Julia Roberts Was Bullied by "Steel Magnolias" Director: "We Hated Him," Sally Field Says
The cast defended their young co-star during the making of the 1989 movie.
The 1989 tearjerker Steel Magnolias is still beloved today, thanks in large part to its cast of women: Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Olympia Dukakis, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah, and Julia Roberts, among them. But, apparently, the director of the film, Herbert Ross, wasn't as fond of the stars as the audience. Over the years, the cast of Steel Magnolias has opened up about their tense relationship with the filmmaker, including claiming that he "bullied" Roberts, who was not yet the household name she would soon become. In fact, Field once said that she and her co-stars "hated" Ross, while MacLaine declared that they didn't attend his funeral. Read on to find out more.
MacLaine said Ross told the Steel Magnolias cast they "couldn't act."
As reported by Us Weekly, MacLaine and Field attended AFI Night at the Movies in 2013, where they opened up about how Ross treated the cast.
"Herb Ross was basically a choreographer," MacLaine said. (She meant that literally. Ross was an accomplished choreographer, as well as a director. He received a Tony Award nomination for Best Choreography for Anyone Can Whistle in 1964.) The actor continued, "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 said that the actors who were more season defended the others. "Our keenest memory was how hard it was to work with our director. We hated him and we would go after him," she said. "The stronger ones of the group who were just older and had been there longer would go after him. That meant Shirley and Dolly."
Field said he "went after" Roberts "with a vengeance."
Field said that Ross "did pick on one of [the cast] severely": Roberts. She explained that while the director "never told [her that she] couldn't act … He went after Julia with a vengeance. This was pretty much her first big film." The Forrest Gump star said that his bullying of Roberts included asking her to "cut off some little wart or mole she had under her eye."
MacLaine said that Roberts, who was 22 when the movie was released, would come to her house nightly during the shoot because she was so upset. "'I think I'm terrible. What am I doing?' and she really was in tears," the Terms of Endearment actor recalled.
As reported by TCM, in her 1995 memoir My Lucky Stars, MacLaine wrote of Ross and Roberts, "He wanted her to dye her hair, have her beauty marks removed, and never eat more than a thousand calories a day. He claimed he could detect the effects of an extra Saltine cracker on an actress's face. Julia stood up to Herbert's well-meaning dictates very well."
Ross trashed Roberts' performance publicly.
According to Far Out, in 1993, Ross said that Roberts "looked bad and gave a very bad performance" in Steel Magnolias. In response to his poor review, the Pretty Woman star shot back, "If he thinks he can talk about me in such a condescending way and not have me say something about it, then he's nuts." She also reportedly called the director "mean and out of line."
Ross was reportedly rude to Parton, too.
At the same AFI event, MacLaine and Field also said that their Steel Magnolias director disrespected Parton.
"I remember the day Herb said to Dolly Parton, 'Why don't you take some acting lessons?'" MacLaine recalled. 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."
In her 1994 memoir, Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business, the singer-songwriter and actor called Ross the "only person who made [Steel Magnolias] less than a wonderful time for [her]."
The country singer continued (via TCM), "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."
The cast remained close—but they skipped one particular opportunity to reunite.
At the AFI event, Field said of Steel Magnolias, "For me, it is the story about the power of friendship." MacLaine added of the cast's real-life relationships, "And we stayed friends after the movie. We never went to the director's funeral, but…" Ross died in 2001 at the age of 74. He and MacLaine had previously worked together on 1977's The Turning Point.
Despite Ross' feelings about her, the movie had a huge impact on Roberts' career. Steel Magnolias was one of her first major roles, and she was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance. It was the only Oscar nomination that the movie received. She went on to win the Oscar for Best Actress in 2001 for Erin Brockovich.
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