Julia Roberts’s Real ‘Steel Magnolias’ Tears, Director Was ‘Harsh’

Shirley MacLaine, left, and Sally Field
Shirley MacLaine, left, and Sally Field

Julia Roberts may have never become the interstellar star that she is today had it not been for her breakout role in 1989's "Steel Magnolias." But her opportunity of a lifetime was also a dreadful experience.

Roberts played the buoyant-but-fragile Shelby, the daughter of M'Lynn (Sally Field) -- a character whose journey causes the most tears to flow among "Steel" watchers. But tears were also gushing behind the scenes.

"[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," recalled Shirley MacLaine, who played grumpy old Ouiser. MacLaine, 79, regaled fans with stories of the film along with her costar Field at Target Presents AFI Night at the Movies in Hollywood on Wednesday.

The main thing the two Oscar-winning actresses remembered: Director Herbert Ross, who died of heart failure in 2001, was mean. Really mean.

Sally Field and Julia Roberts in 'Steel Magnolias'
Sally Field and Julia Roberts in 'Steel Magnolias'

"He went after Julia with a vengeance," Field, 66, recalled. Ross even asked Roberts "to cut off some little wart or mole she had under her eye," Field added.

"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," said MacLaine, who remembered the director as being "stern" and "harsh." Field corroborated MacLaine's account, adding, "Our keenest memory was how hard it was to work with our director. We hated him and we would go after him."

And the stronger, more experienced cast members would go after him, Field remembered. "That meant Shirley and Dolly [Parton]."

MacLaine remembered a day when Ross suggested to Parton that she take some acting lessons. Field chimed in: "You don't say that to Dolly Parton! … Dolly Parton is absolutely the funniest, wittiest and filthiest, and she will cut you to ribbons."

Field is at least partially responsible for Roberts's on-set torment -- and her imminent rise to fame. She's the one who brought Roberts to Ross's attention, suggesting her for the role of Shelby.

Roberts, who earned a best supporting actress Oscar nomination for the role, was initially in disbelief that she was being considered to act among the canon of talent that included Field, MacLaine, Parton, Olympia Dukakis, and Daryl Hannah. "I went to the audition with the intention of not getting it," she is quoted as saying in the biography "Julia: Her Life."

Parton also opened up about Ross's hard heart in her biography, "Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business." "He didn't particularly like me or Julia Roberts at the start and was very hard on us... Julia Roberts was not the big star she is now, and I think Herbert Ross resented having to use her. He told me I couldn't act. This was not news to me, and I told him so. 'I'm not an actress, I'm Dolly Parton. I'm a personality who has been hired to do this movie. You're the director. It's your job to make me look like I'm acting.' By the end of the film, we had all made peace and become friends."

MacLaine remembered similarly. "We stayed friends after the movie. [But] we never went to the director's funeral."

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