I don’t dismiss the value of remakes out of hand. I don’t declare them to be the end of civilization as we know it (as some are inclined to do) or screech endlessly about Hollywood’s lack of creativity.
After all, there are numerous examples of remakes that found fresh, compelling things to say with once or even oft told material. From Martin Scorsese‘s Cape Fear to Baz Luhrmann‘s take on Romeo + Juliet to last years’ Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, successful remakes bring an unusual perspective to characters we thought we knew or become enlivened by lifting something hidden in the subtext and transporting it to the fore with purpose and storytelling urgency.
So when it was announced that Lifetime TV would remake the much-loved and admired Steel Magnolias, this time with super producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan (Chicago, Hairspray) at the helm and an all-African-American cast (including one Tony winner and two Oscar nominees), I was curious and, dare I say, quite optimistic about what could result.
It’s not as though this simple tale, about six southern women gathering at a beauty salon to celebrate their joys and comfort each other through their sorrows, couldn’t use some freshening up. Maybe this would be the perfect vehicle to explore what it means in this day and age to be an African-American woman in the south.
Could changing the race of these characters open up new avenues to explore in such a well-known work? Perhaps. Unfortunately, Steel Magnolias (2012) doesn’t explore any of them.
In fact, it is seems content being a near carbon-copy of the original. And after taking into consideration the rather (cough) ambitious bar that it sets for itself, I can only say that this version seems a failure of imagination, and a waste of great casting.
Instead of treating this made-for-TV film as its own beast, something that I would’ve happily emphasized had it bothered to differentiate itself from the original, I can’t help but compare it to the 1989 movie. As such, there are mild, 23-year-old spoilers in this review. So if you’ve never seen Steel Magnolias (in any form) and want to be unaware going in, you may want to stop reading now.
The rest of you know the story. M’Lynn (Queen Latifah) and her only daughter Shelby (Condola Rashad) are preparing for Shelby’s wedding to Jackson (Tory Kittles).
The planning of the event may be stressful for M’Lynn, but the idea of her daughter moving beyond her laser-like supervision alarms her to no end. Shelby is diabetic and her organ functions could be seriously compromised if Shelby and Jackson decided to have children. This marriage and her emancipation from home means that Shelby and Jackson are on their own to decide how they want to start their family, whether M’Lynn likes it or not.
Meanwhile, the unsteady and unconfident Annelle (played with the brave acting choice of near catatonia by Adepero Oduye), arrives at Truvy’s (Jill Scott) to work in her beauty salon. Soon, the spry and fun former first lady of Chikapee Parish, Clairee Belcher (Phylicia Rashad), arrives and immediately begins gossiping with Truvy about her new employee.
“I just love the idea of someone with a past.” Truvy declares.
“She can’t be more than nineteen,” counters Clairee. “She’s hasn’t had time to get herself a past.”
“This is the age of Facebook. If you can type, you can achieve a past.”
Shelby and M’Lynn arrive at the salon for the wedding day prep. Soon enough, they are joined by Ouiser Boudreaux (Alfre Woodard), a cantankerous, two-time widow who’s been in a very bad mood for forty years.
There you have it. The sextet is set. We will follow these women for a period of a couple of years as they navigate marriage, children, emergency surgeries, religious conversions and the pitfalls of accent lighting. On these, and all big occasions, they will gather at Truvy’s Salon (there is no such thing as natural beauty) to gossip, laugh and heal each other’s broken hearts.
Only, this time, it has all of the spirit and energy of a cadaver. I swear I wanted to jump through the screen with a crash cart and paddles just to jolt this thing back to life.
The whole enterprise feels conquered from the opening scenes and never finds a path to victory. Because the adaptation by Sally Robinson adds nothing new or engaging to the material and Kenny Leon direction contains all the vitality of an afternoon on C-SPAN, the actors are given absolutely nothing innovative to engage and make their own.
So, early in the film when poor Shelby falls into a state of hypoglycemia, she looks about as bothered as if watching My Big Redneck Wedding for the first time. When Truvy laments about her husband not romancing her enough, it has all of the emotional impact of a Mitt Romney speech.
And don’t get me started on the badly staged “Slap Ouiser” scene, which is supposed to be the dramatic and comedic highlight of the entire film.
Except for the few moments when the elder Rashad gets to show off her effortless charm, every performer lumbers through this story like it’s the first day of Basic Training. They utter their lines with such defeated preordainments that we lose all feeling of spontaneity. And for this story to be successfully (re)mounted, spontaneity, or at least the illusion of it, is absolutely vital.
Allow me a few moments to place the 1989 version in (I believe) proper perspective. We are not talking about an august example of cinema, here. It’s pure (and forgive the misogynistic terminology here) Chick-Flick formula, even down to the cliché where the first woman who even coughs in the beginning is inevitably going to die by the end.
So why is it remembered so fondly after all these years? This piece goes a long way in explaining why. I’ll simply add that I believe it is that rare film that has its own distinct personality. The cinematic version of comfort food that is bolstered by impressive superstar performances that purposefully run counter to schmaltz that could have easily overwhelmed it. It may not be the most sophisticated fare, but it remains sharp and funny and true to this day.
That is, perhaps, the very reason this group of mega talents got together to remake it. And with great talent like Rashad, Queen Latifah, Jill Scott and Alfre Woodard on board, I am firm in the belief that they could have created their own brand of magic… had anyone given themselves permission to step away from the ghosts of 1989.
The real shame of this remake is that we’ll never know how impressive that version could have been.
Steel Magnolias airs on the Lifetime Network this Sunday, October 7th at 9/8c.