Lifetime’s ‘Steel Magnolias’ Brings New Flavor to Classic Story

Queen Latifah in the new "Steel Magnolias," premiering Sunday (Photo: Lifetime)

“I would rather have 30 minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special.” “The only thing that separates us from the animals is our ability to accessorize.” No movie is more quotable than 1989’s “Steel Magnolias“.

A new made-for-TV version of the story about the sharp-tongued southern belles who frequent a small-town salon premieres Sunday night (Oct. 7) on Lifetime (starting at 9/8c). The 21st-century “Steel Magnolias” features an all-star cast headlined by Queen Latifah, Phylicia Rashad, Jill Scott and Alfre Woodard. Condola Rashad, Phylicia’s daughter, takes on the role of Shelby, which famously launched Julia Roberts’ career.

The decision to make the film with an all African-American cast started with producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron’s desire to work with Latifah for a third time. (She starred in their films “Hairspray” and “Chicago.”) Zadan explained, “We decided to reunite because prior to this, of course, Neil and I had the greatest experience of our lives doing ‘Chicago’ with Latifah. And then we had the second-best experience of our lives doing ‘Hairspray’ with Queen Latifah. And then we thought, Wait a minute, two is not enough. We need a third. And now we feel that we need a fourth.”

Latifah concurred.  “I got involved with this project because Neil and Craig called me. I worked with them and I trust them and if they love it and they’re going to work — I know how hard they work and how much they’ll put into it. I wanted to be a part of it.”

You might expect that Phylicia and Condola would play mother and daughter, but it’s Latifah who takes on the role of Shelby’s mother M’Lynn, who was played by Sally Field in the original. Phylicia plays Clairee, the richest woman in town.  Said Meron, “I think we chose the best actress for each role, ” emphasizing that his mission was to serve the script, not stunt-cast. “When you see Jill Scott’s performance [as Truvy], it does not make you think of Dolly Parton remotely. Scott is doing her performance as an actress for that role as written on the page. And she’s not trying to do Dolly Parton. She’s not trying to recreate Dolly Parton. And I’d say the same thing goes for everybody in the cast.”

Latifah bonded with her TV daughter. “We talked about the material, we talked about the scenes, we talked about how we felt about our hair or our makeup that day. We just talked girl stuff… And then it kind of just all fell into place. And, you know, and we — and she would be like, ‘Mama,’ and I would be like, ‘Hey, baby.’ I would check on her because I just automatically felt like a nurturing spirit towards her.”

Said Meron, "I think that our point of view is that we think 'Steel Magnolias' is a timeless and universal piece and it just works in whatever community you set it in that you don't even have to underline it. It just works. And I think that that really defines what classic material it is."

Added  Latifah, “I definitely service, you know, my African-American audience but I also want to service other audiences, you know, of different cultures. ”

Though the film retains the quirk and humor of the original, it has been updated for the 21st century. "What we ultimately wanted to do was to honor the material that it was based on," said Meron, "So we tried to respect that as much as we could while updating it and making the changes that were appropriate to setting the movie [in the present day] such as [including] texting and Facebook. And also the big change was now it's possible for women to give birth with diabetes. So we had to make sure that there were other complications involved that [make] pregnancy risky. So we consulted with doctors and then explored the idea of diabetes with a kidney ailment which seemed to be very, very, very, very serious."

Latifah feels this version will be as beloved as the original. "I think this is extremely special and I think it will be something that will live in people's hearts for years to come. So I hope everyone tunes in to watch."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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