shelby's condition seriously enough and won't take proper care of her.

Complication #3: "Glamour Technician" Truvy's husband Spud (Sam Shepard) is rarely employed and  obviously depressed. Son Louis is a motorcycle riding punk with a taste for cheap girls. With her marriage under strain and her son all but begging for an STD, Truvy recalls that "the last romantic thing" Spud did for her was attach "this car port (where her beauty parlor is located) so I could support him."

Complication #4: Clairee is mourning the recent loss of her husband Lloyd and doesn't know what to do with herself. She also has trouble finding (and maintaining) a creditable southern accent.

Complication #5: Town grouch Ouiser  complains endlessly about everything, from her two "total deadbeat" ex-husbands to her ungrateful children to M'Lynn's husband ("He is a boil on the butt of humanity!"). If  people are nice to her, Ousier declares, it's only because "I have more money than God"--and she's right. Of course, viewers know underneath her snarling exterior Ouiser has a heart of gold, because all grouches do.

"She could start an argument in an empty house.": Town grouch Ousier (Shirley MacLaine) gives Drum (Tom Skerritt) a piece of her mind.

Complication #6: Shy and awkward Annelle (Darryl Hannah) finally breaks down and admits her life is "horrible". Husband Bunky has skipped town and the police are after him--he's mixed up with "drugs or somethin'". Worse, their marriage may not be legal. Annelle didn't want anyone to know because she feared it would cost her her job. However, in the best tradition of Scarlett O'Hara, Annelle refuses to be defeated, vowing, "I swear, my personal tragedy will not interfere with my ability to do good hair."

Got all that? Good. Moving right along, Shelby and Jackson's eventual wedding is the social event of the season in Chinquapin Parish and goes off without a hitch. The movie then flashes forward to Christmas time, where Shelby announces she's pregnant against her doctor's orders. Naturally, M'Lynn is aghast. 

"Your poor body has been through so much," Mom hollers. "Why would you deliberately do this to yourself?!"

"Diabetics have healthy babies all the time," Shelby informs her.

"You're special!," M'Lynn says. "There are limits to what you can do!"

M'Lynn (Sally Field) and Shelby (Julia Roberts) are at odds...again.

Shelby doesn't agree. In fact, she thinks the real problem lies elsewhere, namely with  M'Lynn's helicopter parenting.

"You're jealous!" Shelby informs her mom. "Because you no longer have a say-so in what I do. You're ready to spit nails because you can't call the shots!"

Then Shelby confesses her marriage to rich, hunky Jackson isn't going well. Why? Is he screwing around? Addicted to the Home Shopping Channel? Did she catch him trying on her underwear? Or her shoes? Or--heaven forbid-- is Jackson one of those nuts devoted to "America's Ninja Warrior"? We're never told.

However, after a long, painful pause, M'Lynn says, "I see."

I'm glad someone does.

"She's as pretty as a peach!": A radiant Drum walks Shelby (Julia Roberts) down the isle.

Her fears about Jackson being a total dick-weed confirmed, M'Lynn is convinced this pregnancy will have fatal consequences for Shelby. Her beauty parlor buddies encourage her to stay positive; they vow to support her because dim hubby Drum is too excited about bein' a grandaddy to realize the seriousness of the situation.   

 Shelby eventually produces the world's cutest baby, Jack, Jr. Unfortunately, the pregnancy maxed out her kidneys--just as the doctors said it would--and she's in need of a transplant. Luckily, M'Lynn is a perfect match. The night before the procedure, Truvy discusses the surgery with husband Spud, who is working on a car. In typical good-ole-boy fashion, Spud shrugs off any concerns, saying, 'Well, they do it all the time on 'Circus of the Stars'."

The transplant does appear to first. Then Jackson arrives home to find Shelby unconscious and Jack, Jr. hysterically crying. Shelby's body has rejected the transplant and she's in a coma. Weeks pass with no change, but Mama Bear M'Lynn refuses to leave her daughter's side--or give up on the hope Shelby will recover. So she reads to her, shows her pictures of her son and even exercises Shelby's limp limbs. Nothing works. Finally, a tearful Jackson agrees to turn off his wife's life support and she quickly and quietly passes away.

No "Disease Drama" is complete without a big, emotional outburst, where a cast member screams at the heavens asking why their beloved husband/wife/child/best friend/parent/pet had to die. And "Steel Magnolias" is no exception. Sally Field, looking dejectedly at her daughter's casket, cannot be comforted by her friends. Instead, she pitches herself a hissy fit with a tail on it.

 "I can jog to Texas and back, but my daughter can't! She never could! Oh, God!" M'Lynn wails. "I am so mad I don't know what to do! I wanna know why! I wanna know why Shelby's life is over! I wanna know how that baby will ever know how wonderful his mother was!"

Whew! But hold on, Field is just getting warmed up.

"Hit her with your best shot!": Clairee tells the grieving M'Lynn to punch Ousier for instant relief.

"Will (Jack, Jr.) ever know what she went through for him?!" Field asks. "Oh God! I wanna know why! Why! I wish I could understand!" Pause. "No, no no!" Sally screams in what I bet was probably her Oscar consideration clip. "It's not suppose to happen this way! I'm suppose to go first! I've always been ready to go first!" Another pause. M'Lynn shouts, "I don't think I can take this! I just want to hit somebody 'til they feel as bad as I do! I just wanna hit something! I wanna hit it hard!" (Applause all around.)

Then Clairee grabs a startled Ousier and yells, "Hit this! Go ahead, M'Lynn! Slap her!"

"Are you high Clairee?!" Ousier demands before stalking off--and flipping everyone the bird.

No, M'Lynn doesn't hit anybody...she's too much of a lady to do that. Instead, she finally gets a grip on herself and joins everybody at the funeral reception. While pushing Jack, Jr. in a swing, Annelle asks Field if she can name the baby she and husband Sammy are expecting in honor of Shelby. M'Lynn is touched and admits, "Life goes on."

Yes, life does go on, but, thankfully, "Steel Magnolias" doesn't. With time running out, director Ross scurries around tying up loose ends, so 1) Spud finally lands a steady job and he and Truvy are reunited, 2) Clairee has bought a radio station and 3) grouchy Ousier has met up with an old beau (arranged by the late Shelby) and almost seems happy. Then at the annual Easter Egg Hunt, Annelle goes into labor and everybody starts running around like chickens with their heads cut off.  As Spud drives Annelle to the hospital, Sammy follows along on the back of Louis' bike. Should I mention that Louis' hair is dyed multiple colors in honor of the holiday? Or that Sammy is in an Easter Bunny costume, having been deputized to play the festive critter for the local kiddies? 

Annelle finds yet another way to humiliate husband Sammy.

Well, isn't that precious.

Now, before you accuse me of being a heartless cynical wise-acre who wouldn't know genuine love if it bit me on the boob, hold your horses. I have nothing against having a good cry at the movies. There are many wonderful films about love and loss that are deeply moving: "Brian's Song" starring the late James Caan and Billy Dee Williams (just hearing the theme song can make me tear up); "Shadowlands", starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger, which is also based on a true story and "Saving Private Ryan". Other examples include "Terms of Endearment", "The Cay" and the films "Old Yeller", "Sounder", "Stone Fox", "Shiloh" and "Where the Red Fern Grows".

What I don't like is manipulative weepers that mechanically pull out the stops instead of just letting events genuinely move you.

And from its opening credits to the final notes of its score, "Steel Magnolias" unspools like a check-list of cliches.

 A beautiful young person struck down in the prime of his/her life? Check. A young child or infant left without his/her mom or dad? Yep. A selfless and/or determined parent/guardian/friend/pet who sacrifices their life for someone else? Covered. A deadly disease that cannot be cured? Which would you prefer, cancer or kidney failure? Hard won wisdom after experiencing a tragedy and/or loss? Got that in spades. People bravely determined to honor the memory of a loved one by facing the future with love and hope? You betcha. The enduring power of friendship? Lots of that. The importance of faith? Is the Pope Catholic?

"I want to look especially good for the nominating committee.": M'Lynn (Sally Field)  pretties herself up after her big emotional outburst/Oscar nomination scene.

 Director Ross and his "Steel Magnolias" hit all their marks... like scam artists sizing up their latest targets. And because everything served looked pretty, all they had to do was wait for the cash to roll in and the award nominations to be announced.

Which made me madder than a mule chewing bumblebees.

Then I got busy (well, not too busy) and wrote this post.

As the cast of "Steel Magnolias" might say, "Well, bless her heart!"

So movie lovers, please always remember, and never forget, some flicks are all hat and no cattle, so be on look out. And SAVE THE MOVIES, too.

"This movie is so sad...not really."

Sorry about the big white space gap between this post and the one beneath it.