Sally Field on Her Wrenching ‘Steel Magnolias’ Scene

“We had this dazzling cast who were so loving and so supportive, and we had become so incredibly close. They were all crying off-camera. Then, when I was off-camera for them, I continued to cry.”
Photo: TriStar Pictures

The cemetery scene in the 1989 film Steel Magnolias is an all-time, hall-of-fame, best-in-show cry scene, the kind of weighty, deeply emotional piece every actor dreams of playing. The key reason can be summarized in two words: Sally Field. As M’Lynn, a mother who has just lost her daughter Shelby (Julia Roberts) to complications from diabetes, Field careens through peaks and valleys of grief so raw that you can’t watch it with dry eyes. While pacing through a graveyard, she skates back and forth through the five stages of grief in roughly five minutes, and not one millisecond of it feels false.

Surrounded by her closest friends — Clairee (Olympia Dukakis), Truvy (Dolly Parton), Ouiser (Shirley MacLaine), and Annelle (Daryl Hannah) — M’Lynn starts her extended monologue from a place that sounds at first like stage five: acceptance. “Shelby, as you know, wouldn’t want us to get mired down and wallow in this,” she says. “We should handle it the best way we know how and get on with it. That’s what my mind says. I wish somebody would explain it to my heart.” From there, she recounts the final moments of her daughter’s life, when the machines in the hospital were turned off. “I was there when that wonderful creature drifted into my life, and I was there when she drifted out,” she says, her voice catching. This is when, as a viewer, you know you’re a goner yet still don’t fully understand how devastated you’re about to become.

Field then snaps abruptly from sadness to denial, saying she needs to get back to the rest of her family and checking her face in a compact mirror. Then she instantly dissolves again into grief spiked with extreme rage. “I want to know whyyyy!” she cries out, in a scream so primal it seems to come from the deepest cells in her bone marrow. Then she reverts to bargaining — “No, it’s not supposed to happen this way. I’m supposed to go first” — and immediately U-turns and drives right back into anger. “I just want to hit something, hit it hard!” she shouts.

A lesser actor than Field could seem out of control in a scene with so many whiplash-inducing turns, but she finds a way to remain simultaneously anchored and unmoored. No matter how often you watch her work here, it never loses its power.

That’s because Field understood the importance of this scene, which she calls “the crux of the film.” She also credits her co-stars for their support and director Herb Ross for giving her the space to explore so much emotional terrain while the cameras were rolling, though she acknowledges that Ross wasn’t always as flexible with one of her co-stars. That’s just one of the things Field remembers about making this film and preparing for one of the most memorably wrenching scenes of her career.

I’ve read that one of the main reasons you wanted to do Steel Magnolias is because of this scene. Is that true?
Yes. I mean, quite obviously it is a humdinger of a scene. But that scene was the crux of the film, because it is about loss and sadness and grief and rage, but ultimately it’s about friendship. It’s about these women who hang with her. Every step of the journey she takes in that speech — she walks up and down the dirt road of the cemetery and they’re right there with her, feeling it with her, and ultimately they make her laugh. It’s about the very best of what women friends are.

Robert Harling, who wrote the play and the screen adaptation, based the story on his own family and the loss of his sister. How much did that weigh on you while you were making the movie?
It really is my task not to have it weigh on me. I have to pay allegiance only to the text and the actors around me and the world. It is the text that I have to work with, even though Robert and I became very close, and he would tell me things. I could hear that, but I had to be my own M’Lynn.

He didn’t impose any information on me or say “She wouldn’t do that” or “My mother would never act like that.” Bobby knows that an actor has to create something that really joins the information and history on the page, but also the circumstances around you, and most especially the dynamic of all of those other actors.

The thing with film is that, good or bad, you need to catch it once. You need to catch this little moment. So it really is about all of those things and then, because of the way I was trained, it is most especially about where all of this links to yourself — your own rage and grief and sadness and loss, and however that manifests itself.

For this scene, was there anything in particular that you were drawing from in your own life?
Well, I can’t talk about those things. As we say, that’s my preparation.
I’ve had actors before, less experienced actors — as I’m listening to music or in my own world and trying to stay in that world, they will say “What are you listening to?” and try to pull it away so they can hear. I’ve said before, “Get your own prep,” and walked away. [Laughs.] It’s almost how many writers are superstitious that if they tell the story before it’s on the page, they feel it’ll be gone and they won’t be able to write it down. All the things I have ever worked on and anything I’ve ever done just sort of stays with me. And as your life goes on, it expands the repertoire that you can call on.

A lot of people who aren’t actors are really impressed by scenes where actors cry. Do you find those kinds of scenes more difficult than ones that aren’t as outwardly emotional?
I mean, they take a great deal of concentration, but there are all sorts of scenes that seem so easy that are so hard to do. This kind of scene, it is what it is. You work on it, you work on it, and then you let it fly.

M’Lynn goes through so many different emotional extremes in this scene. Did you lay out when you would hit certain beats beforehand, or did you give yourself some flexibility to go wherever you went in the moment?
The way I’ve been trained, because I worked with Strasberg for so long — he believed that you do all of the work before the scene. You do all of the history: What happened the day before? An hour before? What is the weather? How long did it take you to get to the cemetery? Whose car did you ride in? Every single detail of the history of this character, whether it was 15 years ago or two hours ago, and all of the sensory things, of the clothes she has on and the heat and all of those ridiculous things that you think you’ll never use — you have all of that information. And you know the dialogue as well as you know your own name. As Lee would say, the set could go up in flames, and you would still be that character in a flaming set saying the same dialogue, but in a slightly different way because the set is on fire!

If you plan it out beyond that — and I’ve watched this happen — then it cuts you off from being spontaneous to something that’s happening right then and there. Herb Ross just kind of let me go. I didn’t know when I would walk. I didn’t know what I would do. I didn’t know when I would stop. I didn’t really know how it would manifest itself, and then of course once I did it, there it was: She walks up the cemetery path a little bit, and then she stops and turns around, and then is in denial, raging: “No, no, no.”

In Steel Magnolias, we had this dazzling cast who were so loving and so supportive, and we had become so incredibly close. They were all crying off-camera. Then, when I was off-camera for them, I continued to cry. Then you get weary. There is an actual emotional part of your brain that says, You know what? We don’t want to do this anymore. This is not real and no thanks, we’re not going there. You just shut down. You have to have done it long enough to know ways to get around that.

With your fellow actors who have been off-camera all the time, now they’re on, and then it’s my task off-camera to change it up a little bit, to change the dialogue up a little bit to make it a little more personal, even — not in ways that invade their logic, but in ways that surprise them.

Can you remember what you did to surprise your co-stars?
I don’t remember whether I did it for Dolly or whomever — not that Dolly needed anything ever. But my youngest son Sam was six months old at the time, and I had him with me all the time. Many times we would have lunch in a big school auditorium, and he was in one of those funny little walkers. He would walk around and move from actor to actor. First it was Dolly, and then Shirley, and then he went over to Julia. There was one time — I think it was Dolly’s take, because he was fascinated with Dolly’s fingernails. I changed it a couple of times. Instead of saying “Shelby,” I said “Sammy” — on purpose. It even made me cry. We all just completely dissolved then and had to go lay down in the grass.

When you were working through this monologue, was there a line that was the most emotionally resonant for you? I always start to lose it when she says, “I was there when she drifted into my life, and I was there when she drifted out.” Was there a line like that for you?
Certainly that’s one of them. But to me, I don’t think one line or another is why the scene is so powerful. I think it is the whole accumulation of colors that are built one on top of the other in the scene. Also, by then, you know who Shelby is and who all of these friends are. To me, it was never about one single line or moment. Except maybe, “Here, hit Ouiser.” Which is just the best.

It was just the challenge of trying to have all those colors be real and significant into themselves, so that the grief blended into the rage and the rage blended into the sadness.

In terms of blending those colors, I was curious specifically about the line “I want to know why,” where all this grief and anger pours out of her. Did you try to do that line slightly differently every time?
I mean, not really. If Herb had been somebody who didn’t like what I was doing or wanted to direct in a way where he said, “Could you please just say that very quietly?,” I would have been like, “What, how can you do that?” Because anyway you cut it, it is this beseeching wail, like when an elephant cub dies, the the mother just is struck down and just wails with grief.

What kind of feedback was Herb Ross giving you as you were going through this process?
He was pretty much giving me the freedom to do whatever. I mean, Herb was very, very, very hard on Julia. If you ever talk to Julia, she’ll tell you. We would all rally around Julia, because she was the baby. She was sort of the newcomer. And she was wonderful, and he just picked on her. It was awful.

Why do you think he did that?
Because he could be a real son of a bitch, that’s why. [Laughs.] Some people just need to have somebody they pick on. But we all came to her aid, and I remember Dolly once just turned on him — always with humor, but usually the most vulgar humor you ever heard so that it was like, you just literally don’t have a leg to stand on.

But with you, he wasn’t that way.
No. Because he dared not. I mean, I don’t mind notes, but I will argue if it doesn’t make sense to me. But if you’re gonna be mean to me, then you’re gonna find a warrior. I may be small, but you don’t want to do that.

There was an AFI tribute to Shirley MacLaine a few years ago, where you told a funny story about her taking you aside during the scene and suggesting that if you run out of tears to sniff a Kleenex that had Vicks VapoRub or something on it. Does this ring a bell?
They would have to tear up a lot at various times. Not M’Lynn, she really didn’t. Shirley said she’d learned that you need to get Vicks VapoRub and put it up your nose. Or she’d put it in her eyes. I was like, My God. And I said “Nah, no thanks.” I’m not sure she did that in this scene or whether she really needed to, but it was just funny to hear that. I mean, Shirley has had such a stunning career for so long. When you think of how she began in a different era of acting, even.

But you never tried that method yourself.
I may someday, but I doubt it. If I’m not crying, then there’s a reason. If I’m not emotional enough, there’s a reason; there’s something goofy going on. Either the scene isn’t right, or I’m not right.

I have no idea if you can even begin to guess how many takes of the scene you did over the course of two or three days. Do you have any idea?
There really weren’t many. The only thing that probably took us three days is that we had a lot of coverage to do, because we had other actors in it and there’s movement. I don’t think that I had to do it a whole lot of times. I think I would have dropped dead. It was a bazillion degrees.

There’s a moment in the scene where M’Lynn looks at herself in her compact, and that sets her off crying again. Did it help you to see yourself in the mirror?
I do remember I did look at myself, but I just played like M’Lynn. When you do something like that, you’ve spent weeks in preparation to allow yourself to get that fragile. I have described it as taking a little razor blade to the inside of your heart, just sort of scraping it off so that you’re so raw and vulnerable, if a crew member says “Good morning” in a weird way, you’re just absolutely on the surface. You just have to stay that way, and it’s exhausting, but that’s just the way it is. That’s the name of the game.

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