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.”

21 Fun Facts About Elf

Warner Home Video
Warner Home Video

Everyone knows the best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear! But the second best way is to enjoy Elf. Revel in the giddy glow of this modern holiday classic with a slew of secrets from behind the scenes.

1. Jim Carrey was initially eyed to play Buddy the elf.

When David Berenbaum's spec script first emerged in 1993, Carrey was pre-Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and attached to front the Christmas film. However, it took another 10 years to get the project in motion, at which time Saturday Night Live star Will Ferrell was signed to star. Carrey would go on to headline his own Christmas offerings—the live-action How The Grinch Stole Christmas and the CGI animated A Christmas Carol.

2. Will Ferrell worked as a mall Santa.


Warner Bros.

And his A Night at the Roxbury co-star Chris Kattan was his elf. This was back when the pair were pre-Saturday Night Live, and part of the comedy troupe The Groundlings. Ferrell recollected to Spliced Wire, "I have some experience playing Santa Claus … Chris Kattan was my elf at this outdoor mall in Pasadena for five weeks, passing out candy canes. It was hilarious because little kids could care less about the elf. They just come right to Santa Claus. So by the second weekend, Kattan had dropped the whole affectation he was doing and was like (Ferrell makes a face of bitter boredom), 'Santa's over there, kid.'"

3. Director Jon Favreau favored practical effects.

Inspired by the Christmas specials he grew up with, Favreau explained in the film's commentary track that he employed “old techniques” instead of CGI whenever possible. This included stop-motion animation, and using forced perspective to make Buddy look like a giant among his elf peers. For North Pole scenes, two sets were built—one larger scale for the actors playing elves, the other smaller to make Buddy and Santa look big. These elements where then carefully overlaid in camera, using lighting to blend the seams.

4. Snow was often computer-generated.


Warner Home Video

Some effects just couldn't be practical. These included the snowflakes that drift over the opening credits, and many of the snowballs in Buddy's pivotal fight scene. It's probably not much of a shocker that much of these were added in post, considering Buddy's perfect aim. But to further underscore the drama that is a snowball fight in frosty New York, Favreau asked composer John Debney to give this section a Western vibe that would recall The Magnificent Seven.

5. Elf's production design was heavily influenced by Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer.

The classic stop-motion Christmas special from 1964 gave a memorable presentation of Santa's winter wonderland to which Favreau wanted to pay tribute. The elves' costumes in Elf were inspired by those worn by Hermey and his peers in the animated film. And Elf's workshops were modeled after the Rankin/Bass designs, as were the stop-motion animals of the area. The production did secure permission for these allusions, and was even granted the privilege of using the company's signature snowman.

6. There's a Christmas Story cameo.

Peter Billingsley, who memorably played the Red Ryder-wanting Ralphie in the 1983 holiday classic, popped in to play Ming the elf. It's an uncredited role, but between the glasses and those bright baby blue eyes, Billingsley stands out as an A Christmas Story Easter egg. This marks just one of many Billingsley and Favreau's collaborations. Billingsley has been a producer on several of Favreau's film and television projects.

7. Jon Favreau played multiple parts in Elf.

Jon Favreau directs Will Ferrell in 'Elf' (2003)
Alan Markfield, New Line Productions

As a writer/director/actor, Favreau has often appeared in his own films. He fronted Made with friend Vince Vaughn, and later found a sweet supporting role for himself in Iron Man. You may have picked him out as the doctor in Elf, but on the DVD commentary, Favreau revealed he also tapped in to his inner narwhal and provided the voices for some of the stop-animation critters who see Buddy off from the North Pole. He also voiced the rabid raccoon Buddy encounters.

8. Baby buddy was fired.

To play the bubbly baby version of the titular elf, Favreau had initially cast twin boys whose blonde curly hair made them great little doubles for the mop-topped Ferrell. However, the production ran into a problem when the boys couldn't perform. Instead of smiling and crawling as needed, they cried relentlessly. To replace them, brunette triplet girls were brought in, who were far perkier and more playful, and thereby ready for their close-ups.

9. Buddy was bullied in an early version.

In first drafts of Berenbaum's Elf script, Buddy's decision to seek out his dad was in part because he was being hassled by the actual elves for being different. Favreau pushed to take out this element. He preferred to keep the North Pole characters warm, even when Buddy bugs them. In the DVD commentary, Favreau offers, “It explained why Buddy was doing all these good things in New York if he grew up in a world where everybody was so sweet even when he’s obviously screwing everything up and doesn’t fit in at all.”

10. Elf hockey hit the cutting room floor.

Poor Buddy accidentally wreaks all kinds of havoc on his elf community because of his ungainly size. One such scene of his well-meaning mayhem featured Buddy playing hockey on a frozen pond. The friendly game becomes unintentionally violent when the too-big Buddy takes to the ice. Though it was shot, it ended up being chopped from the finished film.

11. Elf was shot on location in New York when it counted.

Like many productions, this one took advantage of the financial benefits of filming in Canada, and much of Elf was shot in sound stages in Vancouver. However, when Buddy comes to New York, it was important to Favreau to shoot on location whenever possible. This includes all the Manhattan exteriors, as well as scenes shot at Rockefeller Center, Central Park, and Central Park West, where Buddy's dad lives.

12. Some of Elf’s sets were built in a horror factory.

Okay, technically it was an abandoned mental hospital, where the production team constructed the interior sets for Walter's Central Park West apartment, Gimbels's lavish toy department, and that grim prison cell. The facility is called Riverview Hospital, and it has played host to a long list of film and television productions, including The X-Files, Final Destination 2, Jennifer's Body, and See No Evil 2.

13. Macy's stood in for Gimbels.

The sprawling department store that takes up a whole block in Manhattan was digitally altered to transform into Elf's Gimbels. A bit awkward: Gimbels was once a real department store, and a noted rival of Macy's. Though immortalized here and in the 1947 classic Miracle on 34th Street, the department store closed its doors in 1987, its 100th year of operation.

14. Will Ferrell broke James Caan.


Warner Home Video

The Academy Award-nominated star of The Godfather was hired to play Walter in part because Favreau wanted a stern persona to play against Ferrell's giddy Buddy, and Caan took the comedy of Elf seriously. He knew it was crucial for Walter to be annoyed—never amused—by his supposed son's antics. But when it came to the blood test scene where Buddy bellows when pricked by a needle, Caan cracked. Watch closely and you'll see he turns away from the camera so as not to ruin the take.

15. The studio didn't get a joke from the mailroom sequence.

This was the last set piece shot for Elf, and one that filmmakers were wavering on from its conception late in production. Grizzled Mark Acheson's casting as Buddy's drinking buddy concerned execs because of the line, "I'm 26 years old." The studio noted the actor does not look 26, to which Favreau—who had previously cast Acheson in a small role that had been cut before production—responded that this disconnect was part of the joke.

16. Will Ferrell went method with those jack-in-the-boxes.

In the scene where Buddy suffers as a toy tester, he's subjected to popping open an endless stream of menacing jack-in-the-boxes. The anxiety etched on Ferrell's face in these scenes is real. Rather than standard jack-in-the-boxes that would pop at the song's end, these were remote controlled by Favreau, who purposely manipulated their timing to toy with his star and get authentic reactions.

17. Will Ferrell frolicked all over New York City in character.

The final day of Elf's New York shooting was pared down from a massive crew to just three people: its star, its director, and one cameraman. Together, this trio traveled around the city, looking for mischief for Buddy to get into with random passersby turned background extras. This included him leapfrogging across a pedestrian walk, happily accepting flyers, and getting his shoes shined, all of which made it into the movie's cheerful montage.

18. That epic burp was real, but overdubbed.

Though uncredited, that lengthy belch came not from Ferrell, but from noted voice actor Maurice LaMarche, who might be best known for Brain of Pinky and the Brain. LaMarche shared his secret to such an impressive burp with The A.V. Club, saying, "I’ve always been able to do this weird effect, where I turn my tongue, not inside out, but almost. I create a huge echo chamber with my tongue and my cheeks, and by doing a deep, almost Tuvan rasp in my throat, and bouncing it around off this echo chamber, I create something that sounds very much like a sustained deep burp."

19. Elf made its star stick.

In the movie, Buddy is happy to gobble down an endless supply of sweets, including maple syrup-coated spaghetti and cotton balls made of cotton candy. But this sugary diet played havoc on Ferrell, who told About Entertainment, "That was tough. I ingested a lot of sugar in this movie and I didn't get a lot of sleep. I constantly stayed up. But anything for the movie, I'm there. If it takes eating a lot of maple syrup, then I will—if that's what the job calls for."

20. Will Ferrell refuses to make Elf 2.

Though the comedian reprised the role of Ron Burgundy for Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues and returned as Mugatu in Zoolander 2, he flat out rejected the possibility of bringing back Buddy, even after being offered a reported $29 million. In December of 2013, he told USA TODAY, "I just think it would look slightly pathetic if I tried to squeeze back in the elf tights: Buddy the middle-aged elf."

21. Elf became a hit Broadway musical.

From November 2010 to January 2011, Elf the musical ran on Broadway, boasting songs like "World's Greatest Dad," "Nobody Cares About Santa," and "The Story of Buddy The Elf." This run was a huge success, taking in more than $1.4 million in one week, a record for the Al Hirschfield Theater where it debuted. Plus, The New York Times called it, "A splashy, peppy, sugar-sprinkled holiday entertainment." A revival hit in time for Christmas 2012, and national tours have been recurring.

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