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Now and Then: In Two 'Steel Magnolias,' the Times Are Not A-Changin'

Photo of Matt Brennan By Matt Brennan | Thompson on Hollywood! May 14, 2013 at 3:07PM

The first thing one notices about "Steel Magnolias" (Herbert Ross, 1989) is the hair. Truvy's Beauty Shop overflows with tight-rolled pastel curlers and foot-high teases, held in place by enough hairspray to commit arson -- a style so far out of fashion it seems historical, as rococo as Marie Antoinette's bedsheets.

The cast of the original film adaptation of "Steel Magnolias" (1989)
The cast of the original film adaptation of "Steel Magnolias" (1989)

The new cast may manage to find fresh rhythms in the lines, and the remake's relative restraint (including the hairdos) is stylish where the former was garish. In losing much of the camp, however, Lifetime's "Steel Magnolias" also loses the earlier version's easiest excuse (and excuse is all it is, honestly). That there is no real attempt to investigate how almost a quarter-century or being African American in the South might change women's experiences and perspectives can no longer be explained away with, "but it's not supposed to be serious!" It's bad enough that the 1989 original made "9 to 5" look like "Rules for Radicals." A remake without revision is at best an empty shell, at worst a betrayal of promise. 

Then again, the ratings success of "Steel Magnolias" may be sadly emblematic of how little has changed since 1989, in reality as in Hollywood's version of it. Women still make 77 cents on the dollar compared with men in the same jobs. Women are still expected to do most of the housework, even when both spouses work full-time. Even the otherwise forward-looking Cannes Film Festival features yet another male-centric competition lineup (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi is the only woman director, and even that's an improvement over last year's big zero).

Shelby's statement, in both films, that she'd "rather have 30 minutes of something wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special" settles for less that what women deserve. As Sontag recognized, "we are better able to enjoy a fantasy as fantasy when it is not our own." The wrongheaded fantasy of "Steel Magnolias," now and then -- that bad husbands are trials to be borne, that women should run beauty salons but not companies -- remains a little close for comfort. The hair may be sleeker, but the politics are too much the same.

Lifetime's "Steel Magnolias" is now available on DVD. The 1989 theatrical version is available on Blu-ray, DVD, and VOD.

This article is related to: Now and Then, DVD / Blu-Ray, TV, Genres, Drama, Headliners

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.