In the pantheon of rite-of-passage movie-viewing experiences for gay film fans (think The Women or All About Eve), few offer such continuous pleasure and imminently quotable dialogue as that “laughter through tears” heart-tugger Steel Magnolias.
Written by gay playwright Robert Harling as a tribute to his late sister, Steel Magnolias, for the uninitiated, follows the close friendship of several Southern women as they go through tribulations of romance, childbirth, and death. First produced off-Broadway in 1987, it was adapted two years later into a hit Oscar-nominated ensemble comedy starring Julia Roberts, Shirley MacLaine, Sally Field, Daryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis, and Dolly Parton. In the decades since quoting biting dialogue such as “You know what they say: If you don’t have anything nice to say about anybody, come sit by me!” has become something of a national gay pastime and it’s frequently shown on loop in video bars.
Perhaps still burned by the tepid 2008 redo of The Women, some fans were naturally skeptical earlier this year when cable network Lifetime announced an all-black remake, wondering if Hollywood is so stifled creatively that it would offer a compromised retelling of cherished material, albeit with a high-powered ensemble headed by Queen Latifah, Alfre Woodard, Phylicia Rashad, and Adepero Oduye (star of last year’s lesbian hit Pariah). It’s not entirely surprising to producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, who have overseen TV versions of musicals Annie and Gypsy, plus hit Broadway revivals of Promises, Promises and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
“You don’t get that criticism in the theater,” Meron says firmly. “They don’t ask, ‘Why are you doing Hamlet again?’” Part of the appeal for the two men was an opportunity for a third collaboration with Latifah. The entertainer, who costarred in their smash musical films Chicago and Hairspray, anchors the remake (in the role Field made famous), which will premiere October 7, with a stirring, Emmy-caliber performance that may be her best work.
Meron is clear on why the story continues to be a touchstone for LGBT viewers. “I think that the women are completely honest and sensitive with one another, and it’s a community that loves one another, and expresses emotions, but with bitchy lines, big hair, and deep emotions,” he says with a laugh. “Best of all: It’s smart. And I think gay people respond to smart material.”