NEW YORK — The 1989 film Steel Magnolias, the story of small-town Louisianans negotiating life's bumps and blessings, is a pop culture classic. A three-hanky comedy-drama, it is fondly remembered for female bonding and zippy one-liners about sanity, men and bitchiness. So Kenny Leon, the director known for spinning black stories into critical and commercial gold, was excited about an offer to direct a TV film version with black actresses, but he wanted sound artistic reasons to tinker with the material.
Enter August Wilson.
The towering playwright, who died in 2005 and whose work Leon has widely produced and directed, told him that "cultural specificity is the best route to universal appeal," Leon said. "I thought, well, I am certainly the No. 1 choice to direct that, because I have an understanding of the history of the play, I love that story and I can find a way of telling this with those African-American women."
Easygoing and seemingly supremely confident, the 56-year-old director (once a People magazine "most beautiful") was sipping water at a favorite Midtown Manhattan restaurant as he talked about his career and making Magnolias — which premieres Sunday on Lifetime with Queen Latifah, Phylicia Rashad and Alfre Woodard in an ensemble cast — for a new generation.
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The first film, based on a 1987 play by Robert Harling, starred Julia Roberts as the feisty diabetic Shelby; Sally Field as her devoted mother, M'Lynn; and Dolly Parton as Truvy, the compassionate beauty shop owner. In Leon's film, Condola Rashad is Shelby, Queen Latifah is M'Lynn and Jill Scott is Truvy. Rounding out the cast are Woodard as the acerbic Ouiser (pronounced Weeza, played by Shirley MacLaine in 1989), Phylicia Rashad as the elegant widow Clairee (Olympia Dukakis in 1989) and Adepero Oduye as awkward hairstylist Annelle (Daryl Hannah).
Leon knew the material: He had produced a mostly well-received, racially mixed stage version at True Colors, the non-profit theater company he co- founded in Atlanta a decade ago. For the film, his ambition was to depict black culture in the same way the original was flecked with white Southern culture: "I asked, 'What's different about black weddings, black funerals, black beauty shops?'" He ended up using the wobble line dance instead of country dancing in a wedding scene, for example, and, of course, when the characters do hair, they do black hair, in all its permutations.
Leon resisted watching the earlier film until his own was completed. The two, he said, are distinctly different takes on Harling's story. The writer was not involved in this version, but it was his idea to freshen the film with a black cast, said executive producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron.
The play has been done with all kinds of casts, Harling said, and he recalled Leon's multiethnic version when he came up with the idea of new casting. "I think it's a beautifully acted, beautifully directed version of Steel Magnolias," Harling said by phone after watching a rough cut.
The dialogue is pretty faithful to the original, though with tweaks throughout.
"The most important line in the story — and in my film I sort of pull it back to be the last words of the film — is, 'I would rather have 30 minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special,'" Leon said. "That's the universal story."
Queen Latifah, an executive producer of Steel Magnolias, described Leon as composed and funny during 18 days of shooting in Atlanta, with a deep understanding of the characters.
"He'd pop into my trailer and talk about upcoming scenes," she said. "It was important for us to live in those people, live in their homes. It had to feel very natural."
Condola Rashad, Phylicia Rashad's daughter, who has known Leon for years, said, "Instead of making too many comments, he'd say 'OK, you know where it needs to go,' which means 'Go further' without saying 'Go further.'"