Lifetime murders a classic with its ill-conceived remake
by Lily Armani-Winfrey -
Special to the SGN
While the original Steel Magnolias boasts, 'there's no such thing as natural beauty,' the natural beauty of its cast is one of the few things Lifetime's sorely misguided and completely unnecessary remake has going for it.
Steel Magnolias originated as a semi-autobiographical stage play, adapted by and from a Robert Harling short story, before becoming the iconic film of the '80s starring Dolly Parton and Sally Field.
For anyone not familiar with the plot, the story centers on a group of six Southern women in modern-day Louisiana. Their closely knit lives are anchored by Truvy's (Dolly Parton/Jill Scott) Beauty Spot, where the owner sweetly - and a touch sarcastically - dishes on everything from beauty tips to recipes. At the start, Truvy has just hired Annelle (Daryl Hannah/Adepero Oduye), who 'may or may not be married' because her marriage 'may or may not be legal,' as her new 'glamour technician.' The new hire attempts to settle in on the day of long-time friend and client M'lynn's (Sally Field/Queen Latifah) daughter Shelby's (Julia Roberts/Condola Rashad) wedding. Also joining the Beauty Spot are the comedic relief duo of the storyline, Clairee (Olympia Dukakis/Phylicia Rashad), the widowed former mayor's wife, and her bosom buddy Ouiser (Shirley MacLaine/Alfre Woodard), a cranky old woman who claims to have 'more money than God.'
As the story unfolds, the complexities of friendships, mother-daughter relationships, diabetics and healthy babies, good-girl-turned-bad-girl-turned-born-again-Christian, difficult marriages, life saving/altering challenges, and love are magnified.
Since the buzz began earlier this year that a remake was in the works, everyone - Gay and straight - had an opinion. Initially I brushed off the rumors as frivolous trash. I mean, who in their right mind would allow such a pristine and immaculate piece of cinema to be bastardized by a cable television network? Oh, I'll tell you who &
Allegedly the remake idea came from Robert Harling, the man behind the original work. Harling, who is white, based the character of Shelby on his sister, whom he lost to similar circumstances. He shared with producer Craig Zadan that his dream was to do it again with an all African-American cast.
Still, in the age of Twitter and Internet hoaxes, I held out hope. Lo and behold, that hope was shattered when the YouTube teaser saturated social media. And for a split second I thought, 'Well, hold up, that's Queen Latifah, and Claire Huxtable. Not bad, not bad.' And while I was familiar with and liked both Woodard and Scott, the other two I didn't know from Alice. And the anxiety returned.
So this weekend, I made an earnest attempt to be as objective as possible toward what many had predicted would be a disaster. I made sure I was in a space where I could watch, uninterrupted, in the privacy of my own home just on the off-chance that I did need to cry (or vomit). The two-hour investment left me no closer to appreciating the idea of a remake - or the network that produced this disjointed, grossly miscast project.
Where the original cast exuded confidence, cohesion, and intense synergy, the remake leaves the audience to question if each of the women portraying these deliciously rich characters is even aware they are in the same film? With no shortage of mismatched and painfully phony Southern dialect, at times the film read more as an SNL parody than as a retelling of a beloved classic.
Executive producer and star Queen Latifah, who to date had never disappointed as a rap-singer-turned-actress, is too young for the meaty and mature part of M'lynn. On screen she is beautiful, warm, and committed, but she lacks believability as the matriarch. Now that I think about it, that is how I described her when I left the theater after seeing Joyful Noise - and now that I think about that, I wonder if she and Ms. Parton discussed her plans to become a Magnolia?! Nevertheless, when it comes to Queen, I either want to laugh with her, like in Bringing Down the House, or I want to fear her, like in Set It Off. Because no matter how much affection an audience has for her, myself included, the only 'Mama' she plays convincingly is Mama Morton.
Adepero and Condola are more or less interchangeable. The former, playing Annelle, rushed every piece of dialogue she had, acting as though someone was going to come along and take the part away from her. No such luck.
Condola's Shelby was the most realistic - after she was hooked up to life support. The most dynamic scenes for her character never catch enough wind to actually take off. First, the diabetic fit played more catatonic than turbulent. Followed up by the two scenes with her Mama - first, sharing the news of the baby, she is more brat-like than disappointed in her mother's reaction, thus walling off any actual connection and elevation with Queen Latifah. Second, the newly added scene in the hospital the day of the transplant surgery could have added originality to the piece but her desperation and guilt comes across more as a juvenile attention-seeking Toddlers and Tiaras extra. The lackluster performance leads me to question if she was awarded the part based on her acting reel, or because her real-life mother is co-star Phylicia Rashad?
Lady Rashad, in my opinion, can do no wrong. And of all the cast, she tried the hardest to make the character her own. With regal elegance, congeniality, and that beautiful smile, she is the 'former first lady of Chinquapin'! However, if I had my druthers, she'd have been cast as M'lynn.
Jill Scott gives the African-American remake performance of a lifetime - if that remake were The Golden Girls and the performance was that of Blanche Devereaux. The accent attempt is a direct rip-off of the fictional one conceived and executed brilliantly by the late Rue McClanahan. But that was a sitcom, not a dramedy. Scott is as bubbly and sweet as her character's 'cuppa, cuppa, cuppa' recipe. Nothing about this girl reads beautician, and she can't comb out hair to save her life. No matter what Herbert Ross (the director of the original) thought of Dolly Parton's portrayal, girl knew how to use a tease comb.
Rounding out this cast of misfits as Ouiser is none other than veteran actress Alfre Woodard. Instead of the loveable curmudgeon we know and expect Ouiser to be, Woodard's interruption is a floundering caricature similar to her acting style on Desperate Housewives. The hilarious nuggets of written material are overshadowed by her distracting performance. Again, with the druthers, the one and [only] choice for Ouiser is noble blacktress Jenifer Lewis.
A FEW TWEAKS
Not much of the plot was enhanced for the Lifetime version. There were a few eye-rolling updates to the dialogue, including references to Beyoncé, First Lady Michelle Obama, and Facebook. The script remained intact for the most part, with a few edits and shuffles to accommodate a television audience.
I was most impressed by the added scene between M'lynn and son-in-law Jackson in the kitchen the day before the scheduled transplant surgery. This brief interaction was a welcome surprise, and it would have been nice if the writers had expanded upon it. The glimpse gave a bit of perspective to the unresolved feelings M'lynn may have had toward Jackson in the original. And it was refreshing to see a son-in-law (of any race) with appreciation and respect for his mother-in-law.
Another tweak given to the ending takes us out of the cemetery for the dramatic climax. This I assume is a nod to the original stage production, which takes place entirely in Truvy's shop.
After the funeral (which awkwardly cuts to commercial before the climax, causing the audience to lose the momentum they've so anxiously waited to experience), we find the women back at Truvy's. This is where M'lynn gives the gut-wrenching monologue that Gays from far and wide can recite by heart. Many of whom could give a more convincing performance of grief.
In fairness, it isn't the worst movie I've seen on Lifetime, and even if it were, that record will be shattered in less than a month when Lindsay Lohan massacres the legend of Elizabeth Taylor.
Is it the best remake? No. Does it relate to a brand new demographic? According to Twitter, yes. Will it win an Emmy? Not if God is real. Did it look like it was shot in only 17 days? You bet your mint julep!
Newbies tuning in will enjoy this movie. And long-time fans may still become emotional because, as the story progresses, you can't help but envision the original in your mind's eye. Just like with cover songs, the one you hear first is, more times than not, going to be your favorite!
Ms. Field, Ms. Parton, Ms. Dukakis, Ms. MacLaine, Ms. Hannah, and Ms. Roberts, you are forever and always the Steeliest of ALL Magnolias.
Information on Lifetime's Steel Magnolias can be found online at www.mylifetime.com/movies/steel-magnolias. Talk back to Lily at http://lilyarmani.tumblr.com.
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