Steel Magnolias

Steel Magnolias debuts tonight on Lifetime at 9 p.m. Eastern.

Steel Magnolias is a member of a pantheon of movies—including Terms Of Endearment and Beaches, among others—that are known for both their legendary ability to make anyone within a short radius weepy. Call it Ugly Cry Cinema: They are cathartic, they are wonderful, they are completely over-the-top.

But what separates Ugly Cry Cinema from run-of-the-mill weepies, like The Notebook, Love Story, or Ghost, is instead of elevating the romantic relationship that is so often celebrated, these movies are about the bonds between women that are so strong they resemble the familial and a lot of other treacly crap that is best enjoyed with an arsenal of Kleenex.

Which is why Lifetime’s updated, all-black version of Steel Magnolias, based on the play by Robert Harling (who also wrote the 1989 film adaptation and most recently executive produced GCB), succeeds where it really counts, by representing the secondary family created by women who just happen to get their hair did at the same salon.

The story doesn’t deviate from the source, despite taking place in current day (with all of the references to cell phones, Beyoncé, and Michelle Obama that entails) and the obvious cosmetic switch of its cast. The central location of Steel Magnolias is the Louisiana beauty shop owned by the boisterous Truvy (Jill Scott), where she serves the likes M’Lynn (Queen Latifah), who we meet as she is preparing for the wedding of her headstrong, diabetic daughter Shelby (Condola Rashad, daughter of Phylicia). The only other clients Truvy, with the help of mysterious new hire Annelle (Adepero Oduye), seems to service are town matriarch Clairee (Phylicia Rashad) and eternally cranky Ouiser (Alfre Woodard).

The CliffsNotes version:

  • Sally Field = Queen Latifah
  • Julia Roberts = Condola Rashad
  • Dolly Parton = Jill Scott
  • Shirley MacLaine = Alfre Woodard
  • Olympia Dukakis = Phylicia Rashad
  • Daryl Hannah = Adepero Oduye

Screenwriter Sally Robinson does right to keep some of Harling’s better lines, like Shelby’s personal mantra (“I would rather have 30 minutes of something wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special”) or Ouisier’s array of snarling one-liners (“I’m not crazy, I’ve just been in a bad mood for 40 years”) along with personal favorites (“It’s like two pigs fighting under a blanket,” Clairee says, while gawking at the un-Spanx-ed ass of Shelby’s future mother-in-law).

The story of Steel Magnolias is timeless, but it’s not a difficult transition from the beauty shop setting or the not too far off time period (the employment problems Truvy’s construction-working husband has ring particularly true). However, there’s lost opportunity in the update’s safety. Changes could have conceivably made without losing the sense of female camaraderie, but it’s Lifetime so surrounding issues are left untouched. The one true improvement is that the original existed in a version of Louisiana where people of color didn’t seem to exist, while the updated version nods to the fact that there are at least two different races coexisting in Louisiana and, sometimes, they even hang out with each other. But where the big screen adaptation sparkled with life and motion, Kenny’s Leon’s direction feels flat, although his previous experience working with the über-drama of Private Practice should have prepared him for the task.

When it comes to remakes, especially one so faithful to its source material, the question looms: Why not just watch the original version? The answer for Lifetime’s iteration lies in the cast, which largely puts its own spin on each character, especially Scott, who is competing against Parton’s outsized persona. “I have a philosophy I’ve stuck with for 15 years: There’s no such as natural beauty,” Truvy says, with Scott making it seem like more of a threat than Parton ever could. Woodard and Phylicia Rashad are simply a pleasure to watch, with their dueling gloom-and-doom versus sunny outlooks, and if Lifetime ever decides to remake The Odd Couple with these two, I am so in. Oduye, who’s so good as a lesbian teenager who must hide her true identity in Pariah, is saddled with the worst character in Steel Magnolias and she’s swallowed up by her more than adept castmates. It would have been interesting to see her take on the meatier role of Shelby, instead, if only because Condola Rashad, in her first major role, isn’t quite there yet. (It’s almost unfair to judge Rashad the Younger if only because her competition, Roberts, arguably the biggest female movie star of the modern era, was just beginning to take over the world one wide smile at a time. Her Steel Magnolias role garnered Roberts her first of three Oscar nominations).

Queen Latifah, who also serves as executive producer, is the real surprise. (This, mind you, is coming from someone who watched Living Single religiously and makes it a point to see every Queen Latifah movie.) Latifah is always fun to watch if only due to the innate charisma that made her famous in the first place (and garnered her the Oscar nomination as Matron Mama Morton in Chicago), but she doesn’t often show that she’s a particularly talented actress. Then again, she’s rarely had to do any lifting heavier than Just Wright. As M’Lynn, she never feels like she’s coasting. particularly in an impactful end scene where she rails against the film’s final, tear-jerking tragedy. “It struck me as ironic,” she says when discussing how the men in her life faltered, just as she took control. “Ain’t men supposed to be, y’know, made of steel?” Supposedly, but it’s Queen Latifah who we learn is made of stronger stuff.

Now, pass me the goddamn tissues.

Stray observations:

  • After watching (and thoroughly enjoying) the entire run of Best Friends Forever, I’ve started referring to Steel Magnolias (which I apparently do a lot) as “Steely Mags.” Thank you, Luka Jones!
  • Fun fact!: Julius Erving (Dr. J!) cameos as a minister.

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