Twenty-five years ago an aspiring actor named Robert Harling wrote a tearjerker of a play about his mother and his younger sister, who died of type 1 diabetes. The play, Steel Magnolias, was a big hit on Broadway and later the silver screen. (Julia Roberts played the sister and received her first Oscar nomination for the role.) The 1989 movie grossed $135 million. CBS tried to cash in on the rising popularity of Steel Magnolias by producing a half-hour TV pilot but the Southern belles needed more than 30 minutes to charm an audience. Lifetime knows that. Last month, it aired a made-for-TV remake with an African-American cast including Phylicia Rashād, Queen Latifah, and Jill Scott as Truvy (the hairstylist played by Dolly Parton who famously said “The higher the hair, the closer to God”). It’s the third highest viewed Lifetime Original.
In all its iterations, Steel Magnolias has raised awareness of the disease (8% of American have it) and money for worthy organizations like the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. (There’s a celebrity stage reading in Manhattan next week with Blythe Danner and Annie Potts to benefit JDRF.) Although many academics and doctors assert that cinematic portrayal of the disease is sometimes hyperbolic – not all diabetics suffer from uncontrollable tailspins toward death as Julia Roberts did in the movie – the beloved and brutal Steel Magnolias is forgiven. As Francine Kaufman, MD, former president of the American Diabetes Association said: “Steel Magnolias showed diabetes at its most tragic, and that’s good for fundraising.”