Updated: November 5, 2012 11:16AM
ATLANTA — This might look like a typical baby shower — women sitting around a table piled high with gifts for a newborn oohing, aahing and laughing riotously — but the guests aren’t just any women. They are some of the most admired actresses of our time.
Seated around the table, part of a film set for a remake of the iconic Steel Magnolias, are Queen Latifah, Alfre Woodard, Phylicia Rashad, Jill Scott and Adepero Oduye.
When Oduye, in her role as the pregnant Annelle, wonders about the anonymous gift of risqué lingerie she has just unwrapped, Ouiser Boudreaux (Woodard) chimes in: “I thought Sammy wouldn’t mind you reading the Bible in bed if you was wearing something inspirational.” The women burst into laughter again.
And the hoots and giggles, which truly seem to come from the heart, take place between takes as well as during them.
“We are having a lot of fun, and the characters in this movie do have a lot of fun too,” says Latifah who, after a full day of shooting in a stuffy, dilapidated warehouse in south Atlanta, heads outdoors for a breath of fresh air and sunlight. “These women go way back. They don’t just experience life’s downs, they also experiences life’s ups and everything in between.”
This new made-for-TV production, which will premiere on Lifetime on Sunday (9 ET/PT), is the brainchild of Oscar-winning producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron (Chicago). They’re no strangers to remakes, having collaborated on the 2008 TV movie A Raisin in the Sun, Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man (2003) and Annie (1999). And, to Meron, remaking Steel Magnolias is another perfect fit for the duo.
“Craig and I are always looking for inspiration,” he says during an interview on set last spring. Steel Magnolias, he says, is “like a cornucopia of great roles for women, and if you want to make a remake then you have to justify why you want to do it.”
Meron is referring to remaking Magnolias with an African-American cast but, he says, it’s the cast members and the story, not the color of the actors, that will make this production compelling. “Steel Magnolias is so much a story about a community of women that if it were multicultural, if it was all Latina, if it was all Asian, it would still be Steel Magnolias. It would just be as original as the group of women you put in it.”
And that group of women has at its center Academy Award nominee Latifah, who plays M’Lynn Eatenton, the role Sally Field played in the 1989 movie. Meron calls Latifah, who is also an executive producer, “a powerful presence” on set.
“We felt so strongly about Queen Latifah,” Meron says. “She brings to the table a lot of producing experience, and she’s also a great talent magnet, and she is a great life force.”
Latifah, who worked with Zadan and Meron on Chicago and Hairspray, says she “definitely loved the original,” and agrees Magnolias is a timeless story. “You could make it again 20 years from now and it would still ring true.”
Magnolias takes place in fictional Chinquapin Parish in Louisiana. The 1989 film was based on a 1987 play of the same name by Robert Harling, written as a tribute to his late sister, who suffered with diabetes.
Harling’s story centers around six close friends who meet regularly at Truvy’s Beauty Spot, where they laugh, cry, share secrets and offer each other support. It’s the story of Shelby Eatenton Latcherie, M’Lynn’s diabetic daughter, and her decision to have a baby even though doctors warned her a pregnancy would threaten her life.
(Victoria L. White, an executive producer of the 1989 film, filed suit Monday against Lifetime and studio Sony Pictures, claiming that her agreement entitled her to a producer credit and compensation for any TV project based on the movie. She asked for an injunction against the broadcast; Lifetime and Sony said they would not comment.)
In the original movie, Shelby was played by Julia Roberts. In this version Shelby is portrayed by Condola Rashad (Phylicia’s daughter), who received a Tony nomination for her performance in the Broadway family drama Stick Fly, produced by Alicia Keys and directed by Kenny Leon (who also directs Magnolias).
Latifah says she brought more than acting chops to her role as Shelby’s mom. Her fondness for Condola, and her own mother’s recent health issues, made the role feel all too real.
Latifah says filming Shelby’s death scene, which takes place in the hospital, “was really tough. I developed such an affinity for Condola. It didn’t take us long to find things in common and really bond. So to play those scenes, of course I played them as an actor, but at some point it was really like, ‘I love this kid,’ and the idea of this breaks my heart.
“When I first started this project, my mom had been in the hospital,” Latifah says, adding she has since recovered. “I literally came in here looking like I’d been in a hospital for two weeks and knowing that experience. It was like already being there.”
As for tackling a role beloved by millions of Magnolias fans, Condola Rashad says, “You just have to do it. You kind of just have to jump on board and trust that you have something that’s going to add to this role. I know a lot of people have seen it and I can’t change that. All I can do is the best I can do, which I hope is good.”
Meron says he and Zadan always try to shake things up in casting, starting with Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella with Whitney Houston and Brandy Norwood. “People said, ‘You’re going to do an African-American Cinderella? Rodgers and Hammerstein?’ But we believed in it.”
“When we did Annie,” Meron says, “we did multicultural orphans, and Miss Grace was African American (Audra McDonald) and Daddy Warbucks was white. We always believed in trying to bring something new to the party that lets the work live again.”
Timeless, but updated
Annelle’s baby shower in Truvy’s beauty salon was shot on a warm and humid April Saturday, although in the story line it’s Halloween, and the salon is decorated accordingly.
The salon’s clientele is reflected in the surroundings. African-American hair care products are on display, including straighteners and curling creams. Magazine photos of black models cover the walls.
It’s an environment, says Grammy winner Jill Scott, who plays Truvy, that appeals to women across ethnic and generational divides. “The laughter, the silliness, the heartaches, triumphs and confusion -- and that walking out feeling good about yourself, that’s always magic.”
The cast drew her to this remake. “Steel Magnolias was one of my favorite plays as well as one of my favorite movies,” she says. “When I heard who was in it, it was, ‘OK, that is something I want to do and be part of.’”
And the part she always imagined herself playing? “Truvy. It was always Truvy.” She’s “very sassy,” Scott says. “She’s a little bit convoluted. That’s what I’m reading into the script -- and I won’t say positive, maybe a little more realistic. ... In the end you like this woman, and you like the women who are around her.”
Oduye, with a startlingly real-looking baby bump under the maternity top she wears in the shower scene, says she came to her role as Annelle, a hairdresser at Truvy’s getting over a broken marriage, with no recall of the older Magnolias. “I’m actually glad I don’t remember the original. I don’t have any preconceived notions that can affect my view of the character.”
She sees Annelle, in the beginning, as “just trying to figure things out. She’s had something bad, something tragic, that’s happened to her, and she’s gone out on her own. She’s trying to figure out who she is.”
Remaking a 25-year-old story did require some updating, especially to reflect medical advances that made it safer for diabetic women to have healthy pregnancies. The main thing, says Meron, was that when it was originally written (and in the original movie), when a woman with diabetes was pregnant, it was life-threatening.
“There’s no real danger for a diabetic woman to be pregnant these days unless there are complications, (so) we had to make sure we were being medically responsible,” Meron explains. “Also, we live in an age of Facebook and cellphones, and so you just make references to them. Other than that, everything rings true. The core of the piece is the same.”
Community of women
In the early evening, Woodard and Phylicia Rashad relax with Oduye in folding chairs just outside the building in which they’ve spent a grueling 10 hours shooting, and chat about their characters.
“Clairee, I think she’s kind of a cool lady,” says Tony Award winner Rashad. “She’s the former first lady of the town, so she’s well known and well liked. She’s very good friends with Ouiser. We’ve known each other since we were little.” She looks at Woodard, and they burst out laughing.
“Ouiser is honest,” Woodard, an Emmy and Golden Globe winner, says of the tendency of her character, a cranky widow, to express all her thoughts out loud. “Oiuser is crazy,” says Rashad, and they laugh again.
Woodard starts talking about the power of female relationships, in particular those cultivated in beauty salons like Truvy’s. “We all love looking good, but we’re at Truvy’s for a reason. Truvy could have a yoga studio, and we all could be doing yoga. It’s our neighborhood, our home.”
Adds Rashad, “There’s something very beautiful and very powerful about women coming together in friendship. It can be riotous as all get out, or it can be very calm and very soothing. But it’s always magical.”
Gannett News Service