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?
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.
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.
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.
|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
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|
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