“En garde, bitch.” And with that, two undead rivals, forgotten star Madeline Ashton and spurned lover Helen Sharp, go at it with garden shovels, knocking each other around until one nearly loses her head. Death Becomes Her is a batty, ageless film in more ways than one. It’s a campy early ‘90s nod to the B-movie that boasts serious stars in truly captivating performances; it also features still impressive special effects, though one can only imagine what a filmmaker might attempt with a remake today; and it touches on a theme, eternal youth, that will probably never go away.
Directed by Robert Zemeckis, this movie delights in its own silliness. Stars Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn ham it up as vindictive rivals for the affections of a lumpy and timid plastic surgeon, played with a very un-John McClane-like Bruce Willis. When Madeline (Streep) and Ernest (Willis) elope, Helen (Hawn) goes off the deep end, eating herself into obesity and landing in a psych ward due to her obsessive behavior. The years haven’t been kind to Madeline either though, and she eventually loses her career, good looks, and the love of her husband.
The three are reunited some years later when Helen launches her book at a glitzy party. Madeline is jealous to discover that Helen is thin, radiant, and most importantly, young. The change doesn’t escape Ernest’s notice. He’s eager to rid himself of his nagging wife and to recharge his career – he’s been reduced to a makeup artist for the dead. He and his former lover plot to rid themselves of Madeline, and, as usually happens, that’s when things start to get out of control.
Death Becomes Her takes our obsession with youth and youthful appearances to the extreme. It’s also a commentary on sexism and aging in Hollywood, issues that are as relevant today as they were twenty-five years ago. In this movie, the cure-all is a youth potion, conjured up by Lisle (Isabella Rossellini), a mysterious woman who prowls topless through her empty mansion and is protected by equally unclothed bodyguards. When Madeline gets a preview of the potion’s effect, she snaps it up without a moment’s thought. When Ernest gets the same opportunity, he hesitates, fearful of what immortality truly entails. Though he’s spent a lifetime helping people alter their appearances in life and death, he spurns the notion that greatness is achieved through youth or beauty.
Of course he might come to that conclusion as a man who looks like a bank teller and marries someone like Meryl Streep. But as Madeline and Hollywood’s actresses know, youth and beauty are a woman’s primary currency in an industry they don’t control. There’s great irony in that despite stopping time to spend eternity as they are, Madeline and Helen are still betrayed by their bodies. They need constant remolding and patching up just so they don’t walk around like melting mannequins. But the more work they get, the more unrecognizable they become, and doesn’t that sound familiar? Just Renee Zelleweger or Kim Novak.
Prod: Robert Zemeckis, Steve Starkey
Dir: Robert Zemeckis
Writer: Martin Donovan, David Koepp
Cast: Meryl Streep, Goldie Hawn, Bruce Willis, Isabella Rossellini, Ian Ogilvy, Sydney Pollack, Fabio
Time: 104 min
Country: United States