“Death Becomes Her”: A Comedy Cult Classic Turns 30
30 years ago today, a remarkable group of A-list Hollywood talent teamed up for the most unlikely of projects. Death Becomes Her is a high-camp, special effects-laden macabre comedy with an absurd premise and wildly unlikable characters. Although it received mixed reviews upon its release, it has endured for the past 3 decades and become a cult classic — particularly among the LGBT community.
On July 31, 1992, Death Becomes Her hit theaters. The macabre comedy centered on frenemies Madeline Asthon (Meryl Streep) and Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn), whose pursuits of eternal youth lead to bizarre and violent consequences.
Moviegoers were undoubtedly both mystified and intrigued by the bizarre synopsis and previews, but they showed up to theaters anyway. The film debuted at #1 at the box office and had a solid worldwide gross of $149 million off of an estimated $55 million budget. (That total balloons to $315 million when adjusted for inflation, a sum that would be a remarkable for an original comedy released in 2022.)
The film received mixed reviews from critics, with a 54% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and an average rating of 56/100 on Metacritic. Nevertheless, it did receive some awards attention. Meryl Streep received her 10th Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a Motion Picture — Musical or Comedy for the film (she has subsequently scored 22 more nominations) and, famously, it became an unlikely Oscar winner for Best Visual Effects. Interestingly, it beat out two much more traditional films (Alien 3 and Batman Returns) and chronologically sits between two of the most acclaimed winners ever in the category (1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day and 1993’s Jurassic Park).
At the time of the film’s release, the consensus among audiences and critics was ultimately that Death Becomes Her was an ambitious misfire. The against-type performances from its A-list cast were intriguing and the special effects were impressive, but it was perceived to have missed the mark as satire and entertainment. Few would have guessed that it would have persevered as a cult classic for the next 3 decades. But that is exactly what it did, particualrly among the LGBT community (whose love for the film was chronicled in a 2017 Vanity Fair article). It took decades, but audiences have finally discovered what a truly singular and bizarre film it is.
To fully appreciate what a truly singular and bizarre film Death Becomes Her is requires one to understand where the legendary talent involved were in their respective careers.
- Director Robert Zemeckis had just completed a string of 5 big-hearted blockbusters that resonated enormously in American culture —Romancing the Stone (1984), Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), and The Back to the Future trilogy (1985–1990). Those films alone grossed over $1.43 billion not even accounting for inflation. His next film after Death Becomes Her would prove to be his biggest hit yet and bring him an Oscar for Best Director (1994’s Forrest Gump).
- Screenwriter David Koepp (who co-wrote the film with Martin Donovan) was a relative newcomer. This was his 6th screenwriting credit and only one film of the bunch had stood out (1991’s unnerving action film Toy Soldiers). After Death Becomes Her, however, he would go on to become one of the highest-grossing screenwriters in history writing or co-writing films like Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible, Spider-Man, and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
- Star Meryl Streep had already amassed 9 Oscar nominations and won 2 (Best Supporting Actress for Kramer v. Kramer and Best Actress for Sophie’s Choice). She was already revered as one of the greatest dramatic actresses of all time, but was in a stage of her career where she was eager to prove that she could also do mainstream comedy. Death Becomes Her marked her 4th consecutive light-hearted film after co-starring with Roseanne in She-Devil (1989), Shirley MacLaine in Postcards from the Edge (1990), and Albert Brooks in Defending Your Life (1991). After the film, she would try her hand at action with The River Wild (1993) and then return to her prestige roots, amassing 12 more Oscar nominations over the next three decades.
- Star Goldie Hawn already had an Oscar of her own (Best Supporting Actress for Cactus Flower), but her run up to Death Becomes Her was a mixed bag — Bird on a Wire (1990) and Housesitter (1992) proved to be profitable hits, but Overboard (1987), Deceived (1991), and Criss Cross (1992) were major disappointments. After Death Becomes Her, she would take a 4 year break from the big screen and re-emerge with perhaps the biggest commercial hit of her career — 1996’s The First Wives Club.
- In contrast to his costars, Bruce Willis did not have an Oscar (he has never been nominated to this day). But he did have an Emmy (for his work on ABC’s primetime smash Moonlighting opposite Cybill Shepherd) and a blockbuster franchise under his belt with Die Hard (1988) and Die Hard 2 (1990). However, by the time Death Becomes Her hit theaters, he had amassed a string of box office bombs including The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), Hudson Hawk (1991), and Billy Bathgate (1991).
Quite simply, Death Becomes Her is just about the last thing you would have expected in 1992 from virtually any of the talent involved. Nevertheless, they teamed up and committed fully to one of the darkest and most cynical comedies ever financed by a major studio.
Revisiting Death Becomes Her: Film Review
Death Becomes Her was a staple for me growing up. I saw it in theaters at the age of 8 and subsequently replayed the VHS a few times a year. In hindsight, I was far too young to appreciate it. I didn’t have an appreciation for the actors and I certainly didn’t have any real understanding of the vanity and vapidity that the film was viciously satirizing. But I loved the razzle dazzle and glamour of it all, not to mentioned the amusing hijinks that dominate the film’s second half. I have revisited the film twice since the onset of the pandemic and both times found it to be a deliriously entertaining experience.
The film comes boldly out of the gate with a sensational musical sequence that marks some of the finest comic and musical performances Meryl Streep has ever given on film (which is high praise indeed). It is 1978 on Broadway and Streep’s Madeline Ashton is starring in an ill-conceived disco musical called Songbird! (based on the Tennesee Williams play Sweet Bird of Youth). Her remarkably campy number is perfectly staged and sets the film’s daring and aggressively entertaining tone.
But it’s not just a dazzling moment to hook the viewers. It also sets up the key character dynamics perfectly. Madeline is gorgeous, but profoundly narcissistic and possessing questionable amounts of talent. Her longtime frenemy Helen (Hawn) is an uptight writer who is eternally jealous of her. In fact, the only reason Helen attended the show was to see if her new fiance Ernest (Willis) can pass “The Madeline Ashton Test.” It turns out that Helen had lost numerous beaus to Madeline in the past and before things got serious, she decided to see if Madeline would steal him, too. Flash forward a bit and Madeline and Ernest are married, just as Helen feared.
The film flashes forward 7 years to 1985, and shows a morbidly obese Helen living among dozens of cats, eating frosting out of the can with her fingers, and being evicted from her apartment. However, she barely notices what is happening because she is so busy replaying a movie scene in which Madeline is brutally murdered. The makeup and staging of this brief scene is very memorable, as is Hawn’s work in it.
The film flashes forward another 7 years to 1992. Madeline and Ernest are in a loveless marriage in an enormous mansion in Beverly Hills. Madeline’s looks are fading and she hasn’t had a film role in ages. Ernest has lost his plastic surgery practice due to his alcoholism and is working as an undertaker. One of the few things that Madeline has to look forward to is lording over glamorous lifestyle over Helen, who has invited her to her book release party. However, when Madeline arrives at the party she finds Helen looking more youthful and gorgeous than ever.
Devastated and desperate, Madeline decides to take her plastic surgeon up on a mysterious suggestion he made to her earlier in the film. She follows his instructions to a gothic mansion in Beverly Hills that features sparse furnishings, male servants ripped out of the pages of Playgirl, and a pair of menacing Dobermanns. She is greeted by Lisle Von Rhumen (Isabelle Rossellini), who is adorned with a revealing top composed of strings of gems that alone should have scored Joanna Johnson an Oscar nomination for Best Costume Design. For an absurd price (undisclosed to the audience), Lisle offers Madeline the secret to eternal youth. Madeline is skeptical but when Lisle demonstrates the product — and reveals that she is actually 71 years old — Madeline buys it. Lisle then gives her some warnings about the potion, leading to one of the best line readings of Streep’s storied career (“Now, a warning?!”).
While Madeline is out obtaining the potion, Helen goes to see Ernest and convinces him that his relationship with Madeline has taken everything from him and that the only solution is to kill her. She concocts a hilariously elaborate scheme that they will enact the following day. But an enraged and emboldened Ernest can’t contain himself and ends up killing Madeline when she mercilessly taunts him after returning home from Lisle’s. He pushes her down the grand staircase and calls a flabbergasted Helen, leading to an exquisitely delivered line from Hawn (“Exactly what part of the plan were you unclear on?”).
But, thanks to Lisle’s potion, Madeline isn’t actually dead. Her body is no longer governed by the laws of nature and damage to it no longer prevents Madeline from sustaining life. She approaches a horrified Ernest with her head twisted 180 degrees. She is able to put her head back on straight, but a horrified Ernest rushes her to the ER. After being declared technically dead by a flabbergasted doctor (played by Streep’s Oscar-winning Out of Africa director Sydney Pollack in a cameo), she passes out and is taken to the morgue. Ernest is convinced it’s a miracle and goes full Dr. Frankenstein (or at least Young Frankenstein).
Helen arrives to assess the situation and Madeline, no longer fearing any consequences due to her immortality, savagely shoots her with a shotgun. However, Helen rises fully functional despite the large hole in her stomach. It turns out that she, too, has taken Lisle’s potion. Madeline and Helen need Ernest’s invaluable talents as a plastic surgeon in order to repair their damaged bodies and they try to get him to take Lisle’s potion, too, so he can stay with them forever. However, he realizes how devastating eternal life would actually be (especially with Madeline and Helen) and opts out.
The film’s epilogue finds Madeline and Helen attending Ernest’s funeral 37 years later. He has lived a wonderful life full of love and accomplishment, while a grotesque Madeline and Helen live as recluses and spend their days sniping away at each other. In the jaw-dropping final moment, one of them slips on a can of their spray paint and the two fall down the stairs, their bodies smashed into a dozen pieces but their mental faculties intact. It is a remarkably dark ending that perfectly depicts the eternal Hell of their existence. (Interestingly, the original ending to the film involved Ernest faking his death with the help of a new love played by Tracy Ullman but it was scrapped after it performed poorly with test audiences.)
The film only features 4 substantial characters and all of them are immensely unlikable. Madeline, Helen, and Ernest are profoundly narcissistic, extraordinarily whiny, and completely morally bankrupt. All of their interrelationships are built either on status or mutual hatred. (As for Lisle, well, she’s clearly running an ethically questionable enterprise…) It is rare to see a big screen comedy that fails to depict a single likable character or meaningful relationship, especially one with a big budget and a trio of beloved superstars known for their charming personas.
Not only were Streep, Hawn, and Willis hardly known for playing repulsive and despicable characters, they were hardly known for playing in heightened fantasy. Streep was known for prestige dramas, Hawn for clever comedies, and Willis for action films. Any one of them starring in a film like Death Becomes Her would have been surprising. All three of them being in one was shocking. Playing against type in this manner seems to have invigorated the three stars, who give some of their most genuinely interesting and impassioned big screen turns in the film. Their performances are committed, daring, and vanity-free. They make you wish that all three had made some riskier choices in their career (or, rather, that Hollywood have provided them the opportunities to do so).
The screenplay by Koepp and Donovan is ambitious for reasons other than its despicable characters. The plot is centered on a bold and original idea that is cleverly executed. And like many great dark comedies, the film’s script takes aim at a worthy target — here, America’s obsession with youth and beauty. Several critics lamented that the screenplay failed to say much on this topic that was new or interesting. Although I can’t entirely disagree, I found the way they turned the “unnaturalness” of plastic surgery and the soulless, dead-end pursuit of maintaining youth into a magical fable to be impressive. In addition to sharper social commentary, there are numerous ways the script could have been improved (e.g., the backstory and Madeline and Helen is notably underdeveloped, there are a handful of plot holes, a few jokes fall flat). But, for me, a lot more of the screenplay hits the mark than misses it.
Zemeckis’s artistry is on full display as he mounts, shoots, and paces the film exquisitely. It’s rare for a big screen comedy to look and feel as expensive as this one does. The sets are utterly exquisite thanks to art director Jim Teegarden and production designer Rick Carter. The Oscar-winning visual effects are consistently impressive. Arthur Schmidt’s editing keeps the film’s 103 minute run time briskly paced (even though it runs out of a bit of steam in the third act). And Alan Silvestri’s score brilliantly blends the harsh and menacing chords of horror films with the playful melodies of lighter films.
It doesn’t surprise me that a film as bold, campy, and utterly ridiculous as Death Becomes Her would be rediscovered and appreciated decades later. Nor does it surprise me that its re-evaluation was largely led by the queer community. The film savagely satirizes themes relevant to the gay male community in particular (e.g., obsession with youth and beauty) and does so with over-the-top glamour, a remarkably campy aesthetic, and blistering insults. And it is all delivered by two of the most beloved big screen actresses of all time.
Death Becomes Her is a film without heart and, at times, a film without much logic. But it is a wildly entertaining and often hilarious spectacle in which a host of truly talented individuals dared to lean 100% into a dark and bizarre premise.
If contemporary Hollywood comedies had a fraction of the chutzpah of Death Becomes Her, the current cinematic landscape would be a much richer one.