At Play Among the ‘Steel Magnolias’

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

Maybe producer Ray Stark was right in saying no to all those reporters vying for a chance to hang around the Natchitoches, La., set of his film “Steel Magnolias” over the summer.

Maybe the public was better off not knowing exactly what went on within the ranks of his all-star female cast--Sally Field, Shirley MacLaine, Dolly Parton, Olympia Dukakis and Daryl Hannah.

“Lewd, crude and rude,” said two-time Oscar winner Field. “It was like a giant slumber party for three months.”

In truth, the reporters who wanted to witness the filming of “Steel Magnolias” expected to spot the kind of juicy ego clashes that almost invariably seep into star gatherings of this magnitude. Instead, the steamy Southern air melded the ensemble cast together like Moon Pie and R.C. Cola--at least by Field’s account. And out of this Natchitoches Gang of Five came some of the raunchiest quips north of the Mississippi Delta.


Back home in Los Angeles, Field recently agreed to take time out from defrosting her freezer to describe some of the cast’s antics. “We’d become totally demented when we were together,” she said. “It was the silliest kind of toilet humor. Filthy and graphic. The crew would just turn away and say, ‘I can’t believe these women.’ ”

The games they played off the set to pass the time could be as innocent as charades or as raunchy as a Vegas lounge act.

Field’s personal favorite was “Sardines.” (She claims that director Herbert Ross started it all.) The cast turned out the lights in Ross’ house, while one person went into hiding. Each one who found the hider had to stay there, until only one person was left wandering alone in the darkened house.

“All of these very mature, sophisticated women turned into blithering idiots,” Field said. “We started screaming and yelling and running around--screaming at the top of our lungs, ‘There’s somebody there! There’s somebody there!’ ”

By day, the women played the parts of five friends, residents of a small Southern town who gather in the local beauty salon to commiserate about the cards that life had dealt them: Field, the mother of an ill and soon-to-be-married young woman (Julia Roberts); Parton, the salon proprietor, and Hannah, her apprentice; MacLaine, an acerbic neighbor; and Dukakis, the widow of the town’s former mayor. The film is based on the play “Steel Magnolias” by Robert Harling, which received critical acclaim when it opened last year in New York and is currently at the Pasadena Playhouse.

By night, the film’s stars played themselves. Apparently, that was equally entertaining. Here is Field’s off-the-set assessment of her “Steel Magnolia” colleagues:

On MacLaine: “Our spiritual leader.”

On Parton: “Unbelievably funny. She had one-liners that we started to write down after a while. She was brutally honest with a sense of humor. She was also the dirtiest one of the lot, the most foul-mouthed.”


On Dukakis: “Our heart. She was the passionate one. She had passion about everything. She either loved something or hated it.”

On Hannah: “People don’t know what Daryl Hannah is. She’s a puppy. She doesn’t think of herself as a sex symbol. She lays herself in your lap and you’d have to say, ‘Daryl, you’re too big for this.’ ”

On Roberts: “She was the baby. It was her first big movie and we all mothered her.”