Saturday, December 31, 2016

DEATH BECOMES HER 1992

In today’s digitized, high-definition world—in which real-life, flesh and blood humans from the most mundane walks of life, willingly subject themselves to near-medieval levels of torture in an effort to achieve the burnished, robo-mannequin sheen of Photoshopped magazine covers—I don’t think it’s possible to lampoon our culture’s extreme youth-addiction and obsession with physical perfection. 
Happily, in1992 (ten years before Botox, and back when Cher and Michael Jackson were the reigning poster kids for plastic surgery excess) director Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forest Gump) made this demented and dark comedy which broadly burlesques contemporary society’s two most dominant religions: the worship of beauty and the fear of aging.
"Wrinkled, wrinkled little star...hope they never see the scars."
In the original screenplay the line was "Wrinkle, wrinkle, go away, come again on Doris Day"
a lament uttered by Elizabeth Taylor in 1980's The Mirror Crack'd

In this self-professed nod to Tales from the Crypt (the comic-book-based HBO anthology series for which Zemeckis co-produced and occasionally directed) Death Becomes Her is a comedy-of-the-grotesque cartoon that posits the dream of eternal youth as a upscale zombie nightmare. Set in a baroque,  just-barely exaggerated vision of Beverly Hills where the thunderclaps and lightning flashes all hit their marks and know their cues; Death Becomes Her spans 51-years (1978 to 2029) in chronicling the ceaseless competition between two college frenemies. A bitter rivalry every bit as combative and twice as deadly as Batman vs Superman…only with better dialogue and smaller busts.
Meryl Streep as Madeline Ashton
Bruce Willis as Dr. Ernest Menville
Goldie Hawn as Helen Sharp
Isabella Rossellini as Lisle Von Rhuman
Former Radcliffe classmates Madeline Ashton (Mad for short) and Helen Sharp (Hel for keeps) are the kind of friends that only a shared alma mater could produce. Though we ultimately come to learn that they are but two antagonistic sides of the same counterfeit coin, but when first glimpsed, the artificial Madeline and the apprehensive Helen couldn’t be more dissimilar, and are clearly friends in name only. 
Plain-Jane Helen, an aspiring author of a soft-spoken, diffident character and unconcerned with appearance, has a history of having her boyfriends stolen by the ostentatiously glamorous Madeline. Madeline, an obscenely shallow, superhumanly self-enchanted actress of questionable talent, is all surface charm and charisma, but otherwise appears totally devoid of a single redeeming character trait. She concerns herself with looks and appearances to the exclusion of all else. 
"Tell me, doctor...do you think I'm starting to NEED you?"
The women's heated rivalry temporarily assumes the guise of a romantic triangle when beginning-to-show-her-age Madeline sets her sights upon (and effortlessly steals) Helen’s fiancé, the bland-but-gifted Beverly Hills plastic surgeon Ernest Menville. Of course, there’s no romance to this romantic triangle at all, what with Madeline’s interest in the colorless dolt being solely of the self-serving variety (she gets to assert her desirability superiority over Helen while simultaneously securing a lifetime of free nip/tuck services), but the last-straw betrayal by both fiancé and friend proves enough to send poor milquetoast Helen right over the edge. 
What's The Matter With Helen?
Cue the passage of fourteen years. Everybody is miserable and nobody winds up with what they thought they wanted. Madeline, career and looks in decline, is blatantly unfaithful to husband Ernest and goes to Norma Desmond extremes to stay young. Meanwhile, emasculated Ernest has succumbed to alcoholism and is reduced to plying his surgical skills on corpses. 
But it's Helen who rises like an Avenging Angel from the doughnut crumbed, canned-frosting ruins of her nervous breakdown. Magnificently svelte, newly glamorized, channeling her inner Madeline, and, after several years of therapy, imbued with a Dolly Levi-esque sense of purpose (“For I’ve got a goal again! I’ve got a drive again! I’m gonna feel my heart coming alive again!”). Naturally, Helen's goals aren't anywhere near as lofty or honorable as those of that musical matchmaker's; Helen's newfound purpose is to reclaim her life through the eradication of Madeline’s.
Hel Goes Mad and Dedicates Her Life To Making Mad's Life Hell
Alas, Helen’s strength of resolve is all well and good, but homicidally speaking , the best laid plans of mice and men are doomed to failure when the man in question (Ernest) is a mouse. By the same token, it's perhaps not the best idea to wage a to-the-death battle when both combatants, thanks to the supernatural intervention of a raven-haired sorceress and her immortality potion, can’t really die.
I saw Death Becomes Her for the first time on cable TV in the mid-‘90s, and I immediately regretted never having seen it in a theater. I thought it was outrageously funny and I imagined seeing it with an audience would have been an experience similar to my first time seeing What’s Up, Doc?: the laughter being so loud and continuous, you have to see the film twice in order to pick up all the lost dialogue. I’ve no idea if public response to Death Becomes Her was anywhere near as vociferous (it’s a weird little film), but I found it to be one of the most consistently funny comedies I’d seen since the ‘70s heyday of Mel Brooks, Gene Wilder, & Madeline Kahn.

Incorporating a comic book sensibility and B-horror movie tropes into a dark satire of those frozen-in-time animatronic waxworks endemic to the environs of Beverly Hills, Death Becomes Her provides director Robert Zemeckis an ideal vehicle to indulge his fondness for absurdist special effects. The screenplay, a best-of-both-worlds/ Frankenstein collaboration between TV sitcom writer Martin Donovan (That Girl, The MTM Show) and action/adventure writer Martin Koepp- (Jurassic Park, Mission impossible), deftly maintains a balance of broad action (think Tex Avery cartoons or Bugs vs Daffy Looney Tunes) and oversized characterizations.  
Late-director Sydney Pollack (They Shoot Horses, Don't They?)
contributes a hilarious unbilled cameo 

Which brings me to Death Becomes Her’s strongest attribute: its cast. Streep, Hawn, and Willis—talented professionals all—had, at this stage in their careers, fallen into that movie star rut of delivering exactly what was expected of them, nothing more. Recent releases had shown each actor delivering reliable-but-unexceptional performances in so-so films. Professional, journeyman-like performances devoid of either spark or surprise.
But Death Becomes Her—in casting against type—taps into something fresh in each of them. With abandon they lose themselves in the outlandish, outsized characters they’re called upon to play, blowing away the cobwebs of predictability from their individual screen personas. Together they form an unholy trinity of bad behavior and treat us to give the liveliest, most unexpected, enjoyably over-the-top emoting of their careers.
Madder 'n Hell
(Mad, Ern, & Hel)

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
When television broadcasts changed from analog to digital, and I purchased my first HDTV, one of my strongest recollections is of how dazzlingly crisp and clear it was, and simultaneously how clinically unforgiving it was to human beings.
TV shows I had grown up watching in their natural fuzzy state were so clear! Images were so sharp I could make out the weave knit twill fibers in Fred Mertz’s jacket.
But my lord, the havoc it played with people’s faces. It was like you were looking at everyone through a dermatologist’s magnifying glass—bringing to mind that line from Cukor’s The Women “Good grief! I hate to tell you dear, but your skin makes the Rocky Mountains look like chiffon velvet!” 
Goldie Hawn and Meryl Streep- two longtime favorites of mine,
really come alive as zombies
I don’t know what it was like elsewhere, but the cumulative effect HDTV had on local Los Angeles newscasters and even minor TV personalities was to have men and women scrambling to the plastic surgeons in a mad rush reminiscent of the final reel to The Day of the Locust
Over the last decade or so, the already youth and looks-obsessed entertainment industry has seen a normalization of the kind of rampant surgical restructuring that once caused Mickey Rourke and Meg Ryan so much grief. The artificially enhanced appearance has now grown so common; it has become the new aesthetic.
What Price Beauty?
And while everybody seems fine with health-related elective surgeries like dental and Lasik, people still harbor strong opposing opinions about those who turn to medical science in order to turn back the clock, retard the aging process, or sculpt and reconfigure themselves to fit a particular beauty standard.
Death Becomes Her is no serious treatise on our culture’s preoccupation with youth and slavish devotion to beauty, but by addressing these hotpoint issues in a comical, bigger-than-life framework—it manages to be one of the sharpest and to-the-point.

PERFORMANCES
Broad, farcical comedy of the sort employed in Death Becomes Her is awfully hard to pull off (1991’s Soapdish comes to mind…unfavorably). In fact, the main reason I didn’t see Death Becomes Her when it was released was because the trailer so turned me off. Not only did it look far too exaggerated and silly (it recalled Streep’s She-Devil, a film I absolutely hated), but  in addition: I never much cared for Bruce Willis; Goldie Hawn’s post-Private Benjamin output had grown increasingly derivative, and the continued forays into comedy by Streep-the-Serious (Postcards from the Edge, Defending Your Life) had the effect of subduing her talent, not showcasing it. 
It surprises me a bit to glance over Bruce Willis' long list of credits on IMDB and come to the conclusion that Death Becomes Her is the only film of his I like. He's so good here. Funny and touching, and providing the grounded emotional contrast to his co-stars' magnificent maliciousness

But what always brings me back to rewatching Death Becomes Her is how all the elements gel so smoothly. Everyone from composer Alan Silvestri to the film’s vast army of FX wizards are all on the same comic book page. Best of all, the actors and their pitch-perfect performances are never dwarfed by the dated but still-impressive special effects.
The comedy is too dark to be everyone’s taste, likewise the tone of exaggerated non-reality; but for me, all these disparate elements coalesce to create a howlingly funny film that feels like a major studio version of those reveling-in-bad-taste underground/counterculture comedies like Andy Warhol’s BAD or John Waters’ Female Trouble (which could serve as Death Becomes Her’s subtitle).
The arresting Isabella Rossellini is a special effect all unto herself.
Alluring and dangerous, she is a dynamic, unforgettable force in her brief scenes

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
A major highlight of Death Becomes Her is getting to see the great Madeline Ashton in full diva-fabulous mode appearing onstage in a misguided musical version of Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth. A play, appropriately enough, about an aging star making a comeback. The time is 1978, and, as described in the screenplay, our first glimpse of 40-ish Madeline is of her “Singin’ and dancin’ up a storm seemingly without benefit of training in singin’ or dancin’.”
The song she’s singing is a riotously vainglorious paean to self, titled “Me,” and the production number is a compendium of every star-gets-hoisted-about-by-chorus-boys Broadway musical cliché in the book. The number is terrible—from the song itself, to the costuming, choreography (they break into “The Hustle” at one uproarious point), and the over-emphasized “stereotypically gay” voices of the chorus boys—and therefore, it's also absolutely brilliant. 
What's great about the number is that without benefit of inserting any intentionally comedic elements (save for a ceaselessly shedding feather boa) it manages to be side-splittingly funny and cheesy as all get-out merely by channeling any number of '70s variety shows. As a quick glance at YouTube will attest, nothing about Madeline's dance routine would be out of place on an episode of The Hollywood Palace, The Ed Sullivan Show, or take-your-pick Mitzi Gaynor TV special.
Although Madeline is supposed to be awful, Streep is actually quite marvelous. Her musicality and phrasing is spot on. Her movements are sharp, she never misses a beat with any of her gestures, and there's an effortlessness to the number of small bits of comic business she's able to insert into the performance without ever losing her stride. What really makes the number so hysterically funny is the level of Las Vegas showroom self-satisfaction her Madeline radiates. No one could tell Madeline she's not stopping the show and bringing down the house with this ridiculous number, and her genuine obliviousness to the silliness surrounding her makes for a priceless moment in wince-inducing musical cinema.
The first time I saw Streep perform "Me," what immediately popped into mind was the 1986 Academy Awards telecast. That was the year Teri Garr opened the show with a truly cringe-worthy production number around the song Flying Down To Rio that was every bit as atrocious as Madeline's First Act closer (even down to the same tearaway skirt and hyperactive chorus boys). Further cementing the recollection: Meryl Streep, who was nominated that year for Out of Africa, when interviewed about the show afterward, expressed her enjoyment of Garr's performance and her wish to someday be invited to sing and dance in a production number like it. She got her wish.
Late-actress Alaina Reed (Sesame Street, 227) as the psychologist
who inadvertently sets Helen on her murderous course 

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Like Sweet Charity, Fatal Attraction, and the musical version of Little Shop of Horrors, Death Becomes Her is a film whose original ending was jettisoned due to unfavorable preview response.
Grotesquely disfigured and unable to maintain themselves with any level of precision,
Madeline & Helen attend Ernest's funeral in the year 2029
In the original version, after escaping from Lisle's, Ernest fakes his death and runs off with Toni (Tracey Ullman, the entirety of whose footage ended up on the cutting room floor), a sympathetic owner of a local bar he frequented. Jump ahead 27-years, Madeline and Helen, still beautiful and perfect, are in the Swiss Alps, bored with life and bored with each other's company. In the distance they glimpse an old, hunched over, toddling married couple. Madeline comments on how pathetic they are, Helen, as she watches them walk away, hand in liver-spotted hand, is not so sure. We learn that the couple is Ernest and Toni, now very old, but very much in love. Fade Out.

I absolutely adore that ending! Test audiences claimed the more poignant conclusion didn't fit the more cartoonish flavor of the rest of the film, so rewrites and reshoots resulted in the very good, very funny ending the film currently has. It's not a bad ending at all, and based on the success of the film, is perhaps more in keeping with the tone established at the start; but honestly, I just love the idea of the jettisoned ending. I think it would have provided the perfect coda for a wonderful film.
Helen and Madeline, talons sharpened, become living gargoyles

BONUS MATERIAL
Goldie Hawn discusses her preference for the film's original ending HERE

You can read the original screenplay in PDF form with all the deleted material HERE

The original theatrical trailer features many scenes that never made it into the final film. HERE

 Copyright © Ken Anderson

21 comments:

  1. Oh, how I've waited for you to update, and by choosing this movie you brought a wide grin to my face. I haven't seen the film for years, but it's one of those cases where I can never separate the movie from my first viewing experience of it. I was a preteen, and Death Becomes Her was broadcast late at night. I shared a room with my kid sister, and we had a little TV that I was watching in secret, trying not to wake my sister up. I remember finding the movie outrageous, and then my sister managed to wake up right when Helen emerges with the hole in her stomach. All these years later she hasn't forgotten that sight, and I can't blame her! (Reminiscing seems to be habitual in your comments section - I guess your writing brings it out in people :D)

    Like I said, I haven't rewatched this in ages, so I can't really otherwise comment on it, except by saying that Isabella Rossellini was so perfectly cast. This was the first movie I ever saw her in and my impression of her always harkens back to it. Somehow she seems to reflect an otherworldly quality.

    Thank you for another year of fantastic writing. You've introduced me to so many movies I don't think I would've otherwise watched, and even if the movie you're writing about isn't really up my alley, I always enjoy reading what you have to say about it. Happy New Year!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Happy New Year, Callie!
      One of my favorite things about the comment section is the sort of movie reminiscence you shared. Seeing so many of these films as an adult, sometimes I find it interesting to know how these films came to be known to the younger set.
      I can only imagine your sister waking in the middle of the night to see Goldie hawn with a hole in her stomach was a kindertrauma moment for the ages. When I was very small I caught a commercial on TV for Disney's 1961 "Babes in Toyland" - in it Ray Bolger used an oversized hammer on a character, causing them to sink into the ground like a human tent stake. It mattered not that it was a kiddie movie and done in a humorous vein; there was something vaguely ghoulish and grotesque about it and it terrified me.
      I'd in some Isabella Rossellini interview that director Zemeckis thought this film would be another family hit like Back to the Future, but somewhere during the middle of making it it became clear that comedy was too dark, the humor too camp for broad family appeal.

      Death Becomes Her's lack of family-friendly humor is a big selling point for me. And indeed, Rossellini is truly ideally cast here. The very quality that always made her appear misused in films in which she is supposed to be just an ordinary person, is precisely that "otherworldly quality" you speak of that makes her such an unforgettable Lisle Von Rhuman.
      Thank you for contributing, and your compliment is sincerely appreciated for what you say mirrors what I've always felt about my favorite film critics: the movies examined were not always to my taste, but I invariably enjoyed their columns, and every so often I was inspired to watch a film I might otherwise have vetoed. Thanks for my first "hello" in the new year!

      Delete
  2. Oh Ken, thank you for this! What a treat! Soon as I clicked on your link and saw the title, I laughed out loud. I have fond memories of seeing this when it came out in the theaters with my teen daughter. We laughed so much. We all knew Goldie was a comedian and Streep and Willis have shown touches of humor in other roles, but the performances were fantastic in their outlandishness. And I agree with Callie Wanton - Isabella was perfect and perfectly stunning. So many scenes were hilarious, but I always remember the ballroom with the "dead" celebrities, especially Elvis, the Fabio-like guards at Lisle's castle and of course, Mad's and Hel's faces at the end.

    Happy New Year!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Bella!
      And Happy New Year to you, too! I'm jealous you actually saw it at the theater back when topic & special effects were rather out-there for a Streep film, and action star Willis being purposely neutered.

      I think it's the gameness (is that a word?) of the cast that works for me, plus the screenplay is pretty hilarious on its own. While everybody pretty used to Streep as a comic actress now, I remember being so surprised at what a resourceful comedienne she was in this. Hawn, of course, is great (after seeing her on Laugh-In for so many years with that high, piping voice, the low register of her speaking voice here always cracks me up).
      From production stills, it looks like the ballroom scene was longer, or things were cut out when the new ending was added. It's a fave scene of mine as well. I recall from the original script that there was a desire for George Hamilton to appear as one of the "ageless ones" ayt Lisle's Spring party, and that they hoped Louis Jordan would portray the owner of the beauty salon who gives Madeline Lisle's business card.
      Glad to hear you are a fan of the film and thank you for contributing to the discussion! Have a great New Year!

      Delete
  3. Ken,

    Another well written piece. I wish, however, I liked the movie more. I saw it when it first came out and my dim memory was that there was only a handful people in the theater and that I liked it quite a lot. But on rewatching it a couple of weeks ago, I just don't know. Now that I'm in my mid-50s and my body is getting creaky, I don't find the geezer's desire for youth quite as risable as I once did. These days, I'd pay a lot to have my 20-year-old knees back and if Isabella Rossellini was giving them back to me, so much the better.

    Overall, though, Death Becomes Her holds up pretty well. I think the cartoonish look of the special effects works well for the tone of the movie and that bits here and there are very good. (The shot of the weeping, gliding nuns in the morgue corridor was a nice, creepy touch) But my main complaint is that everyone in it is too self-aware and too careful with the material. It wants to be outrageous but to me it just felt toothless and came off as a glossy but ersatz version of a Hollywood Hag flick from the 1960s. Meryl and Goldie are no Bette and Joan.

    But I did love the opening scene with Meryl Streep in Songbird. One of my fantasies is to put on a show consisting of nothing but the bad songs from the fake musicals in movies. The Fan has some choice ones as does Waiting for Guffman. And there is a movie called The Tall Guy with Jeff Goldblum where he plays an actor cast in a musical called Elephant! which is based on the story of the Elephant Man. One question I had while watching this scene was, why won't someone put as much thought and care into making a real classic movie-style musical as they do making parodies of them? (I'm looking at you No Dames number from Hail, Ceaser!.)

    Anyway, I enjoyed reading your thoughts, as always, and look forward to seeing what you come up with in the new year.

    Michael

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Michael
      Thank you very much, and a happy New Year!
      And yes to the somewhat dissenting voice. I'm such a fan of this movie that there isn't much in the way of a balance in my essay, so it's a welcome contribution to hear what didn't work for you in the film.
      I can see what you mean in that, even at their most malicious, Meryl & Hawn can never exude as much hateful, homicidal menace of a Bette Davis vs Joan Crawford pairing. In fact, just thinking about it makes we wonder how those two (Davis/Crawford) would have fared in a comedy together. Crawford had some killer comic timing, and while Davis wasn't as smooth, she was great with snide and sarcastic.

      Watching the film now as a man older than all the leads when it was made, I appreciate how it offers up an alternative for (at least here in LA) the nonstop youth adulation surrounding me. Personally I'm finding getting older to be something of a relief, and I am at that age where young people strike me as slightly absurd: their vigor tricks them into thinking they actually know anything.

      Your observation about musicals is an excellent one. First off, I like the idea of a musical comprised of the bad songs from fake musicals (and I saw that Jeff Goldblum movie, too. Talk about not having thought of a film in ages!)
      Secondly, the issue you raise about the care lavished on parodies is an interesting one. I don't have the answer, but from personal observation and experience, what I see is choreographers and dance directes "hide" behind parody or pastiche because there is a distrust in sincerity. Choreographers are afraid an earnest, sincere musical number (or musical film) would come off as corny or cheesy. Ergo they resort to animation, adapting from the stage, or poking fun of an old genre.

      I don't know if you saw it, but when Mya Rudolf tried her hand at doing a Carol Burnett like musical variety show, critics complained because all the musical numbers were self-effacing and parodies. The issue taken was that you can't revive a genre if you don't genuinely believe it works. These parody numbers wink at the audience, and in a way that's playing it safe.
      maybe someday someone will take the risk of being corny and find a way to do an old-style musical authentically.
      Thanks for the food for thought, Michael, and I appreciate your revisiting the site. Best in the New Year!

      Delete
  4. Haven't thought about this fun flick in awhile!
    Meryl is a hoot as "Mad!" Madeline Ashton reminds me of a soap villainess from my youth! Especially in the scenes where fat Helen is watching a campy Ashton get strangled on the tube or Madeline clawing the woodwork while getting dished at the top of the stairs, as "a really bad actress." For some reason, I always think of Joan Collins!

    The whole cast is quite good, right down to the spa woman whose exotic accent immediately disappears when Streep starts screeching at her : ) Or Isabella's double take when she doesn't like Streep's answer to the age-old rhetorical question, "How old do you think I am?"

    Funny thinking about Hawn in one of two movies where Goldie's characters dip into the pool of plastic surgery. Have you seen her ad for the new Amy Schumer movie? Hawn looks simultaneously old and stretched after 15 years away from film. The pressure to look "fresh" extends even to actresses who are mostly retired, Kim Novak and Linda Evans come to mind.

    But it's Meryl who has a field day as the gloriously vainglorious Madeline Ashton...and I too love her Tennessee Williams meets Solid Gold Dancers turn in "Songbird!"

    Great job as always, Ken...and I wish they'd put that original ending on some special edition of "Death Becomes Her."

    Cheers, Rick

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Rick
      Yes, Streep's Madeline Ashton seems to be channeling quite a few of those nighttime soap villainesses. It's so funny how the film doesn't afford her ANY good qualities. The best they manage is that her NEED to be young is so nakedly desperate, you feel sorry for her. Especially when she's dumped by her boy-toy and gets rained on for her trouble.
      The comic moments you cited are among my favorites as well: the exaggerated French accent quickly dropped in panic/ Rossellini's coy "How old you you think I am?" followed by the look of death she shoots Madeline for her tad-too-accurate guess.
      Everyone seems to have some bit where they shine, even in some of the smaller parts.

      I have seen the trailer for Hawn's new film (I thought it was a too-soon remake of Streisand's Road Trip for a second) and I've kind of given up having any kind of reaction with elder stars nowadays. I have no idea what's going on with celebrity faces these days. Wanting to look good for your age makes sense (Deneuve, Bisset, Barry Bostwick, Roger Daltrey...Streep!), but I'm not sure what some people are going after. I don't even know why someone in their 70s WANTS to look like someone in their 40s or so. It's creepy to age and not really get over all that, even in Hollywood where looks are the end all and be all.
      Since I'm not an Amy Shumer fan, I guess I'll pass on it unless a friend raves and says Goldie's back in old form.
      As for "Death Becomes Her" glad to hear you're a fan (that musical number is the BEST) and I was bummed they didn't have the original ending on the Blu Ray. It would be cool if it saw the light of day SOMETIME before I find myself in need of Isabella Rossellini's services to assure being around for it.
      Best wishes in the New year, Rick, and thank you very much!

      Delete
  5. I read the original ending of the script, and I didn't get why 70 years old Ernest has a 25 years old right hand... any ideas?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello AF
      A scene from the script that remains in the film shows that Lisle uses the same sales-pitch demonstration with Ernest that she did with Madeline: she stabs one of his fingers with her dagger and introduces a drop of the potion into his bloodstream, sending his hand into remission and freezing it at age 25. (This younger, non-shaky, non-alcoholic hand is the reason, after having seen him throw scalpels at a dartboard and always missing, he's suddenly able to throw Lisle's dagger with pinpoint accuracy, hitting the poolroom lights, facilitating his escape.)
      When Ernest ultimately refuses to drink the entire potion, he is thus left with one hand that remains eternally young in spite of the rest of him aging naturally. Hence his having one 25 year-old hand and one liver-spotted one at the end.
      Hope this clears it up. Thanks for the question!

      Delete
    2. Of course! I totally forgot that scene. Thank you for your reply! (and for your whole blog, it's always a treat to read)

      Delete
  6. I think this film didn't too well on its release; it's probably a bit too dark, as you note, for mass-audience tastes; it's VERY over the top. It's also entirely unforgiving towards both Mad and Hel, which is kinda why I liked it; there's nothing redeeming about them! While both Goldie Hawn and Meryl Streep are expectedly brilliant in their comedy, I was surprised and touched by Bruce Willis's performance; he really found something in playing a nerd. I didn't know about the original ending, but in the new one I did find Streep's line reading of "blah, blah, BLAH!" hilarious; it was the perfect undercut to the cliched sentiment presented at Ern's funeral. I'm surprised this film hasn't achieve a cult reputation today. Though I think there's something ruthless in the movie, in its look at Hollywood's youth obsession, that may frighten audiences a bit. It really does have that underground-cinema feel to it that you compare it to, in that it never takes you to the tried-and-true places, but keeps the venom drip going...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello GOM
      In Googling about the film I think I saw that it was one of the top 25 releases of that year, but if I'm remembering correctly at all, it was in the lower range to be sure.
      Maybe others had the same negative response to the ad campaign as I, or perhaps those old enough to enjoy Hawn, Streep, and Willis were not the demographic for a black comedy like this.
      The cast all acquit themselves very nicely and, like you, I think Willis, in leaving behind that smirk, is actually very good (I just remembered I kinda liked him in "Mortal Thoughts" , but then he was tapping into his basic sliminess).
      In any event, It seems to have found its own mini-cult of devoted followers (most of whom seem to have been born AFTER the film was released) and I'm glad it finally got a pristine DVD release.
      I think you're right in that for most, the ending as is is a fitting conclusion to the film...sort of ideal for the irreverent, unsentimental tone already set (and yes, Streep's dismissal of the sentimental church service is quite funny).
      Your observation about the ruthlessness of the comedy cuts to the core of both its appeal and why for some it's an amusing memory but not a film one revisits often.
      It's so nice to hear from you! The holidays have wreaked havoc with my ability to read some of my favorite blogs, I have a lot of catching up to do
      In the meantime, thank you for commenting and Happy new Year!

      Delete
  7. Nothing much to add to your already insightful review. I've always enjoyed this movie and there was a time that it popped up on various channels fairly frequently. I always tuned in not because it was great cinema...it was just dark and funny. It was interesting to read about the alternative ending but the chosen ending works well, too. That moment at the end when the minister cries out "Ernest discovered the secret to eternal life!" and Madeline and Helen freeze as they listen to his speech is quite good. You sense that, just for a split second, they might have realized something. Of course, Streep's "blah, blah, blah" is a great way to pull them back to their own narrow realities. And that's about as profound as it gets...which is fine with me. The film is designed to skewer, not encourage deep reflection. And of course, you included in your screen caps at the end (in my opinion) the funniest line in the move. ("NOW a warning?") Whoops...I guess I did have a few things to add....

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Ron
      It really is true; amongst all the gags and funny lines, that "NOW a warning?!" exchange really IS the funniest part of the film. I hear it in my head and I always smile at the level of cartoonish incredulity in Streep's voice. That it's preceded by Rossellini's calm and measured line reading just breaks me up.
      Your assessment of why the 2nd ending works for you is a terrific elaboration of why it is that no one seems to really "miss" the original ending. I think you're right in noting it gives just enough of a sense that the women "get" the point made by the minister, but then, true to form, these women resort quickly to who are and will never change.
      Thanks very much for reading and for taking the time to comment!

      Delete
  8. Hi Ken, happy new year. This movie really creeped me when it first came out--the special effects were so well done that it was painful watching the contortions of these women's bodies!! Nightmarish! But the perfect dark comedy for its time...far superior to She Devil, which was made around the same time and also starred Streep in a comic role. And my favorite part of Death Becomes Her is that great Streep-Rossellini scene, too--NOW a warning?? LOL
    - Chris
    P.S. of course, I too did a Meryl Streep movie post this week, that happens to us a lot...quelle coincidence!!!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Chris
      Yes, I think in less skilled hands the level of grotesque body injury in this film would be really hard to take or laugh about. Off topic: I've always thought it curious that the film deems Ernest worthy of a kind of happy ending, in spite of the fact that he dumps his fiance and actually pushes his wife down the stairs. Sure, he makes amends with the rest of his life, but there's something oddly patriarchal about it. I guess they considered life with Madeline punishment enough!

      As for your own Streep blog post, it's true, between you, me, and Poseidon, we often see to channel the same themes and/or movies. I haven't read you post yet, but I love that you pay tribute to Carrie Fisher and her autobiographical masterwork "Postcards From The Edge."
      Looking forward to reading it. Have a great New Year, Chris!

      Delete
  9. "[M]aybe someday someone will take the risk of being corny and find a way to do an old-style musical authentically."

    So you've not yet seen "La La Land"?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "[N]o." But looking forward to seeing it soon.

      Delete
  10. I remember wanting to watch Death Becomes her from the moment the ads for it came out, and was dying to watch it on TV. I don't remember being too taken with it when I watched it at the time, but as an adult, I regularly rewatch it! I always loved the ending though, with the bitter ladies and them ending up essentially killing each other.

    P.S. so many old films I want to watch because of this blog, I need to keep a list!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello MissDisco
      You reiterate what I've heard from many of my friends: they saw DEATH BECOMES HER when they were yound and enjoyed it, but it didn't make that strong of an impression. Then, in later years, revisits to it reveal it to be a sharper comedy than it first revealed itself to be.
      Sort of like when you watch those old Warner Bros cartoons as a kid and they are merely funny; watch them as an adult and they are very wry and subversive.
      Thank you very much for visiting the site, commenting, and I'm pleased some of the films I cover might prove interesting to you! Please come back again!

      Delete