‘Steel Magnolias’: Dolly Parton Was Way More Popular Than Julia Roberts for This Surprising Reason

The 1989 film Steel Magnolias brought together some of the most iconic female actors for an unforgettable moment in movie history. The tearjerker was an instant smash, starring Dolly Parton, Julia Roberts, Olympia Dukakis, Shirley MacLaine, Sally Field, and Daryl Hannah. It depicted how deep the love between female friends runs as they face the changes life brings to their small Georgia town. However, during filming, Parton became way more popular than Roberts for this surprising reason.

Dolly Parton and Julia Roberts at the premiere of the film "Steel Magnolias."
Dolly Parton and Julia Roberts | Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

The film ‘Steel Magnolias’ starring Julia Roberts and Dolly Parton is based on a true story

Steel Magnolias is the true story of Robert Harling’s sister Susan. Harling is a playwright who used the story to cope with the passing of his sister, who died from complications related to diabetes in 1985 reported Mental Floss.

He said of the 10-day writing process, “The events that inspired it were so powerful that, after I found the story arena, it just poured out into my typewriter in a 24/7 tsunami of Southernness.” The play opened off-Broadway in 1987 and closed in 1990 after 1126 performances.

The play’s popularity led producer Ray Stark to purchase the rights with the promise he would film the movie in the Harling hometown of Natchitoches.

Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah, Sally Field, Dolly Parton and Julia Roberts appear during the red carpet for Steel Magnolias in 1989.
Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah, Sally Field, Dolly Parton, and Julia Roberts | Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

At the time of filming Steel Magnolias, Parton was a bonafide music and movie star. She was one of the most beloved actors in the cast because she was so approachable.

At the time, Roberts had only one film credit to her name, Mystic Pizza.

However, that wasn’t the main reason she was less popular than Parton when it came to the film’s location shoot.

Every night, Parton, her assistant, bodyguard, and hairstylist dined at the same spot, a restaurant called Mariners.

The eatery, located on Sibley Lake, was a local seafood spot.

Garden and Gun reported that Parton had a passion for the restaurant and its food.

Due to her patronage, reservations for the eatery remained sold out for the whole of the shoot. Locals filled it up to see Dolly Parton eating in the back corner.

Shirley MacLaine was the first to notice Julia Roberts’ star power

Steel Magnolias actresses Julia Roberts, Sally Field, Shirley MacClaine, Dolly Parton, and Daryl Hannah pose for a portrait in October 1989 in Los Angeles, California.
Steel Magnolias actors Julia Roberts, Sally Field, Shirley MacClaine, Dolly Parton, and Daryl Hannah | Aaron Rapoport/Corbis/Getty Images

Dolly Parton Admits She’s a ‘Gypsy’ Who Lives a ‘Simple’ Life With Husband Carl Dean

MacLaine was one of the first on the set to realize that Roberts had star power.

The acting legend had this to say about meeting Roberts to Garden and Gun.

“The moment Julia walked into the reading, I thought, ‘That woman is going to be a star. I called my agent and said, ‘I don’t know if she has an agent, but you should handle her.'” 

Roberts reportedly asked Parton how she managed to stay calm while the rest of the cast complained of the heat while filming Christmas scenes.

During filming, Garden and Gun reported Roberts once said, “Dolly, we’re dying, and you never say a word. Why don’t you let loose?”

Dolly responded, “When I was young and had nothing, I wanted to be rich and famous, and now I am. So I’m not going to complain about anything.”

Steel Magnolias is currently available to stream on Netflix and Hulu.