Robert Harling, who wrote the play on which the film was based as a way of grieving his sister’s death from diabetes (and who appears onscreen as the minister at both Shelby’s wedding and funeral), recently looked back with the Huffington Post‘s Matthew Jacobs, revealing some interesting tidbits about the story and its journey to the big screen — including the hard-to-believe notion that no one involved in the original off-Broadway production realized they were doing a comedy until audiences began laughing.
Among Harling’s revelations is that Bette Davis, who was 80 years old at the time, wanted the role of Ouiser (which went to Shirley MacLaine). Harling says Davis unexpectedly rang him up one day and invited him to tea to discuss the possibility. “It was fantastic,” Harling says. “If I ever write a book, it’s a complete, incredible chapter. She basically, bless her heart, wanted to show that she was up and at ’em and doing it.” For her costars, Davis suggested Elizabeth Taylor for M’Lynn (the part Sally Field played) and Katharine Hepburn for Clairee (Olympia Dukakis‘s role). Thankfully, Harling says, he was not saddled with the responsibility of telling the screen legend that the filmmakers had younger actresses in mind.
Harling also says that his mother, despite suggestions that she leave the set, insisted on watching the filming of Julia Roberts’s death scene — just so she could see Julia get up and walk away after the director yelled cut. “I said, ‘I can’t believe you put yourself through that’,” Harling recalls saying to his mother. “But Julia had become so special to my parents. She took some peace with that.”
Another bombshell is that a random comment from Sally Field led Harling to write the gay fave Soapdish. After each day’s work, the cast would often get together to play games to talk. One evening, after each actress had been asked what role she most wanted to play (Dolly Parton said Medea), Sally Field commented that she herself always ending up portraying “really noble, earnest women that wear crummy clothes. For once I’d like to play a bitch that gets to wear nice clothes.” From there, the deliciously bitchy, turban-wearing Celeste Talbert was born.
Read more of Harling’s memories of Steel Magnolias here.