Steel Magnolias was a tearjerker onscreen — and behind the scenes, too. Though the 1989 dramedy helped make Julia Roberts a megastar, the actress was often bullied by director Herbert Ross on the Natchitoches, La. set. Costars Sally Field and Shirley MacLaine opened up about Roberts’ tough time with Ross during Target Presents AFI Night at the Movies in Hollywood Apr. 24.
“Herb Ross was basically a choreographer,” said MacLaine, who played twice-widowed salon patron Ouiser. “That means he could be sometimes very stern and sometimes very harsh. My deepest memories of the film were how we bonded together after he told one of us or all of us we couldn’t act.”
Field — who played who played Roberts’ character’s mother, M’Lynn — said that the late filmmaker “did pick on one of us severely. He never told me I couldn’t act. . . He went after Julia with a vengeance. This was pretty much her first big film.” (Ross died of heart failure in October 2001.)
According to MacLaine, 79, Roberts “would come to my house every night and say, ‘I think I’m terrible. What am I doing?’ and she really was in tears. I remember the day Herb said to Dolly Parton, ‘Why don’t you take some acting lessons?'”
“You don’t say that to Dolly Parton!” Field exclaimed. “Dolly Parton is absolutely the funniest, wittiest and filthiest, and she will cut you to ribbons.”
Several veteran actresses often stood up for Roberts when Ross’ directives got out of control. “Our keenest memory was how hard it was to work with our director. We hated him and we would go after him,” Field recalled. “The stronger ones of the group who were just older and had been there longer would go after him. That meant Shirley and Dolly.” According to Field, Ross even asked Roberts “to cut off some little wart or mole she had under her eye.”
Despite their off-camera drama, the stars still look at the film fondly. “For me, it is the story about the power of friendship,” Field said. MacLaine added, “And we stayed friends after the movie. We never went to the director’s funeral, but. . .”
Though Ross was no fan of Roberts, the actress earned her first Academy Award nomination for her role as Shelby Eatenton Latcherie in Steel Magnolias; the now 45-year-old lost to My Left Foot‘s Brenda Fricker. Ten years later, Roberts won an Oscar for her portrayal of legal clerk and environmental activist Erin Brockovich.
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