Death Becomes Her

A film review by Lucy Mainwaring-Parr, Criminology Undergraduate

Used for illustration purposes: original here

Halloween films are best when they are cult classics; take the beloved Hocus Pocus (1993) or The Addams Family (1991) for instance. It’s a day meant for suspending your belief in reality, with cartoonish colour palettes and ridiculous CGI taking the screen without the risk of being critiqued too seriously. These films often attract A list actors to roles and how grateful we, as the audience, are. The likes of Anjelica Huston and Bette Midler relish their comical roles and in return we are given some of the most memorable villainous divas. This is apparent in the stellar cast of Death Becomes Her (1992). Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn play friends-turned-archenemies in this dark comedy, with the two actresses giving an electrifyingly sharp performance.

The film begins with the two lead roles at a Broadway show. Madeline Ashton (Streep) stars in a musical whilst Helen Sharp (Hawn) sits nervously in the audience next to her plastic surgeon fiancé, Ernest Menville (played wonderfully by Bruce Willis). At the end of the show Helen goes back stage and worriedly introduces Ernest to the narcissistic Madeline. Fast forward seven years, and we are shown an entirely different – although not unpredictable – scenario. Madeline is marrying Ernest while Helen is now obese in a psychiatric ward, spending her days plotting her ultimate revenge on Madeline. Fast forward another seven years to the breakdown of the now faded and fame-less Madeline and an alcoholic mortician reminiscent of Ernest, the honeymoon phase decidedly in the past. They then receive an invite from Helen to attend the launch of her new book entitled Forever Young. On the launch, Madeline is horrified to see that Helen has lost weight and regained the glamour of the Hawn we know. Now desperate, Madeline visits a mysterious woman that claims to specialise in youth rejuvenation and drinks an elixir which returns her looks to those of fourteen years ago, but at the cost of eternal life.

What really makes this film so ridiculous in humour is the use of CGI. Death Becomes Her was relatively ground breaking in its use of special effects, winning both an Oscar and BAFTA in this category. The wicked sense of humour and incredulity of plot are typical of Robert Zemeckis’ directorship (of Back to the Future fame). The villains truly are villainous, which the audience are all too eager to relish.

‘We root for the undead divas because they’re trying to win a game that’s rigged against them’

Tom Campbell, Executive Producer of Ru Paul’s Drag Race

Yet, under the special effects and absurdity of events, the film remains sinister in its comments on the ever-relevant debate on youth and beauty. Isabella Rossellini’s devilishly charming Lisle could be the face of most luxury beauty brands, promising eternal beauty and a cosmetic solution to all of the worries of the consumer. Whilst the film admittedly struggles with the plotting and the portrayal of Helen’s neurosis, the matching of Hawn and Streep as the anti-heroines keeps the story compelling. The actresses work well on screen, with neither one outshining the other. Within Streep’s performance we can see glints of her future portrayal of Miranda Priestley in The Devil Wears Prada (the iconic raised eyebrow is here debuted).

Death Becomes Her has since garnered a cult following, particularly from the LGBT+ community. In season 7 of Ru Paul’s Drag Race, a Death Becomes Her themed runway was shown. Tom Campbell, an executive producer on the series, explains why the film’s legacy is as immortal as the characters, stating that ‘They’re fighting for beauty. They’re against the system. They’re also villains, but we understand their complexity’. Campbell goes on to conclude that: ‘We root for the undead divas because they’re trying to win a game that’s rigged against them, and—to borrow an apocryphal quote from Ginger Rogers—they sort of have to do it ‘backwards and in high heels’, and what could be more admirable than that?’

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