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Film review: Steel Magnolias

Published: Saturday, Dec. 9 1989 12:00 a.m. MST

Not having seen the stage play, I am unable to make comparisons with the film version of "Steel Magnolias" and its much-hailed stage counterpart. And that may be an advantage, since I approached the film with no preconceived notions.

What the film has to offer is superficial, though enjoyable entertainment, provided mostly by a bevy of big-name stars in the cast - especially Dolly Parton and Shirley MacLaine.

But somewhere in the translation any real dramatic power seems to have been waylayed. Oh, you'll laugh and you'll cry. But will you really feel? Will you carry the emotions of the film with you as you leave the theater?

"Steel Magnolias" is an ensemble piece set in the modern-day South, specifically a small town in Louisiana. The main characters are, as we meet them, a simple, plain young woman (Daryl Hannah) who is hired by a local hairdresser (Dolly Parton) to work in her shop; a homemaker(Sally Field) whose daughter (Julia Roberts) is about to be married; and two rich older women, one a happy widow (Olympia Dukakis) and the other a tyrannical old bat (Shirley MacLaine), whose well-hidden heart is, of course, really mush.

To a lesser degree the film also deals with the men in their lives, including Tom Skerritt as Field's husband and Sam Shepard as Parton's.

But the main focus of the film is the relationship between Field and Roberts, a domineering mother and her strong-willed, but physically weak daughter, the latter also plagued with diabetes. And there is a lot of time spent on Hannah's strange character development as well as the film covers a year or two via holidays.

For me, that is what most damages "Steel Magnolias." Field, Roberts and Hannah, are not the most interesting characters. I would much rather have seen more time spent on Parton and MacLaine, and even Dukakis, whose lives, in the brief glimpses we are given, seem much more interesting, and whose characters are by far much more alive and vibrant.

As it is, the script, written by Robert Harling, who also wrote the original play, provides some humorous dialogue exchanges, and a few small-town scenes that are funny and on the mark, but more often he settles for weak sentiment and banal trifles. The ham-fisted direction of veteran filmmaker Herbert Ross doesn't help. Too often he seems to be posing his ensemble instead of directing them.

What gives the movie its energy is clearly the star power involved. All the actors here are good in their roles, but the standouts are clearly Parton in a subdued, realistic down-home performance, and MacLaine, in a flamboyant tour de force (though her makeup looks more like bad use of cosmetics than old age).

All in all "Steel Magnolias" is worth a look, but it is not the powerhouse film that was clearly intended.

It is rated PG for fairly consistent profanity and vulgarity throughout the film, as well as some nude male backsides in a locker room.

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