It’s hard to believe, but the movie Steel Magnolias is 30 years old this year! The playwright, Robert Harling, gave a great interview in 2017 (when the play turned 30) to Garden & Gun magazine. (Not a publication I would normally link to, but the article is really wonderful, and anyway, I like one of those things…) (It’s gardens. I like gardens.)
Harling wrote the play as a sort of grief therapy a few months after he lost his beloved younger sister Susan from complications related to diabetes. The character Shelby, beautifully played in the movie by Julia Roberts, is based on his sister. The story is Harling’s love letter to his sister, their strong, generous mother, and the wonderful group of female family friends who gathered around them all to support and help them whenever they needed it.
It must have been difficult when Harling’s sister was diagnosed with diabetes at the age of 12, but she and her family gradually learned how to handle the disease. But when she was grown, after many fights with her mother, Susan and her husband decided to ignore the warnings of her doctors and conceive. As the doctors had warned, after she had the baby, her kidneys began to fail. Though her mother donated a kidney, it wasn’t enough to save Susan.
Though Harling began writing this extraordinary story as a way to exorcise his demons, it eventually became one of the most beloved stories in American theater and cinema. He never forgot how he got there.
“You know, my sister died and I wrote about it and people look at it and think it’s all limos and glamour and sitting next to Princess Di at the royal premiere. My sister had to die for all that to happen. So almost daily I think about what my life would be if she had lived. It can take you to an uncompromisingly dark place sometimes. Then I just have to go back to the honesty of the first impulse, that I just wanted somebody to remember her.”Robert Harling for Garden & Gun Magazine
I recommend you read the entire article and let the whole unbelievable succession of events wash over you. It’s an amazing story about an amazing story, and a really great read. Now, where do you think I put my old Steel Magnolias DVD…