No use fighting it — this laugh-getting, tear-jerking, part-affecting, part-appalling display of audience manipulation is practically critic-proof. Robert Harling’s long-running off-Broadway play concerns six women who regularly congregate in a Louisiana beauty parlor. Now Harling, who based the story on his mother and sister and their gal pals, has gussied up his stage hit for the movies. And producer Ray Stark and director Herbert Ross have wisely hired the luminous likes of Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis and Julia Roberts. The result can best be described as shamelessly entertaining.
Field has the key role of the self-sacrificing mother who would do anything, even donate a kidney, to save her sick daughter, played by Roberts (actor Eric’s radiant sister). Field has the attention-getting “big” scenes. But hold on. Our gal Sal already has two Oscars, and though she’s fine in the role, I think a third exhibit of how much Academy members really like her would be overdoing it. Steel Magnolias may be many things, but art isn’t one of them. For the real fun, stick with MacLaine as the town crank and Dukakis as the wealthy widow who goads her to distraction; they’re priceless. As the beauty-shop owner, Parton is sassysweet, and a deglamorized Hannah is surprisingly winning as her spacey assistant.
Male characters — heard of but never seen onstage — turn up in the persons of Tom Skerritt, Sam Shepard, Dylan McDermott and Kevin J. O’Connor. But men are not the point in this film. Steel Magnolias belongs to its actresses, who have tapped into some fundamental truths about the strength women derive from one another. Stale contrivances can’t stop them. The ladies are live wires. Just stand back and watch them set off sparks.