Todd Takes On … Steel Magnolias

Steel Magnolias

Directed by Kenny Leon

Teleplay by Robert Harling and Sally Robinson (Adapted from the play and screenplay by Mr. Harling)

Starring Queen Latifah, Jill Scott, Phylicia Rashad, Alfre Woodard, Adepero Oduye, and Condola Rashad

Originally Broadcast – October 7, 2012 – Lifetime Television

When I first heard that Lifetime was going to produce an all African-American remake of Steel Magnolias, my reaction was utter glee with a mix of forehead-slapping and saying “That’s perfect!” and “Why hasn’t this happened sooner?”.

In the theatre world, there is always the discussion of color-blind casting; selecting actors for a particular role without regard to their race. While it is becoming more and more commonplace there are times when it simply does not work because the race of the characters is so built into the plot and themes of a script that recasting would do a disservice to the script. For example, could you imagine an all-white cast doing A Raisin In The Sun? It simply would not work because the themes and issues in that play are so specific to the African-American experience. (That said, there is a hilarious episode of Strangers With Candy that has a subplot involving Jerri Blank, played by the brilliant Amy Sedaris, getting cast as the mother Lena in her school’s production of A Raisin In The Sun, with an all-white cast. Hilarity, and various levels of cringing, ensues.)

Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias is a different matter entirely: all the script says is that it is set in a beauty parlor and various environs in a small town in Louisiana, and there is nothing in the script that explicitly says that Truvy and the regulars at her salon have to be white. In fact, upon hearing the news of the remake, my mind went into casting director mode dream casting the roles at various times since the play’s release (for example – a late 1980s/early 1990s cast with say Nell Carter or Jackée Harry as Truvy, Lynn Whitfield as M’Lynn, Isabella Sanford as Clairee, and Marla Gibb as Ouiser; or an ideal pairing around the end of the ’90s with Phylicia Rashad and Audra McDonald squaring off as M’Lynn and Shelby, with Kim Coles as Truvy and the late, great Lynne Thigpen as Ouiser).

Then I heard who was cast, and in what roles, as well as the production credits. And while my heart sank slightly as I had a very sneaking suspicion about the remake (which I’ll get back to in a minute), I was still eager to see the remake and see what this cast and crew would bring to the table. While there were some great moments and genuinely good performances, this remake felt leaden, heavy-handed, and ultimately fell apart for me as a viewer. And the frustrating thing is that it shouldn’t have been; with a few tweaks it would have been a worthy remake (more on those issues in a minute).

Before we go any further we must address the elephant in the room: Herbert Ross’s now iconic 1989 film version. What made that film so strong, besides having a pitch-perfect cast that was so simpatico with the material and one another, was that Ross’s direction was light and effortless, letting the script and the camaraderie of the cast do all of the heavy lifting, and letting the dramatic moments have enough room to invade this genial world. In the remake, director Kenny Leon’s pacing slows everything down to a glacial crawl for emotional “significance” that the side effect is that it takes the snap out of the comedic lines and makes the dramatic moments feel dull and bloodless.

As an example, let’s compare the scene early in the film where Shelby, while getting ready for her wedding, has an insulin attack at Truvy’s salon. In Leon’s remake it felt slowly detailed and felt like like it was nothing out of the ordinary, everyone moving with purpose to get the juice or cookies. In Ross’s version the attack truly “hit her fast” as Clairee said thanks to Ross’s use of quick cutting and the actresses playing the scene a frenetic pace to match the chaos of what’s going on in the script. There are plenty more examples just like this in the remake where Leon’s slow pace zaps the energy out of the story as a whole.

Leon’s slow direction also hampers his cast, most notably (and sadly) Jill Scott’s performance as Truvy. While Scott’s take on Truvy as being more kind with just enough acidity to make her interesting was a great idea, the slow pace not only drains her performance of energy but also takes the crackle out of Truvy’s many laugh lines. Also Adepero Oduye (who was so good in Pariah) and Condola Rashad are both miscast as Anelle and Shelby: in the case of the former, she’s left to flounder with no direction in an often thankless part, and in the case of the latter she seems to lack the internal fortitude that gives Shelby the strength to defy everyone to get what she wants. (Side Notes: All though the film, I had the sneaking feeling that Ms. Oduye and Ms. Rashad should have swapped roles. Also, I felt bad for Ms. Rashad who not only is sharing the screen with her mother, but has to take on a role that got Julia Roberts her first Oscar nomination.)

And speaking of that Ms. Rashad, the elder one is pitch-perfectly cast as Clairee, letting her sly sense of humor carry many of her scenes. (It pays to note that Mr. Leon and Ms. Rashad have a long-standing working relationship, culminating in him directing her in her Tony-winning performance as Lena in A Raisin In The Sun.) And while I was surprised by the casting, Alfre Woodard is a fantastic Ouiser, with a slightly more refined take on the role than what we’ve seen in the past. In fact the chemistry between Ms. Rashad and Ms. Woodard is sensational and their scenes together are the high points of this film.

There is one actress that I have not spoken of yet, and there’s a reason for it. Remember how I said that I had a sneaking suspicion about the remake when I heard about the cast and production team? Scroll up to the top of the post and look at the promotional art for the film. Which actress is literally head and shoulders above her co-stars? That’s right. When I heard that Queen Latifah was not only starring in the remake, but also co-producing it and playing M’Lynn, my first thought was “vanity project” with “Emmy bait” following close behind. And sadly, my suspicions were proven right; as much as I love her as an actress, Queen Latifah is a big reason why this remake doesn’t work.

While Steel Magnolias is an ensemble piece at its core, it is M’Lynn that has the most dramatic arc throughout the story, as she tries to hang on to control of her family and her life when everything slowly unravels. What made Sally Field’s performance as M’Lynn so strong was that there was a balance between the loving mother and the strong woman who was desperately trying to find answers to her life which culminated into that searing scene at the funeral which is in turns sad, desperate, and ultimately hilarious (for those poor souls who haven’t seen either film, I won’t spoil the moment).

Now let’s contrast this to Latifah’s take. Thanks to her performance (and the adaptation of the play and screenplay by Harling and Sally Robinson), M’Lynn never really deals from a position of losing control. When you combine Latifah’s natural strength on screen, the reassigning of lines in M’Lynn’s favor (M’Lynn’s line “That which does not kill us makes us stronger” is originally Clairee’s line to M’Lynn), and the too-slow direction all contribute to make this performance too mannered for its own good and too serene in contrast to the story. This isn’t to say that she shouldn’t play the role; far be it from me to disparage any actor creating work for themselves. But somewhere along the way, be it in the adaptation or the direction, the circumstances conspired against her and hindered her performance.

On one hand, this remake of Steel Magnolias has succeeded; Lifetime reported that it drew record numbers of viewers. And if it inspires more African-American actresses to take on these roles then it truly has succeeded. But judging it on it’s own terms, against an overly-sanitized lead performance coupled with leaden pacing and directing that buffered out any emotional contrast, this remake is not the clear success it deserved to be.

 Originally published as part of “The Idiot Box,” my column for l’etoile magazine, on 9 October, 2012.

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