The Anatomy of a Classic Southern Movie: ‘Steel Magnolias’ Turns 30

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The truth behind what became one of the most beloved films to capture southern culture is really a trial for the soul. As much as the contrived characters tug at your heartstrings with backstories you or someone you know can still relate to, the premise behind the original play and subsequent southern movie classic is based in real life. As “Steel Magnolias” turns 30, we have the original playwright, Robert Harling, to thank for this enriching experience he has brought to so many of us with its success. Written just months after his sister Susan passed away from diabetes complications, it’s a touching tribute to her strength, as well as that of their mother, and the sisterhood of women who gathered in their support.

The play broke records in Manhattan at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, where its running spanned close to three years. Within the first year of its run, a renowned producer purchased the movie rights. The play went on to be performed around the world, including South Korea, Sweden, India, and South Africa. By 1988, “Steel Magnolias” was made into the beloved film starring Julia Roberts and Sally Field as lead characters Shelby and M’Lynn.

Video: YouTube/Movieclips

Shared on the Movieclips YouTube channel, this featured video clip of the southern movie presents only a small piece of the story behind the coterie of southern women in this story and the strength that binds them. Harling, himself, expressed their virtues of strength in the naming of the play and film. In an interview with TODAY, he stated that the title, “Steel Magnolias,” perfectly described the women it profiled in that they were known to be delicate like flowers but also tough as steel. Filling the roles of the leading ladies came easily. In fact, he expressed that when Julia Roberts auditioned for the role of Shelby, he knew right away that she was the one, despite the fact that she was only previously known for her work in “Mystic Pizza.” The result was movie magic. Although the film was set in Natchitoches, Louisiana, it’s true that many a southern lady throughout any state, including Texas, can relate and even quote the movie. Why? “I would rather have thirty minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special.” If that doesn’t speak to you, you’re tough as nails, and perhaps there needs to be a play written about your story as well!