August 23, 2013 at 04:00 AM EDT

Building Characters
In all of Joss Whedon’s work — whether it’s an adaptation of Shakespeare or a summer blockbuster — there’s a decidedly Whedon-esque sense of yearning for fairness and belonging. And in James Hibberd’s excellent, wide-ranging interview in this issue, he gets to the heart of the artist. Whedon talks quite a bit about growing up lonesome. He spent a lot of time in his room with

John Williams’ music and his own imagination. He was a small kid, and vividly remembers getting beaten up by a group of guys near a newsstand on Broadway as pedestrians rushed by, pretending not to notice. Those experiences seem to inform just about every character in his work — like Buffy, the petite teenager who learns to slay vampires, or the band of misfits offering justice and protection in The Avengers. Whedon stays true to the audience by staying true to himself, and it’s why his fans feel such a deep connection to him. Whedon is living proof that trauma plus talent can yield some great entertainment.

Last weekend I had just read Hibberd’s Whedon interview when I heard that Margaret Harling from Natchitoches, La., had passed away at age 90. A former mental-health counselor who was active in historic preservation, Margaret wasn’t exactly famous, but she was the inspiration for a monumental character: M’Lynn Eatenton, the mother in Steel Magnolias who loses her daughter to diabetes. Margaret’s son Robert Harling, an old friend of mine, wrote Steel Magnolias in the mid-1980s not only as a way of dealing with the loss of his sister but also to honor the beautiful fortitude of their Mama. Through her son’s original play — now performed in a multitude of languages around the globe — and the 1989 movie starring Sally Field as M’Lynn, Margaret’s generous spirit has been entertaining and inspiring audiences now for a quarter century. I met the lady Robert calls ”the original Steel Magnolia” a couple of times. She was an elegant though practical and bighearted woman. You could say with some certainty that no one will ever make a better coconut cake than she did. Thanks to her own remarkable character, and the remarkable character it inspired, Margaret Harling will outlive us all.

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