23 Facts About Steel Magnolias

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getty images

They came. They cried. They conquered. Director Herbert Ross (he of The Goodbye Girl and Footloose fame) assembled an all-star female cast of a half-dozen of Hollywood’s most popular leading ladies—including one newcomer named Julia Roberts—to adapt Robert Harling’s play, Steel Magnolias, into one of the top-grossing films of 1989. Here are 23 things you might not know about the late-’80s weepie.

1. IT’S BASED ON A TRUE STORY.

Writer Robert Harling wrote Steel Magnolias as a way of coping with the passing of his sister, Susan, who died from complications related to diabetes in 1985. In the play, Susan became Shelby.

2. IT TOOK JUST 10 DAYS TO WRITE.

“The events that inspired it were so powerful that, after I found the story arena, it just poured out into my typewriter in a 24/7 tsunami of Southernness,” Harling told Garden & Gun in 2013 about the lightning-fast writing process. “I had no idea what I’d written. I asked the first person I gave it to if it even looked like a play. I wasn’t really sure. All I knew was that I felt it portrayed my sister’s life and spirit accurately, and that was enough for me.” 

3. THE PLAY WAS AN INSTANT HIT.

Harling’s original Off-Broadway play opened on March 28, 1987 at the WPA Theatre in New York City. It closed on February 25, 1990 after 1126 performances. 

4. THE MOVIE DEAL HAPPENED RATHER QUICKLY.

The play’s immediate success led to some fast and furious interest in purchasing the movie rights. “It happened so quickly,” Harling told Garden & Gun. “With the buzz around the play in New York, there was a constant stream from Hollywood coming to check it out. Ray Stark bought the rights and promised me he’d film it in my hometown of Natchitoches, which really clinched the deal.”

5. BETTE DAVIS WANTED A PIECE OF STEEL MAGNOLIAS.

Bette Davis saw the play in New York and immediately began a push to be cast in the film as Ouiser (Shirley MacLaine’s part). She also thought that Katharine Hepburn could make a fantastic Clairee and Elizabeth Taylor would be a perfect Truvy. In 1989, Harling told The Morning Call how Davis had invited him to tea to lobby for the part. As he left, Davis told him, “You may give the role of Ouiser to someone else. But you and they will hear from Bette Davis.”

6. NICOLE KIDMAN PLAYED SHELBY IN SYDNEY.

One of Nicole Kidman’s earliest roles was playing Shelby in a Sydney stage version of the play. 

7. BEFORE SHE WAS SALLY, MEG RYAN WAS SHELBY.

Meg Ryan was briefly attached to the film to star as Shelby, but dropped out in order to take the lead in When Harry Met Sally… 

8. WINONA RYDER WAS ALSO A CONTENDER TO PLAY SHELBY.

Though the producers and director loved Ryder for the part of Shelby, she was ultimately deemed too young (she would have been just 16 when the movie began filming). Laura Dern was in the running, too, but the casting director insisted that the producers audition Julia Roberts, who was filming Mystic Pizza at the time.

9. AS SOON AS JULIA ROBERTS WALKED IN, HARLING KNEW SHE WAS IT.

“She walked into the room and that smile lit everything up and I said ‘That’s my sister,’” Harling told the Daily Mail. “So she joined the party and she was magnificent.” 

10. DARYL HANNAH WAS TOO ATTRACTIVE TO PLAY ANNELLE.

But she really, really wanted the part. When she showed up to audition, she was barely recognizable. "For Daryl, who had never played a character role up unto this point, it was a real departure and she sought out the role and convinced me and Ray Stark that she could handle the role," director Herbert Ross recalled

11. HERBERT ROSS WAS NOTORIOUSLY HARD ON HIS ACTRESSES.

“Herb Ross was basically a choreographer,” MacLaine said at a 2013 screening of the film. “That means he could be sometimes very stern and sometimes very harsh. My deepest memories of the film were how we bonded together after he told one of us or all of us we couldn't act.”

12. ROSS TOLD DOLLY PARTON TO TAKE SOME ACTING LESSONS.

At the same screening, MacLaine and Sally Field recalled how Ross once suggested that Dolly Parton take acting lessons. “You don't say that to Dolly Parton,” said Field. “Dolly Parton is absolutely the funniest, wittiest and filthiest, and she will cut you to ribbons.”

13. ROSS WAS PARTICULARLY HARD ON JULIA ROBERTS.

“He went after Julia with a vengeance,” Field recalled of the director. “This was pretty much her first big film.” MacLaine added that Roberts “would come to my house every night and say, ‘I think I'm terrible. What am I doing?’ and she really was in tears.” 

14. THE FILM EARNED JULIA ROBERTS HER FIRST OSCAR NOMINATION.

Despite a gaggle of A-list co-stars, Julia Roberts’ Best Supporting Actress Oscar nod was the only nomination the film received, though she lost to Brenda Fricker for My Left Foot. It would take Roberts another two nominations and 11 years to actually bring home the golden statue (she won her first and so far only Oscar in 2001 for Erin Brockovich). 

15. THE FILM WAS CRITICIZED FOR THE MALE ROLES’ LACK OF SUBSTANCE.

But the guys are lucky there were any roles for them in the film at all. Though the men are often talked about in the stage play, no men appeared on the stage at any time. In his review of the film for The New York Times, Vincent Canby noted that “The men in their lives are played by Sam Shepard, Tom Skerritt and Dylan McDermott, among others, but the male characters are no more substantial now than when they were invisible.” 

16. ROBERTS AND MCDERMOTT’S ON-SCREEN CHEMISTRY WAS REAL.

When filming began on Steel Magnolias, Roberts was dating Liam Neeson, her co-star in Satisfaction. She allegedly broke up with Neeson to begin dating McDermott, and the couple eventually became engaged before breaking up in 1990.

17. THE FILM PUT NATCHITOCHES ON THE MAP.

It was important to Harling that the film be shot in his hometown of Natchitoches, Louisiana, and its impact is still being felt today. "“For everyone who has seen the movie outside of Natchitoches it is synonymous with the movie," Arlene Gould, executive director of the Natchitoches Convention and Tourism Bureau, told The Shreveport Times. "It had a tremendous impact on the tourism trade and on our community.” 

18. STEEL MAGNOLIA TOURS ARE STILL BIG BUSINESS.

Visitors to Natchitoches who want to visit some of the film’s main locations can take an official tour

19. YOU CAN EVEN SLEEP IN M’LYNN’S HOUSE.

The bulk of the images of M’Lynn’s home are of the town’s Cook-Taylor House, which was built in the 1840s. A residential home at the time, the family who occupied the Natchitoches landmark relocated to an apartment during filming so as not to disturb the filmmakers. In 2003, the property was turned into a bed and breakfast and renamed The Steel Magnolia House

20. THE DOCTORS AND NURSES IN THE HOSPITAL SCENES ARE NOT ACTORS.

Intent on filming the story in as realistic a way as possible, Ross hired the actual doctors and nurses who looked after Susan Harling in her final days to do the same for Shelby on the set. The nurse who turns off Shelby’s life support in the film did the same for Susan in real life.

21. A TELEVISION SERIES BASED ON THE MOVIE DIDN’T TAKE OFF.

Though the series was not picked up for a full season run, CBS did air the Steel Magnolias series pilot in August 1990. 

22. A 2012 LIFETIME MOVIE PROVED MUCH MORE POPULAR.

In 2012, Lifetime remade Steel Magnolias with Queen Latifah, Phylicia Rashad, Alfre Woodard, Jill Scott, Adepero Oduyem, and Condola Rashad, which ended up becoming the channel’s third most watched original telecast of all time. But Harling was not a fan; though he was impressed by the remake’s caliber of actors, he didn’t appreciate that the story needed to be cut up in order to make room for commercial breaks.

23. SHIRLEY MACLAINE DOESN’T CONSIDER STEEL MAGNOLIAS A CHICK FLICK.

“To say it’s a women's film I don’t think that’s correct,” MacLaine told Entertainment Tonight. “If you've got women in your life bring them to see this film and you'll know much more about them when you go home.”

10 People Who Have Misplaced Their Oscars

Jeff Bridges accepts the Best Actor Oscar for Crazy Heart during the 82nd Annual Academy Awards in 2010.
Jeff Bridges accepts the Best Actor Oscar for Crazy Heart during the 82nd Annual Academy Awards in 2010.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Winning an Oscar is, for most people, a once-in-a-lifetime achievement. Unless you're Walt Disney, who won 22. Nevertheless, owning a little gold guy is such a rarity that you'd think their owners would be a little more careful with them. Now, not all of these losses are the winners' fault—but some of them certainly are (we're looking at you, Colin Firth).

1. Angelina Jolie

Angelina Jolie with her Oscar in 2000.
HO/AMPAS

At the 2000 Academy Awards ceremony, after Angelina Jolie planted a kiss on her brother and made the world collectively squirm, she went onstage and collected a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as Lisa in Girl, Interrupted. She later presented the trophy to her mother, Marcheline Bertrand. The statuette may have been boxed up and put into storage when Marcheline died in 2007, but it hasn't yet surfaced. "I didn't actually lose it," Jolie said, "but nobody knows where it is at the moment."

2. Whoopi Goldberg

Whoopi Goldberg with her Oscar.
Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

In 2002, Whoopi Goldberg sent her Ghost Best Supporting Actress Oscar back to the Academy to have it cleaned and detailed, because apparently you can do that. The Academy then sent the Oscar on to R.S. Owens Co. of Chicago, the company that manufactures the trophies. When it arrived in the Windy City, however, the package was empty. It appeared that someone had opened the UPS package, removed the Oscar, then neatly sealed it all back up and sent it on its way. It was later found in a trash can at an airport in Ontario, California. The Oscar was returned to the Academy, who returned it to Whoopi without cleaning it. "Oscar will never leave my house again," Goldberg said.

3. Olympia Dukakis

Olympia Dukakis with an Oscar statue.
Steven Henry/Getty Images

When Olympia Dukakis's Moonstruck Oscar was stolen from her home in 1989, she called the Academy to see if it could be replaced. "For $78," they said, and she agreed that it seemed like a fair price. It was the only thing taken from the house.

4. Marlon Brando

Marlon Brando in 1957.
Keystone/Getty Images

"I don't know what happened to the Oscar they gave me for On the Waterfront," Marlon Brando wrote in his autobiography. "Somewhere in the passage of time it disappeared." He also didn't know what happened to the Oscar that he had Sacheen Littlefeather accept for him in 1973. "The Motion Picture Academy may have sent it to me, but if it did, I don't know where it is now."

5. Jeff Bridges

Actor Jeff Bridges, winner of Best Actor award for
Jeff Bridges, winner of the Best Actor Oscar for Crazy Heart, poses in the press room at the 82nd Annual Academy Awards on March 7, 2010.
Jason Merritt/Getty Images

In 2010, Hollywood legend Jeff Bridges won his first-ever Oscar for his portrayal of alcoholic country singer Bad Blake in Crazy Heart, but it was already missing by the time next year's ceremony rolled around, when he was nominated yet again for his role in the Coen brothers's True Grit

When asked about his year-old statuette, Bridges admitted that "It's been in a few places since last year but I haven’t seen it for a while now." Finding the MIA Oscar seemed even more urgent when Bridges lost the 2011 Best Actor Oscar to Colin Firth for The King's Speech. "I'm hoping it will turn up, especially now that I haven't won a spare," Bridges said. "But Colin deserves it. I just hope he looks after it better." 

6. Colin Firth

Colin Firth with his Oscar in 2011.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Perhaps Jeff Bridges secretly cursed Colin Firth as he said those aforementioned words, because Firth nearly left his new trophy on a toilet tank the very night he received it. After a night of cocktails at the Oscar after-parties in 2011, Firth allegedly had to be chased down by a bathroom attendant, who had found the eight-pound statuette in the bathroom stall. Notice we said allegedly: Shortly after those reports surfaced, Firth's rep issued a statement saying the "story is completely untrue. Though it did give us a good laugh."

7. Matt Damon

Actor Matt Damon in 1999
Brenda Chase/Hulton Archive

When newbie writers Matt Damon and Ben Affleck took home Oscars for writing Good Will Hunting in 1998, it was one of those amazing Academy Award moments. Now, though, Damon isn't sure where his award went. "I know it ended up at my apartment in New York, but unfortunately, we had a flood when one of the sprinklers went off when my wife and I were out of town and that was the last I saw of it," Damon said in 2007.

8. Margaret O'Brien

Child actress Margaret O'Brien.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1945, 7-year-old Margaret O'Brien was presented with a Juvenile Academy Award for being the outstanding child actress of the year. About 10 years later, the O'Briens' maid took the award home to polish it, as she had done before, but never returned. The missing Oscar was forgotten about when O'Brien's mother died shortly thereafter, and when Margaret finally remembered to call the maid, the number had been disconnected. She ended up receiving a replacement from the Academy.

There's a happy ending to this story, though. In 1995, a couple of guys were picking their way through a flea market when they happened upon the Oscar. They put it up for auction, which is when word got back to the Academy that the missing trophy had resurfaced. The guys who found the Oscar pulled it from auction and presented it, in person, to Margaret O'Brien. "I'll never give it to anyone to polish again," she said.

9. Bing Crosby

Barry Fitzgerald (left) holds his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor while American actor Bing Crosby holds his Oscar for Best Actor, both for their roles in Going My Way; 1945.
Barry Fitzgerald (left) holds his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor while American actor Bing Crosby holds his Oscar for Best Actor, both for their roles in Going My Way; 1945.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

For years, Bing Crosby's Oscar for 1944's Going My Way had been on display at his alma mater, Gonzaga University. In 1972, students walked into the school's library to find that the 13-inch statuette had been replaced with a 3-inch Mickey Mouse figurine instead. A week later, the award was found, unharmed, in the university chapel. "I wanted to make people laugh," the anonymous thief later told the school newspaper.

10. Hattie McDaniel

A publicity still from 1939's Gone with the Wind; at the 1940 Academy Awards, Hattie McDaniel (left) won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress and Vivien Leigh (right) won Best Actress. Olivia de Havilland (center) was also nominated for Best Supporting A
A publicity still from 1939's Gone with the Wind; at the 1940 Academy Awards, Hattie McDaniel (left) won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress and Vivien Leigh (right) won Best Actress. Olivia de Havilland (center) was also nominated for Best Supporting Actress.

Hattie McDaniel, famous for her Supporting Actress win as Mammy in Gone with the Wind, donated her Best Actress Oscar to Howard University. It was displayed in the fine arts complex for a time, but went missing sometime in the 1960s. No one seems to know exactly when or how, but there are rumors that the Oscar was unceremoniously dumped into the Potomac by students angered by racial stereotypes such as the one she portrayed in the film.

The Most Successful Entertainment Production in History Might Just Surprise You

Goran Jakus Photography/iStock via Getty Images
Goran Jakus Photography/iStock via Getty Images

Last year, Marvel Studios capped off an unprecedented run of success with Avengers: Endgame, a movie promoted as the culmination of over 10 years of storytelling. The film made $2.8 billion, unseating 2009’s Avatar and knocking 1997’s Titanic down to third place. With nearly $3 billion in ticket sales, you would think Endgame would count as the most successful entertainment production of all time—be it a single movie, book, album, or video game.

It isn’t.

While it earned a staggering amount of money, Endgame is hobbled by the fact that theatrical runs last just a few weeks or months. To really roll in the dough, it helps to have a combination of high ticket prices and a show that runs almost in perpetuity. That’s why it’s another Disney production, the Broadway adaption of The Lion King, that can make a credible claim to being the most financially rewarding entertainment effort of all time. Since debuting in 1997, the stage show has grossed $9.1 billion. (The 1994 film, 2019 live action remake, and merchandising aren’t included in that total. If they were, the number rises to $11.6 billion.)

A theater sign for 'The Lion King' is pictured in New York City in March 2003
Mario Tama, Getty Images

The musical, adapted by Julie Taymor, follows the story of the animated original, with lion cub Simba learning to accept his role as king of the Serengeti Plains. It’s estimated the show has been mounted 25 times globally in nine different languages, with more than 100 million people purchasing a ticket to see it.

Does that make Endgame a distant second? Not quite. Another long-running musical, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera, has grossed more than $6 billion since its 1988 debut. The 2013 video game Grand Theft Auto 5 cleared $6 billion in 2018. And if one were to account for inflation, 1939’s Gone with the Wind made $3.44 billion.

The Lion King does have one asterisk, however. If inflation is taken into consideration, then 1978’s arcade classic Space Invaders comes out the winner. The popular coin-op game—which was later ported over to the Atari 2600—was a smash hit. By 1983, it had made $3.8 billion. Accounting for inflation, it earned $13.9 billion. What’s even more impressive is that unlike big-ticket movies and stage shows, Space Invaders did it one quarter at a time.

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