This year marks the 30th anniversary of Steel Magnolias. That means it has been three decades since we learned to embrace — as Dolly Parton‘s beautician extraordinaire Truvy puts it — “laughter through tears.” Now, as the iconic movie celebrates a major milestone, we’re learning more about how the all-star cast came together.
Closer Weekly exclusively caught up with Robert Harling, the writer behind the 1987 play of the same name and the screenwriter of the 1989 film adaptation. The story is actually based on Robert’s personal experiences, notably the death of his younger sister, Susan, in 1985 due to complications from type 1 diabetes. Robert may have changed the name, but this is real-life tragedy — from the battle with the disease itself, the baby, the kidney and the death — is the basis for Julia Roberts‘ Shelby, a role that ultimately earned the actress a Golden Globe win and an Academy Award nomination.
“There was no question that Julia was magic when she walked into the room,” Robert recalled of the impression Julia left upon him during auditions. “I don’t think Mystic Pizza had even been released yet, so she was definitely the new kid on the block.”
Even though Julia was the only one to snag a trophy for Steel Magnolias, it turns out she wasn’t the first one cast. That honor actually belongs to Sally Field, who played M’Lynn — the character based on Robert’s own mother. Robert noted that he wasn’t even thinking of who would star in the movie until its director, Herbert Ross, brought her up over dinner in New York City.
“I had not had any specific frequency of notions on how anything was going to be cast. I mean, it was all happening so fast; 18 months before I didn’t have a nickel to my name and had no experience whatsoever with writing or film. It was all happening really, really quickly,” Robert explained of when Herbert brought up the two-time Oscar winner. “That was beyond my wildest dreams.”
Rounding out the rest of the ensemble of actresses were Shirley MacLaine as Ouiser, the local curmudgeon; Daryl Hannah as Annelle, a strange newcomer who becomes super religious; and Olympia Dukakis as Clairee, a wealthy widow of the town’s former mayor. Add these to Dolly’s town gossip as well as the mother-daughter duo of Sally and Julia and you’ve got the perfect combo of small-town Southern belles. As the title suggests, these women are as tough as steel but as delicate as a magnolia flower.
“Oh, it was great,” Robert gushed of the dynamic between these female powerhouses. “It was really a case of life imitating art. These women just became bonded very, very tightly with one another.”
When it comes to why Steel Magnolias still hits home for today’s viewers, Robert has a pretty solid theory — and it’s a little deeper than drinking one’s juice or a love for the colors “blush and bashful.”
“You know, I think it’s because it was a true story interpreted by a great director with just amazing talent. The stars, the women, are just as extraordinary,” he told us. “I think if anything, as time has passed the story of women coming together and the support group of women — how they get through things, how they make things happen, how they get it done — has become more important every day since I wrote it.”
Even though he said he “hated” the Lifetime remake and is “just not interested” in telling the story again in this current age of reboots, Robert can rest easy knowing the original version got it right.
“Nothing would make my sister and my mother happier,” he concluded, “than to know their story has resonance with fellow women.”