When playwright Robert Harling wrote Steel Magnolias back in 1987, he undoubtedly had no idea that 30 years later, people would still be quoting it regularly. Its original incarnation was a play that had a successful off-Broadway run. Then Paramount bought the movies rights and Harling wrote the script, transforming the play into a movie. Thanks to his witty words, a poignant story, the powerful portrait of strong Southern friendships, and an all-star cast that included Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis, and Julia Roberts the movie became a smash hit that has lasted through the ages. The film is a Southern staple with something for everyone who loves to laugh, cry, or eat armadillo cake—including men.
Here are a few things you may not know about Steel Magnolias:
Steel Magnolias was based on a true story
Actor and writer Robert Harling wrote the play based on the true story of his sister, Susan Harling Robinson, who died from diabetic complications.
The movie was healing for the family
Harling wanted his mother to leave the set when they filmed Julia Roberts’s death scene, but his mother insisted on staying so she could see Julia get up and walk away after the director yelled cut. “I said, ‘I can’t believe you put yourself through that’,” Harling recalled saying to his mother in an interview with the Huffington Post. “But Julia had become so special to my parents. She took some peace with that.”
The film gave back in other ways, too
The nurses and other hospital staff seen in Julia Roberts' life-support scenes are actual medical professionals who tended to Harling's sister in her final days.
Steel Magnolias was written in just 10 days
“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,” Harling told Garden & Gun in 2013 about the speed writing process. “I had no idea what I’d written. 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.”
It was originally going to be a short story
Harling originally wanted to turn his sister's life into a short story, but it quickly turned into a play, because he wanted its Southernness to come out. " I was missing the sound of the wonderful vernacular," he told Today in 2014. "It became a play because I wanted to hear the dialogue. And that was it."
The author’s sister helped write one of the film’s most famous scenes
When Harling hit a patch of writer’s block while working on the play, he channeled his sister for one of its most famous scenes. "I said, 'What would Susan do?' and what Susan would do would be outrageous," he told Today. "She would do something completely inappropriate and totally out of the box." The result is that at Shelby’s funeral, when her mother M’Lynn is understandably distraught, Clairee cheekily suggests that M'Lynn take out her grief by hitting Ouiser. "Here, hit this!" Clairee says in one of the film’s memorable scenes.
Julia Roberts was the third choice to play Shelby
Originally, Winona Ryder was considered for the part of Shelby, but producers decided she was too young. Instead they settled on Meg Ryan, who committed to the role before dropping out for a little film called When Harry Met Sally. That’s when Julia Roberts stepped in. “She walked into the room and that smile lit everything up and I said ‘That’s my sister,’” Harling told The Daily Mail. “So she joined the party and she was magnificent.”
Another fun fact about the role of Shelby, when Nicole Kidman was starting out as an actress in Sydney, Australia, one of her earliest roles was playing Shelby on stage.
Hollywood royalty wanted in on Steel Magnolias
Elizabeth Taylor went to see Steel Magnolias during its off-Broadway run and thanks to her rave review, Hollywood legend Bette Davis called up Harling and started a push to be cast in the film as Ouiser. She also thought that Katharine Hepburn could make a fantastic Clairee and Elizabeth Taylor would be perfect as Truvy. Harling later told The Morning Call that Davis invited him to tea to convince him that she was right for the role, and when he left she told him, “You may give the role of Ouiser to someone else. But you and they will hear from Bette Davis.” The role, of course, went to Shirley Maclaine. No word on whether Davis gave Harling an earful.
Harling wrote Truvy for one actress in particular—and it wasn’t Dolly Parton
While Dolly Parton was perfect in the role of beauty shop owner Truvy, the role was actually written for someone else entirely—Margo Martindale. Harling and Martindale were friends in real life and he wrote the part for her, and she originated the role of Truvy in the play’s off-Broadway debut.
WATCH: Sally Field and Shirley MacLaine Play Word Association with Steel Magnolias Cast
Steel Magnolias led to Soapdish
After long days on the set in Natchitoches, the cast would gather together to play games and chat. One night, according to the Huffington Post, Harling asked each actress to name the role she’d most like to play. Sally Field said she always played “really noble, earnest women that wear crummy clothes. For once I’d like to play a b---h that gets to wear nice clothes.” Harling loved the idea and started to think about a seeming sweetheart who was truly devilish. Soon after, Soapdish was born and Field got to play the role of her dreams as an aging soap-opera actress who conspires to ruin the career of her co-star.
We almost had a Steel Magnolias TV show
CBS aired a pilot episode of a Steel Magnolias TV series in August 1990, but the show never made it to a full series. Perhaps CBS should try again, though. When Lifetime put an on all African American version of the film, starring Queen Latifah, Phylicia Rashad, and Condola Rashad, it was the channel's third-most-watched telecast ever.
The film sparked a real-life romance
The sparks you saw between Roberts and her on-screen beau Dylan McDermott were real. When filming began on Steel Magnolias, Roberts was dating actor Liam Neeson, her co-star in Satisfaction. Then, according to People, she allegedly broke up with Neeson to date—and eventually become engaged to—McDermott. They never made it to the alter, though, with their relationship ending in 1990.
The movie was filmed in the author’s hometown
Playwright Robert Harling grew up in Natchitoches, Louisiana, and insisted on filming there. That decision had a huge impact on the town, which can still be felt today. "“For everyone who has seen the movie outside of Natchitoches it is synonymous with the movie," Arlene Gould, executive director of the Natchitoches Convention and Tourism Bureau, told The Shreveport Times. "It had a tremendous impact on the tourism trade and on our community.”
Visitors can stay at the Steel Magnolia House
The historic Natchitoches, Louisiana, house where Steel Magnolias was filmed is now a bed and breakfast and renamed The Steel Magnolia House. Guests can stay in rooms named after characters like the Clairee, Ouiser, and Annelle.
It's Christmas in August during the film
Southern summers can be scorchers, but that didn’t stop the cast and extras from donning their finest Christmas sweaters and winter hats to film the Natchitoches Christmas festival scenes. It may have been 100 degrees during filming, but it sure looked like December thanks to the magic of the movies.
The movie has inspired others to give back
Harling told Today that a fan reached out to him that watching the film inspired them to donate a kidney to a neighbor in need. While Oscar nominations and Tony Awards are undoubtedly exciting, inspiring someone to save a life sounds like a truly incredible reward for a playwright.
Shirley MacLaine knew the movie was something special
It was while filming one of those blazing hot Christmas festival scenes, that Shirley MacLaine turned to playwright Robert Harling and told him something he would never forget. "I remember Shirley [MacLaine] turning to me during one of those scenes and saying 'ya know, I think this could be important,'" Harling told Today. "And, you know, Shirley’s never wrong. "