On Nov. 15, 1989, the Herbert Ross-directed dramedy Steel Magnolias opened in theaters across the U.S. Based on Robert Harling’s successful stage play and starring Sally Field, Olympia Dukakis, Shirley MacLaine, Dolly Parton, Daryl Hannah, and a promising young actress named Julia Roberts, it told the story of six Southern women who bonded over the comedy and tragedy life dealt them while hanging out at the local small-town hair salon.
Today, Steel Magnolias is considered a classic of that certain genre of films tailored to and marketed toward female audiences—“chick flicks.” In fact, the Wikipedia entry for “chick flick” lists Steel Magnolias as a “prominent example,” and a recent compilation of the “30 Best & Worst Chick Flicks” named it the fourth-best film in the genre and described it as “one of the quintessential chick flicks.” Steel Magnolias is now such an overwhelmingly gendered phenomenon that guys who like it and decide to publicize that fact on the Internet sometimes hedge their opinions with disclaimers like this one: “I am secure enough in my manhood to proudly proclaim that I enjoy chick flicks—good ones, at least.”
But there was a time, 25 years ago—before the molasses-sweet Steel Magnolias had jelled into its place in the grander canon of beloved girls’-night-in movies—when it was less clear what to really make of it. Early reviews were mixed: Some critics found it weepy but ultimately winning; others thought the film’s brassy sentimentality undermined its real emotional impact. And some took issue with its portrayals of men.
There were a few points, of course, that critics largely agreed upon. For starters, this Julia Roberts gal—then frequently identified as the newcomer sibling of established actor Eric Roberts—was a real winner. Mike Clark of USA Today wrote, presciently, that Roberts’ performance offered “further proof that she’s going to be a jumbo star.” In praising Roberts’ performance, Rolling Stone‘s Peter Travers referred to the actress as “actor Eric [Roberts’] radiant sister,” and David Ansen at Newsweek wrote that “Julia Roberts—who sparkled in Mystic Pizza—lights up the screen with her liquid fire.” (Reviews were divided on the rest of the cast. It remains unclear whether Shirley MacLaine, in particular, was the worst or best part of the film.)
Many critics also agreed that Steel Magnolias was some sort of lesser mutation of 1983’s Terms of Endearment. It did, after all, share elements like a mother-daughter bond interrupted by an illness, and Shirley MacLaine. According to the Globe and Mail, Steel Magnolias was “everything Terms of Endearment‘s detractors accused Terms of being.” Newsweek wrote that it “blatantly tries to trigger memories of Terms of Endearment.” Other creative comparisons identified Magnolias as “a sappy, melodramatic Terms of Endearment Goes South” (People), “like a road company version of Terms of Endearment” (the New York Times), and “for all its pretensions, … closer to Miss Firecracker than to Terms of Endearment” (Roger Ebert).
But, looking back, perhaps the most intriguing criticism of Steel Magnolias dealt with whether it did or didn’t have a man problem.
Hal Erickson’s widely syndicated review, for example, expressed some disappointment with the film’s handling of its supporting male characters: “The film stumbles a bit in its depiction of the male characters as fools and deadheads,” he wrote.
Hal Lipper of the St. Petersburg Times, meanwhile, asserted that “regrettably, the men are caricatures.” He and New York Times reviewer Vincent Canby both lamented the film’s decision to have actors play the leading ladies’ husbands, sons, and boyfriends onscreen at all. (In the stage show, the male characters only existed offstage.) “The male characters are no more substantial now than when they were invisible,” Canby wrote.
Robert Novak of People took it a step further when he wrote, “Men in general and Southern men in particular may want to consider drumming this movie’s director, Herbert Ross, and its writer (adapting his own play), Robert Harling, out of the fraternity.”
Novak continued: “So ludicrous are the male figures that the women, their strength and perseverance obviously being manifested in a cartoonish universe, more and more come to seem like caricatures. … There is literally not one strong male figure in the movie,” he concluded. (Shhh, nobody tell this guy what it’s like to be a woman watching an action movie.)
Peter Travers, meanwhile, noted in Rolling Stone that the male characters were scarce and underdeveloped—but then again, he pointed out, male characters also weren’t the point. “Steel Magnolias belongs to its actresses,” he wrote, “who have tapped into some fundamental truths about the strength women derive from one another.”
Peter Rainer of the Los Angeles Times echoed that sentiment. Rainer wrote that the men had been victims of “wimpification,” but that it was at least amusing to observe. “Because few films feature as many women as this one does, their prominence here is a form of pay-back. They’ve seized the screen from the big boys and they won’t let go,” he wrote.
Roger Ebert, for his part, noted that the men “do not amount to much in this movie.” But this, he concluded, was “a woman’s picture.” “The principal pleasure of the movie is in the ensemble work of the actresses … Steel Magnolias is willing to sacrifice its over-all impact for individual moments of humor, and while that leaves us without much to take home, you’ve got to hand it to them: The moments work.”
(Click here to watch Ebert discuss Steel Magnolias with Gene Siskel. They start discussing the movie right around the 10:50 mark—and Siskel is notably less enthused about Steel Magnolias.)
It’s intriguing to note, on a variety of levels, that in 1989, the overwhelming majority of prominent national outlets published Steel Magnolias reviews written by men. A notable, glorious exception, of course, is The New Yorker, which ran Pauline Kael’s unforgettable one-sentence-long review: “Chalk scraping over a blackboard for two hours.” But when Lifetime aired an all-African American remake of Steel Magnolias in 2012, the gender ratio among reviewers was decidedly more balanced.
That’s not to suggest that Steel Magnolias is such a gendered phenomenon that it was ever wrong or unacceptable for men to watch or appreciate it. But there’s a certain poignance to the fact that there was a time, before it was permanently shuffled into the chick-flick canon, when men were the ones talking, often favorably, about Steel Magnolias. Roger Ebert, it’s worth noting, was a fan of the film—a quiet fan, but a fan nonetheless. “I doubt if any six real women could be funny and sarcastic so consistently (every line is an epigram),” he wrote in his review, “but I love the way these women talk, especially when Parton observes: ‘What separates us from the animals is our ability to accessorize.'”