On the advice of a playwright friend, actor Robert Harling sat down and wrote a play about the pain his family went through when his sister Susan died of complications from diabetes. He wrote about the strong Southern women who surrounded his mother during her grief. The experience was cathartic, yet he was afraid to tell his parents about it. But the play was produced in 1987, moved to Broadway, and then to the silver screen. In a fascinating oral history, the people that were involved in Steel Magnolias tell the story from Susan's death to the filming of the movie in Natchitoches, Louisiana.
ROBERT HARLING Julia was so eager to have the stamp of approval from Mama and Daddy to play their daughter. She’d come over, and Daddy would cook hamburgers and they’d talk, and she’d write poetry and she’d read us the poetry, and Dolly would come over and sit on the sofa and play her guitar. It was just beyond surreal. Dolly wrote a song called “Eagle When She Flies.” It was written for the movie, and Herbert was going to play it over the credits, but he changed his mind. There’s a line about the “sweet magnolia” that originally had been “steel magnolia,” and she played it for my parents as she was writing it.
SHIRLEY MACLAINE It was really hot. There was Dolly with a waist cincher no more than sixteen inches around and heels about two feet high and a wig that must have weighed twenty-three pounds. And she’s the only one who didn’t sweat. She never complained about anything. Never. The rest of us were always complaining.
ROBERT HARLING We were shooting part of the Christmas scene, and this was in the dead of August, and we were sitting out on the porch of Truvy’s beauty shop. We were waiting, and there was a lot of stop and start. The women were dressed for Christmas, and Dolly was sitting on the swing. She had on that white cashmere sweater with the marabou around the neck, and she was just swinging, cool as a cucumber. Julia said, “Dolly, we’re dying and you never say a word. Why don’t you let loose?” Dolly very serenely smiled and said, “When I was young and had nothing, I wanted to be rich and famous, and now I am. So I’m not going to complain about anything.”