Friday, September 14, 2018

Sisterhood is Deliverance in “Steel Magnolias”

I don’t know what it is about the Deep South. My spouse has noted that the honeysuckle accent that dominates the sound track of  many movies can sound charming on the lips of a woman. But a man with a Southern drawl generally conjures up the image of an overall-wearing, sixpack-chugging good ol’ boy. In short, a member of the Beverly Hillbillies.

There’s been so much stereotyping of the South at the movies that I was raised to be skeptical of all of it. On the one hand, movies have given us the romantic South, full of hoop skirts, white-pillared plantations, loyal darkies, and tragic loss on the field of battle. (See, of course, Gone With the Wind.) By contrast, there’s the racist South: bigotry and lynchings galore. That’s one reason why Deliverance (both James Dickey’s novel and the 1972 film directed by John Boorman) is so refreshing. The story of Deliverance contains no plantations and no racial strife. It’s a man-against-nature tale, in which four Atlanta city slickers who are out for a lark in the great outdoors find far more than they bargained for while on a river-rafting trip in Northern Georgia.

It happens that I have visited the gorge where the movie was made, a place where the late Burt Reynolds legendarily risked his life so the cameras could get a realistic shot of a man going over the falls in a canoe. While touring what’s called the Red Clay Country of North Georgia, my husband and I kept being asked by locals if we planned to have lunch at the Dillard House Inn. It sounded like a must-try, so we stopped in for what turned out to be one of the great meals of my life. (Biscuits and gravy, fried chicken, ribs, stewed tomatoes, mashed potatoes, fresh green beans, corn on the cob, strawberry shortcake, and of course sweet iced tea, all for a ridiculously low price.) In the restaurant lobby, there was a showcase full of memorabilia relating to the Deliverance cast and crew, who had happily made the Dillard House their home away from home.  

So I have a soft spot in my heart (and of course my stomach) for Deliverance, and the passing of Burt Reynolds has helped remind me of the movie’s many charms. Aside from the vivid performances of Reynolds and Jon Voigt, Deliverance introduced to the screen the wonderful Ned Beatty, an appropriately Southern actor who began a great career when he took the role of the unfortunate Bobby Trippe, he who runs afoul of some genuine hillbilly types.  

Another aspect of Southern life shows up in Steel Magnolias, the 1989 film (directed by Herbert Ross) based on a hit Broadway play. This is the small-town South of middle-aged white ladies who hang out at the local beauty parlor to gossip, to bicker, and to support one another when the chips are down. They have funny names (M’Lynn, Truvy, Ouiser, Annelle, Clairee) and they’re played by some of Hollywood’s finest (Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis), all of them clearly having a fine old time. There’s lots of humor, but also a highly serious plot strand involving M’Lynn’s newlywed daughter Shelby (a very young Julia Roberts) and the medical condition that may wreak havoc on her pregnancy. As in the somewhat similar Fried Green Tomatoes (1991), laughter and tears prettily co-mingle, with Southern Sisterhood proving to be powerful indeed. Just to make it  quite clear that these folks are without racial bias, I noticed in crowd scenes the occasional strategic black face.

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