Friday, May 10, 2024

Reunited: "Turning" to "Steel!"

Considering how impactful the movie (and its parent play) Steel Magnolias (1989) has been on my life, it's remarkable that I've really referred to it or written about it precious little here in Poseidon's Underworld. But it you come here much, you know I most often dig up buried "treasure" versus focusing on projects that everyone already is more than familiar with. I did dig something up, which I'll share in a bit, though it's debatable how close to treasure it is! First, though, I'll mention my recent trip to the cinema in order to attend the 35th anniversary screening of the movie (a 4K video release has also made its way onto the market.) A close, longtime friend of mine suggested that we take it in and we enjoyed great, comfortable seats for what was an expansive view of the picture. This allowed me to see all sorts of little details in the background (or elsewhere) that I have missed over the years, especially those cropped VHS ones! Steel Magnolias was the very first DVD I purchased and was the reason I made the leap to DVDs from my VCR. It's because it contained deleted scenes and I just HAD to see those asap. Would you believe I'm so blond that after decades now of owning the disc, I only found out the other evening that there was a second "page" of excised scenes that I had heretofore not watched!! How do I make through each day, I ask you... Anyway, the movie was a visual delight from start to finish and still packs an emotional punch, too, amid all the hilarious moments. Trivia tidbit: The photo shown above right (which seemingly every community theatre group in the country has aped ever since when promoting their renditions of the play) has a secret. Olympia Dukakis wasn't there...! She couldn't attend the shoot, so Shirley MacLaine had to cling to a body double and, later, the real star's face was pasted in.

In the film, Shirley MacLaine and Tom Skerritt play warring neighbors. There's a dispute over ownership of a magnolia tree, compounded by Skerritt's endless antagonizing of her hyper-sensitive yet nonetheless rambunctious St. Bernard.

While she's reached an age when she no longer cares to hold her tongue nor filter her thoughts for those around her, she considers him horrendously uncouth in his own right. As he needles her for a piece of groom's cake at his daughter's wedding, the irascible MacLaine hacks off a large portion of the armadillo-shaped cake's tail end!

Taking the grey-iced piece of red velvet cake with tail attached, he lets her know he always did like a nice "piece of ass!" Of course, we all know that even amid their considerable differences, there is buried affection there. I always enjoy a later, brief, moment when, at his daughter's funeral, she walks by him and gives him a knock along his shoulder. It's the closest she was ever going to get to a hug with him, and it's understood.

Somehow out of the blue it occurred to me during this most recent screening that Skerritt and MacLaine were well-acquainted from a prior project. In fact, the same director Herbert Ross, was at the helm for both movies. Seen here, the two played a married couple in The Turning Point (1977), about a dozen years before sparring in Magnolias.

As Skerritt and Sally Field fretted over their daughter with the long, auburn hair in Magnolias, Skerritt and MacLaine had their own child whose future was very much in the forefront of their minds in Point.

I saw The Turning Point in the theater when I was ten (!), so most of its dramatic weight likely sailed right over my head. So revisiting after watching the more familiar Magnolias, it's fun to observe these two as a devoted couple versus portraying feuding cranks.

Drum and Ouiser as an intimate married couple.

The characters both play retired ballet dancers and it was intriguing to watch them discuss the fact that she felt that having his baby would prove to the world that he wasn't gay -- only to have him announce that he also needed to prove this, to himself!

Get a load of the way director Ross blocked this moment in the movie...! Both my pal and I noticed the use of mirrors as we re-watched Magnolias at the screening, but there was nothing on the level of this shot!

Regardless of the animosity they demonstrated in Magnolias, Skerritt and MacLaine were good friends and she was elated to be reunited with him on Donahue during a publicity appearance for the film with all the ladies except Darryl Hannah. (The perennially shy Hannah refused to come and face a live crowd or answer their probing and sometimes inappropriate questions.)

Those familiar with the movie will recall the climactic scene at the grave site in which Field finally suffers an emotional breakdown after having held it together for the longest time.

Her friends are powerless in the face of all this unbridled rage and confusion.

In an effort to release the tension, Dukakis puts forth MacLaine as a potential punching bag for Field to use as a stress reliever! A small scuffle breaks out. Interestingly, this "laughter through tears" moment (from the play) was not unfamiliar to director Ross.

In The Turning Point, the story climaxes with a blistering argument between MacLaine and her longtime frenemy Ann Bancroft, culminating in a wild cat fight. But, finally, after kneeing, clawing and even spanking one another, the two women dissolve into laughter.

Bancroft even borrows MacLaine's comb in order to try to repair some of the damage. ("I don't know how you're doin' on the inside, but your hair's holdin' up beautifully...")

The Turning Point was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, but was left empty-handed at the end of the evening. (Is that about the worst conceivable rendering of MacLaine imaginable?!)

Magnolias landed but ONE nomination (for Julia Roberts, who lost to Brenda Fricker in My Left Foot.) One might have thought at minimum that it's deliberately tacky production design and art direction might have been nominated, not to mention the unforgettable music by Georges Delerue. Regardless of what any of the ladies said to the press or to interviewers, filming was for the most part a horrible nightmare thanks to the taciturn, cruel, demanding behavior of director Ross, who was acting out after the recent death of his wife and lost a lot of his prestige as a result. But the finished product doesn't betray this, with the actresses delivering memorable performances.

I mentioned earlier how so many community theatre groups aped the famous shot of the six actresses embracing in a row. When I directed the show in 1988, I eschewed that concept (because otherwise how else could I get my own fat face into the shots!? Ha ha!) This photo was taken at an early dress rehearsal before the set decor was applied and without all of the makeup and hair details being done. The ladies were DYNAMITE and at the time set a record for the number of local awards won for that small, less-prominent theatre troupe. Three of them won acting certificates and the ensemble won as a whole (which went to me.)

I also told you at the beginning of this post that I'd done a little digging... Who among you remembers this?!?! I had to have either forgotten about it entirely or blocked it out of my mind like some traumatic event. It was a 1990 television pilot for a half-hour series of Steel Magnolias. It aired once on CBS and was rarely seen again. (Are you seriously telling me that this is the headstone that the Eatentons and her lawyer husband installed for Shelby?!?!)

The program hasn't even gotten underway before the horror begins. Having been told that his mother is in the nearby grave, her toddler son Jack Jr exclaims, "Then dig her up...!" This dour, misguided retread was written by the same author as the play and the movie, but it did not sell as a series.

Even realizing that the video quality of the YT upload is substandard and that it surely looked better than this upon airing, it's still a gauzy, dimly-lit fiasco with recycled humor and situations. She might look the part all right, but Kirland is too New York for this role and her deep voice and lack of effervescence lies in start contrast to the inimitable Dolly Parton.

Likewise, Bergen and Stritch seem like solid casting, but I could only roll my eyes when Stritch handed Bergen a magazine about cosmetic surgery and suggesting that maybe she try it when Bergen has clearly already undergone eye work and probably several other things...!

In this version, M'Lynn wasn't a mental health counselor, but instead worked at a brewery called Shotz. (I'm kidding... that's a lame Laverne & Shirley joke. Actually, Ms. Williams was trying, and wasn't bad, but this was mostly a non-starter no matter what.) You can watch it and see what you think right here.

One of the more fascinating trivia tidbits was in the casting of the soon-to-be new Mrs. Jackson Latcherie. (In real life, Susan Harling's - the basis for Shelby - widower remarried within a year of her death.) This new character was played by Dana Morosini. Her own life would play out at or beyond the level of the story behind Magnolias.

Already by that time, she was the girlfriend of handsome Christopher Reeve. They would wed in 1992 after she became pregnant with their son. In 1995, Reeve suffered the accident that would paralyze him until his death in 2004 at 52. Dana Reeve passed away of lung cancer (attributed to secondhand smoke from her singing career in nightclubs) at 44 in 2006. It was a tragedy worthy of a movie in its own right! Their legacy lives on, though, through the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, which seeks cures and treatments for neurological disorders. 

And that brings down the curtain on this post!


Alan Scott said...

I heard a story during filming that Herbert Ross once snapped at Dolly Parton, "Can you even act?"
To which she replied, "No, but it's your job to make it look like I can!"

Love this movie!

hsc said...

Herbert Ross was a former dancer turned choreographer turned film director. His wife of many years was famed prima ballerina Nora Kaye; after retiring from performing, she assisted him on a number of his films and co-produced several, including THE TURNING POINT.

Kaye died of cancer in early 1987, about a year and a half before STEEL MAGNOLIAS started production. Around the time the film wrapped in September 1988, he married ("Princess") Lee Radziwill; they finalized a divorce months before Ross' death in 2001. Years later Radziwill told the NYT, "Herbert had been married to the ballerina Nora Kaye until she died, and unbeknownst to me was still obsessed by her. It was 'Nora said this, Nora did it like that, Nora liked...' ."

So all things considered, it's easy to see why at this point, Herbert Ross was NOT the right director for a film that deals with the illness and death of a beloved female family member. And given his track record of successful films, it's sad to see how his career diminished after the loss of his wife and creative partner.

I'm glad you made the connection to THE TURNING POINT; I had also seen this one in the theater when it was out (I remember a review dismissing Tom Skerritt as "a bland moustache") but hadn't noted two of the stars working together again for the same director when I later saw STEEL MAGNOLIAS. And there's *another* layer beyond MacLaine and Skerritt playing the concerned parents of a pretty, long-haired daughter.

The characters in TTP are based on real people connected to Herbert Ross-- the Anne Bancroft role is based on Nora Kaye, while MacLaine's character is based on her lifelong close friend Isabel Mirrow, a principal dancer with American Ballet Theater who married another ABT dancer, left dance and opened a dance school in Arizona with her husband, then returned to NYC when their daughter wanted to pursue her own dance career. Unlike the film, in real life the couple divorced before Isabel moved back to NYC.

Furthermore, in real life the daughter, Leslie Browne, became a principal dancer with ABT, as did her brother (also a character in the film). Even stranger, she plays the slightly fictionalized version of herself in the film, having been cast when ballerina Gelsey Kirkland dropped out. Browne went on to get Golden Globe and Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominations, but got much less favorable response to her follow-up with Ross, NIJINSKY (1980), where she had to play a more challenging role as the title dancer's wife.

I always love these posts where you draw connections between films, Poseidon, and this was a good one-- with the added bonus of a look at an obscure failed TV spin-off! (I shudder to think of what an entire season would've been like.) And thanks for sharing a look at your production of the original stage play-- I always enjoy seeing these peeks at your offline doings!

Please keep up the fabulous work, Poseidon! Love to all and be safe and well, everyone!

A said...

Loved the post Poseidon.

I'm pretty sure I saw this at the theaters, but it didn't do much for me. I will say that I'm a big fan of Tom Skerritt. He was at his best in Harold and Maude, in a bit part playing a motorcycle cop. In black leather and sunglasses.

Gingerguy said...

It's a good thing I don't have a weak heart, Steel Magnolias and The Turning Point? are you trying to kill an old gay man? I always thought Tom was super sexy in the Guess Jeans ads as a foxy older guy. I did remember the part about him proving his manhood, must've been common, so many male ballet dancers come of as toxically masculine to dispel the rumors I am sure. I think the fight in Turning Point is near the subway entrance on 65th street and it looks a little the same. I go up there a lot as there is a performing arts library that has free events (last week a Hildegarde Von Bingen performance I took my boyfriend to and we are still together!)
The above comments are fascinating. When I read that Herbert Ross' wife had died I only thought of Lee Radziwill. I had no idea, BTW alert! he was very nice to Barbra and is mentioned fondly in her endless and weighty book that I just finished because my arm was getting tired of hauling it on the subway. I was glad to read it after the hit job of "Capote Vs. The Swans"
I had no idea there was ever a tv version of "Steel Magnolias" but doesn't surprise me, the level of talent did though. Elaine Stritch? This site teaches me things

jobj69 said...

Thanks for another terrific post, Poseidon. I was fortunate to see the original production of Steel Magnolias at the Lucille Lortel in NYC many years is an incredible piece of theater and I can imagine you had a wonderful experience directing it! While I do love the movie, I think it really pales in comparison to the play. As par for the course, I guess, some power that be insisted that male characters be included - to pad out the running time? Because the "public" wouldn't support a movie that featured only women? Not the the male actors are bad or anything, but I find their presence distracting...ah, well!

Otherwise, I really don't recall that pilot at all! While I think it was an odd choice to develop a "sequel" series, the casting choices are interesting. I think Cindy would have made a decent M'Lynn and Stritch and Bergen could have been a hoot! Can you imagine what that set must have been like with those personalities? To be a fly on that soundstage wall!

Gingerguy said...

I just remembered that Herbert Ross and Mrs Ross (the Princess) came in for ice cream sodas at a 1950's themed diner I worked at in the late 80's/early 90's. I can't tell you what he looked like because we were all looking at her...eating. It must only have happened once a decade.
p.s. loved the cast picture

Poseidon3 said...

Alan, one of the many things I adore about Dolly Parton is her clever way of coming back to various remarks. She's so bright and witty under all the drag. And self-deprecating even though so much of what she does is amazing! Thanks.

hsc, Ross clearly wasn't over his wife, even if more than a year had gone by (and a new wife was on deck!) Sally Field was reluctant to do "Soapdish" which he was PRODUCING, not even directing, because she couldn't bear the idea of dealing with him again, but he convinced her that he wouldn't be that way again. I know that movie has it's fans, but I thought it was a big, jumbled mess. It probably didn't help that I was actually really into what was a truly good soap at the time ("As the World Turns") and didn't appreciate the jabs the movie was taking at the genre, even though many California-based shows had jumped the shark long before. What a weird screen career for Leslie Browne... An OSCAR NOM for her first movie, followed by a guest role on "Happy Days" (as a ballet teacher!) Then two more movies for her godfather Ross and out... Thanks.

A, you must have had a "Steel Magnolias" vaccination at some point! (Or was it "The Turning Point" you weren't feeling?) Seems like most gay men know it by heart. I am ambivalent about Skerritt. What slayed me was how QUIET and almost unable to speak he was in person (on "Donahue.")

Gingerguy, you are always on the town at some obscure (to me in the hinterlands, anyway!) event or performance! LOL Good for you. Hilarious that you drag your partner to these things and he hangs in. I really don't know how a TV series of "SM" would have worked in any case, but the one they came up with really just sort of laid there for the most part. Maybe it was too soon after the memorable movie because, as has been noted, the cast wasn't exactly made up of duds...! Thanks.

jobj69, I came to the movie first, so it was actually jarring to get my hands on the play and find that it was all women! But the play is so strong and tight and gives six ladies some very engaging and challenging roles to play. Very often, casts from that show stay bonded for long afterwards. My Magnolias used to get together for reunions, though eventually life and family commitments tend to dissipate some of that. At the time I directed it, I was OBSESSED with every nuance of the story and dove deep in rehearsals and with various small details. (One little example, after Shelby tells M'Lynn she's going to have a baby and M'lynn takes it badly, she plunks back down under the hair dryer to seethe and angrily grabs a magazine to leaf through as a distraction. I made sure it was a copy of Baby Magazine so that she could enjoy a reaction to it! Shit like that...) I did enjoy Drum and Ouiser's byplay in the movie and just to gaze upon Dylan McDermott was a pleasure (even though it took me eons to sort out Dylan Walsh, Dylan McDermott and Dermot Mulroney back in the day!! Ha ha!) I like both of them now for different reasons. Thanks!

hsc said...

Love the further details on the production you did, Poseidon!

It's interesting how they always take plays that are small and intimate-- one location, limited cast-- and "open them out" for films. OTOH, it's pretty unusual for a film to remain in one location with a small fixed cast. Hitchcock pulled it off with LIFEBOAT and ROPE (and even went for a limited number of shots on ROPE to emphasize the staginess), but it's a hard trick to pull off.

And speaking of adding men to the original all-female cast, I'm *shocked* that you didn't framecap the locker room scene where naked football players flash their beefy bodies while MacLaine fidgets and scowls, then sneaks a peek in her makeup mirror! Or was it already featured in an earlier post?

As always, thanks for all you do, Poseidon! Love to all and be safe and well, everyone!

BryonByronWhatever said...

Did not know about the TV Pilot but it strikes me that, had "Designing Women" not become a success, the cast of that show could have segued nicely into it.

mrripley said...

One of my absolute favourite comedy weepies.

The one liners are legendary in my house esp anything that comes out of MacLaines mouth esp her monologue on why she doesn't see plays,I use her excuses a lot to avoid attending functions I know i'll be no fan of.

Sally is OTT good in the graveyard scene,Roberts is very touching and seems to be bathed in a constant Streisand glow.

I read Ross said Roberts could only play the tops of scenes,whatever that means.

Skerritt is always solid in everything,reliable,doesn't hog scenes and is to most a genuinely nice guy and he wears a tache better than Selleck.

Cat fights are a thing I love in movies,I'm surprised Barbra never did one considering her claws would be perfect.

Thanks Poseidon.