This, and other true, behind the scenes stories from creator Robert Harling.  

By Rebecca Angel Baer
May 24, 2019
J2 Communications/Fathom Events

This month marks the 30th anniversary of one of our favorite films, Steel Magnolias.

As a treasured part of cinematic history, and specifically of Southern cinematic history, we can recite most of the movie by heart. “My colors are blush and bashful, Mama.” We know just when to grab the extra box of tissues, and we know all about that armadillo cake. But there is just so much more to learn about the true story about which this beloved classic is based.

Robert Harling grew up moving, as he described, “from southern town, to southern town, to southern town, eventually ending up in Louisiana.” This nomadic childhood meant that it was hard to make friends from place to place. His best friend was his sister, Susan. Or as we’ve come to know her as, Shelby. “She was the only person that had been with me for forever,” he said in a recent phone call with Southern Living. “When we lost her, when she died in 1985, I was really in a very bad state with her loss.” His grief was exasperated by his brother-in-law remarrying just five months after Susan’s death. Harling was distraught that his two-year-old nephew would never know his own mother. “When I heard Robert {nephew} call another woman, Mama, it just drove me nuts.”  He was quick to add that, as it turned out she was a lovely woman and a great mother, but at the time, this was simply too much.

With the encouragement of friends, the actor put pen to paper, so to speak, to get put his sister’s story in print, for his nephew, and thankfully, for all of us as well. What started out as a work of prose, quickly took a turn for the more familiar for the thespian. “I was an actor, so I thought well, I know what a script looks like and I know what dialogue looks like. I’m just gonna try to write this as a play. So, I did.” As painful as his sister’s death from complications from her diabetes was, Harling knew it was a story he must share. “My friend, Shirley MacLaine, who is in the movie said, you just channeled it. Susan (my sister) channeled it through me…I don’t even remember any kind of agony or pleasure or anything. It was just I had to get this story out. I just remember feeling like I was in some sort of race and I got it on paper,” he recalled.

 How much of the story we know, and love really happened in the Harling household? Apparently, most of it. “My father shot at birds in the trees, there was an armadillo wedding cake, all of that’s true. My mother donated a kidney to my sister. It failed. All of it.”

But, since so much of it was true to life, this caused Harling to worry as the people of his tiny town flocked to New York to see his play. After all, he aimed to capture the essence of the women of Natchitoches, Louisiana but he was afraid that for one resident in particular, imitation could not be seen as flattery. To this day, Harling has never revealed upon whom the character Ouiser is based. “I was terrified she would be upset with me.” He was living in New York at the time, but his mother still lived back down south, and he didn’t want to cause any unwanted tension for her. But to his surprise, Ouiser wasn’t a character whom theatergoers despised. They loved her. “I realized every woman in town was going around saying, ‘’you know he based Ouiser on me.’ Everybody thought they were Ouiser. Except the woman who was Ouiser. She never got it. She never got it. She came to see the play and she said ‘I know Clairee is Ruth Caldwell and I know your mom’s your mom and your sister is your sister, and I know Liz Landrum is Truuvy but who’s Ouiser?’ And she’s flicking ashes just all down her fur coat from her cigarette. So, I thought, mission accomplished. I got away with that one. But it’s kinda crazy that the character I thought everyone would hate, everyone wanted to be.”

 

The play was a success with more than just the ladies of Natchitoches and was soon turned into the classic film we all know and love. And while some of the story was enhanced—for example, the play takes place entirely in the beauty shop and in the movie, you get to go to the Christmas festival and the Easter egg hunt. But nothing was drastically changed from the way Harling told the story. “They said, well this is a true story and we’re not going to mess with truth,” Harling said of the film’s producers. He never wavered in his decision to relinquish this very personal story to the filmmakers. “I just think as a writer you create something and then you hand it over to someone else to give it back to you in a way that you never dreamed it could be possible.”

We may be biased but we think what the producers and directors did was just enhance an already exquisite masterpiece. Thirty years on, and this film still feels as magical, and just like an old friend. The cast chosen to portray these powerhouse Southern women could not have been better. But the cast we know may not have been.

“Meg Ryan was originally cast as Shelby. The day after we cast her, she came to us in tears and said ‘I’m sorry but I just got offered this film and I’ll be a leading lady with Billy Crystal…’ so you know we said of course, go make When Harry Met Sally.”

It was actually Sally Field and her husband at the time who made the suggestion of who should play Shelby. “Sally said ‘you know there’s this girl and she’s been off making some movie about a pizza. She’s Eric Roberts sister.” Of course, that movie was Mystic Pizza and that girl was Julia Roberts.

“We brought her in, and she was Julia Roberts, so she was magic. She just walked into the room and lit it up and I thought, that’s my sister,” Harling said.

Harling admits that both the film and the play are still hard for him to watch, as it is so personal to him. But he recently had a chance at the TCM Film Festival to watch it on the big screen for the first time since it premiered, and he loved it. “To see it on the big screen was so awesome. You really sense it and feel it and feel the south. What the Southern woman is and the essence of that still is so vibrant through these characters. It really is and it was kind of thrilling to realize that.”

While it is difficult to re-live for Harling, he also sees this work as his purpose. “I just wanted this kid to remember my sister. I didn’t want her memory to go away. And so I think I got that accomplished.”

Reflecting on the staying power of both his play and film, Harling recognizes that the message itself is timeless. “Women have been supporting each other and being cool, and great, and strong, and fabulous for thousands of years. The message is not new. I think it’s reassuring,” he said and then added, “It stood the test of time because friendship doesn’t grow old. Support doesn’t grow old. Love does not grow old.”

WATCH: Hey Y'all - Ultimate Steel Magnolias Girlfriend Getaway

To honor and celebrate this film’s 30th Anniversary, TCM and Fathom events recently brought it back to theaters for a limited run. If you missed out, make sure you check out their upcoming special events as many more of our favorite films will be returning to cinemas nationwide. Mark your calendars for the  25th Anniversary of Forest Gump in June. It’s the perfect excuse to escape the summer heat and enjoy a nostalgic night at the movies.

Advertisement