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An Earnest Lifetime Interpretation: A Pleasant, If Not Particularly Essential, Adaptation Of A Beloved Movie Hit
on May 3, 2013
I had almost no desire to write commentary about the Lifetime Original movie "Steel Magnolias." I'm no big fan of the original, although I understand its enduring popularity. And I'm no big fan of this interpretation, although it's a perfectly respectable adaptation. The thing that pushed me into a review was a detracting statement in one of the other blurbs that proclaimed "this attempt is about as bad as a white version of The Color Purple would be." There's a lot that I could say about such a comment for any variety of reasons, but I'll let you judge it on its own merits. First of all, though, let me just state that "Steel Magnolias" started life as a play. Plays are frequently reinterpreted through the years (oftentimes successfully, sometimes not) and restaged. Playwright Robert Harling (who also wrote the 1989 screenplay for the film) was the first to have the idea of adapting his work into a piece for African American women. It's a perfectly legitimate, if not entirely necessary, choice. As I said, I wasn't clamoring for a new "Steel Magnolias" but this production has some good actresses, has its heart in the right place, and is head and tails above most of Lifetime's Original fare.
The original film "Steel Magnolias" is undeniably beloved by many. To be sure, it's emotionally manipulative (that's the nature of the piece and why I don't love it) but it succeeds with an A-list cast, over-the-top Southern charm, and tart quotable dialogue. To think that with the original team of ladies (Sally Field, Olympia Dukakis, Dolly Parton, Darryl Hannah, and Shirely Maclaine), it was Julia Roberts who was a relative unknown at the time. Roberts' Shelby was a bit too much of a saint for my taste, but she picked up a nod for Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars. The TV remake, obviously, isn't boasting the movie star roster of its predecessor. That is both to be expected and one of the unfavorable comparisons. You've still got an impressive array of actresses including Queen Latifah, Phylicia Rashad, Jill Scott (always love), and Alfre Woodard (one of the greats). But despite these capable actresses, the film simply can't compare in terms of star wattage.
In terms of plot, everything remains basically the same. In tone, however, this variation seems decidedly more restrained. Some of the antics in the original film were almost campy and played to the rafters, that's why some of the funniest lines are so memorable. This plays it a little straighter, going for more authenticity and realness. This choice does little to distract from the shortcomings of the story, however, and so the film feels milder and a bit more flavorless. The strong bond of women and the message of friendship are still intact and are as lovely as ever, but the presentation is less bold. Overall, it's pleasant enough and worth watching (especially if you like the new ladies), but it may seem unnecessary to die-hard fans of the original.
The film scored a ton of nominations at both the Black Reel Awards and the Image Awards, and Woodard picked up a nod for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Television Movie or Miniseries at the Screen Actors Guild Awards. Some may wish to dismiss this version out of hand, and that's fine. But Lifetime's "Steel Magnolias" is geared to a different and new audience that may not be as emotionally connected to the previous version. I liked it (about 3 1/2 stars) well enough, and it certainly isn't a disaster. Check it out for the cast. KGHarris, 5/13