Remakes of hit movies always are a dicey prospect, so when word circulated that Lifetime was planning to do a new version of "Steel Magnolias," this time with the six main characters played by black actresses, quite a few eyebrows shot up.
After all, director Herb Ross's 1989 big-screen adaptation of Robert Harling's New York stage smash had been a solid box-office hit, with an all-star cast headed by Sally Field, Julia Roberts, Olympia Dukakis and Shirley MacLaine, along with Dolly Parton and Daryl Hannah.
Casting began on the new Lifetime version, which premieres at 9 p.m. Sunday, after executive producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron asked Harling whether he ever would sanction a remake of the story. It wasn't just a business proposition, after all, since Shelby, the doomed young diabetic woman Roberts played in the 1989 film, was based on Harling's own late sister.
"Without even pausing, he said his dream was always to see 'Steel Magnolias' being done with an all African-American cast," Zadan says. "Set it in the Deep South of today, in an African-American community, in an African-American beauty shop, and freely delve into the lives of that community, which is very different from a Southern white community, but you probably can tell the story without changing much dialogue,' he told us."
Zadan and Meron immediately called director Kenny Leon, who had worked with them on the stage and TV versions of "A Raisin in the Sun," and Queen Latifah, who jumped at the change to play M'Lynn, the role Field had.
"I trust Craig and Neal so much, because I did 'Chicago' and 'Hairspray' with them, two big movies for my career," Latifah says.
With those two commitments, the rest of the cast quickly fell into place: Alfre Woodard and Phylicia Rashad as, respectively, cranky Ouiser and her best pal Clairee; Jill Scott as beauty shop owner Truvy; Rashad's Tony-nominated daughter, Condola, playing Shelby; and newcomer Adepero Oduye as Annelle.
"I am always looking for a good ensemble piece with great actors. That's always fun to experience with different people and their energies and styles of doing things," Latifah says.
And despite a very tight shooting schedule in the Atlanta suburb of Decatur, Ga., the ensemble very credibly simulates the relationships of these tightly knit characters.
"That was immediate from Day One," Phylicia Rashad says. "For one thing, you are dealing with a cast of women, four of whom are well known. I had worked with Queen Latifah before and, although I had not worked with Alfre or Jill Scott, we know each other's work and appreciate and admire it. There's a certain level of regard there from the very beginning. With Adepero and Condola, that was just like a sorority welcoming new members, and they became fast friends with everyone else on the first day. "
Consequently, Harling's saga of "endearing and enduring friendships," as Rashad describes it, takes on a fresh dynamic, since none of these actresses is in any respect mimicking the performances of the actresses from Ross's film.
Lifetime's version is, quite frankly, funnier than the 1989 movie, nailing one joke after another from Harling's sidesplitting play that got muted by the more soapy tone of Ross' original. Woodard, in particular, is a sensational Ouiser, and Rashad is, as always, an adept comedy partner.
"Herb's vision of how to direct a film - and I mean this not as criticism but as an observation - was very pop-oriented and glossy," says Zadan, who previously had worked with Ross on "Footloose." "You can see that in all his movies. What I find with Kenny is that he is all about 'real.' When we worked on 'Raisin in the Sun' with him, it felt like we were eavesdropping on the people there. Sometimes it was uncomfortable, and sometimes it was upsetting and sometimes heartbreaking.