If you cried the first time, you will cry this time.
If you laughed the first time, you will laugh this time.
But in between the giggles and sniffles, some viewers may also wonder: “Why?”
The answer as to why Lifetime has chosen to remake the 1989 film “Steel Magnolias” (itself adapted by Robert Harling from his play of the same name) with an all-black cast is likely, “Why not?” (Or more likely, “Why not try to bring more African-American women — the group that consumes the most television — to Lifetime to see our ads?”) “Steel Magnolias” premieres Sunday at 9 p.m.
New York and Hollywood continue to remake and revive other films, plays, and musicals; so why not “Steel Magnolias”? While Harling’s story, inspired by his sister, of the trials and tribulations of six Southern women may not be Shakespeare or Sondheim, the ideas — the strength of female friendships, the knots that arise even in loving families — are universal, evergreen, and color blind.
For those who have seen, and especially those who love the original film starring Sally Field, Julia Roberts, Dolly Parton, Olympia Dukakis, Shirley MacLaine, and Daryl Hannah, comparisons are inevitable and will likely be unfavorable — those performances have become indelible over time and repeated viewings.
But for newbies, the Lifetime film is a perfectly acceptable introduction to Shelby (Condola Rashad), the young bride at the center of the tale; her fiercely protective mother M’Lynn (Queen Latifah); the snarky Clairee (Phylicia Rashad) and her cranky pal Ouiser (Alfre Woodard); shy beautician Annelle (Adepero Oduye); and Truvy (Jill Scott), the big-hearted woman who gives them a clubhouse/sanctuary at her hair salon.
Screenwriter Sally Robinson, director Kenny Leon, and producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron — who have remade for television before including “Annie,” “The Music Man,” and “A Raisin in the Sun,” in which the elder Rashad costarred — have not gone the radical reinterpretation route.
All the dialogue that diehards remember is here (“Pink is my signature color,” etc.) The central drama remains the same: Shelby’s medical condition makes it risky to have children, but she gets pregnant anyway, resulting in dire consequences. The accents remain thick.
Aside from a few tweaks of setting, passing contemporary references (Facebook, iPhones, Beyoncé, Michelle Obama) and the softening of a few characters, the biggest difference is how much quieter and less cartoonish the new film feels.
There’s less big gesture, scenery chewing going on here, particularly in the case of Clairee and Ouiser. (Oddly, the fact that Phylicia Rashad and Woodard look so youthful actually works against them.) Condola Rashad, a recent Tony nominee, plays Shelby’s combination of precious and stubborn well against Latifah’s furrowed brow M’Lynn. Annelle is given a gentle transformation by Oduye. R&B singer Scott, so great on HBO’s “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency,” does what she can to fill Parton’s shoes with the film’s most thankless role.
Latifah, who also executive produced, gives a strong performance, which is impressive given how memorable Field was in the original. The rapper-turned-Academy Award nominated actress takes a more modulated approach to M’Lynn’s third-act grief meltdown. Her tears streaming, she operates more with a wearied face and a sense of barely-contained rage than a raised voice and manic mannerisms.
It would be a real treat to see these six actresses, specifically, in something original, and to see fewer remakes in general. But as far as revisiting a tearjerker goes, “Steel Magnolias” reliably hits the funny bone and will assuredly send you to the tissue box.