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'Steel Magnolias': The Heartbreaking True Story Behind the Southern Classic

Screengrab via YouTube

The classic 1989 film Steel Magnolias is one of the all time great southern films. It helped put Julia Roberts on the map and gave us one of the iconic casts in movie history. But the film, directed by Herbert Ross, came about because of a very real tragedy and a brother's determination to honor his late sister.

The True Story Behind 'Steel Magnolias'

steel magnolias cast
Photo by ASSOCIATED PRESS

Louisiana-native Robert Harling was an aspiring actor in New York when his younger sister, Susan Harling Robinson, got sick. Just like in the film, Susan, who had been diabetic since the age of 12, married and decided to start a family despite the concerns of her doctors. She gave birth to a baby boy in 1983. Soon after, her kidneys and circulatory system began to fail. In 1985, following dialysis and a kidney transplant from her mother, Susan died during a minor surgery.

Determined to keep his sister's memory alive, Harling channeled his grief into a stage play.

''I was really impressed, during the last five arduous years of my sister's life, how the women of the community all pulled together,'' Harling told The New York Times in 1987.

Harling says he was inspired by the dynamic between his mother and her friends, who often gathered at the local beauty parlor.

"When I was a kid, the mystique of the beauty parlor was that guys were never allowed," Harling told Garden & Gun in 2019. "You didn't know what went on in there, and they all came back different somehow. I realized this hermetically sealed environment would be the best place to have these women express their true feelings."

Each character in the movie was based on real people. Yes, even Ouiser.

"All the characters were based on real people, Mama's friends," Harling said. "I've never told a living soul who Ouiser is based on. After the play had some success and everybody from Natchitoches went up to New York to see it, I was really worried because Ouiser's such a crotchety old curmudgeon. And lo and behold, every woman in town was saying, 'He based Ouiser on me.'"

While he may never share the true origins of Ouiser, Harling says Truvy, portrayed by Dolly Parton in the film, was based on Texas-born actress Margo Martindale (Justified, August: Osage County,  The Americans). (Martindale originated the role of Truvy in the stage play.)

"At the time, Margo was a working actress from Jacksonville, Texas, and she had this incredible voice," Harling told Garden & Gun. "I wanted a name that fit her. I thought, since people come to the salon to tell the truth, there's something about Truvy. It sounds like something her granddaddy might have called her as a kid. She loved it."

The play was a hit. Soon after, producer Ray Stark optioned the film rights. Julia Roberts earned the role of Shelby Eatenton and the cast was complete with Parton as Truvy Jones, Sally Field as M'Lynn Eatenton, Olympia Dukakis as Clairee Belcher, Daryl Hannah as Annelle Dupuy Desoto and Shirley Maclaine as Ouiser Boudreaux.

 

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Below, remember the humor and heart of Steel Magnolias with a roundup of our favorite quotes from the film.

'Steel Magnolias' Quotes

"My colors are blush and bashful." -- Shelby

"There's so much static electricity in the room, I pick up everything but boys and money." -- Truvy

 

 

"The only reason people are nice to me is because I have more money than God." -- Ouiser

 

 

"Oh, Sammy's so confused that he don't know whether to scratch his watch or wind his butt." -- Truvy

 

 

"If he's trying to drive me crazy, it's too late." -- M'Lynn

 

"I try not to eat healthy food if I can possibly help it." -- Ouiser

 

"Well, we went skinny dippin' and we did things that frightened the fish." -- Shelby

 

 

"Very good, Annelle! Spoken like a true smart-ass!"

 

"I haven't left the house without Lycra on these thighs since I was 14." -- Truvy

 

"When it comes to pain and sufferin', she's right there with Elizabeth Taylor." -- Truvy

 

"Miss Truvy, I promise that my personal tragedy will not interfere with my ability to do good hair." -- Annelle

 

"I'm not as sweet as I used to be." -- Ouiser

 

"I have a strict policy that nobody cries alone in my presence." -- Truvy

 

"The only thing that separates us from the animals that are our ability to accessorize." -- Clairee

"I'm not crazy, M'Lynn. I've just been in a very bad mood for 40 years." --Ouiser

"I just like the idea of growing old with somebody." -- Shelby

 

"I'd recognize this penmanship anywhere. You have the handwritin' of a serial killer." -- Clairee

 

"There is no such thing as natural beauty." -- Truvy

 

"Are you high, Clairee?" -- Ouiser

 

"Well, you know they say: If you can't say anything nice about anybody, come sit by me." --Clairee

 

"This is the eighties. If you can achieve puberty, you can achieve a past." -- Truvy

 

"I'm just too colorful for words." -- Clairee

 

"I do not see plays, because I can nap at home for free. And I don't see movies 'cause they're trash, and they got nothin' but naked people in 'em! And I don't read books, 'cause if they're any good, they're gonna make 'em into a miniseries." -- Ouiser

 

"Honey, time marches on and eventually you realize it is marchin' across your face." -- Truvy

 

"Don't try to get on my good side...I no longer have one." -- Ouiser

 

"You know I love you more than my luggage." -- Clairee

 

My secrets out. I'm having an affair with a Mercedes Benz!" -- Ouiser

 

"In a good shoe, I wear a size six, but a seven feels so good, I buy a size eight." -- Truvy

 

"A dirty mind is a terrible thing to waste." -- Ouiser

 

"Smile! It increases your face value." -- Truvy

 

"I would rather have 30 minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special." -- Shelby

 

"We'll sell t-shirts sayin' 'I SLAPPED OUISER BOUDREAUX!'" -- Clairee

 

 

I Slapped Ouiser Boudreaux Steel Magnolias Shirt Unisex

 

 

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'Steel Magnolias': The Heartbreaking True Story Behind the Southern Classic