Death Becomes Her

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Wedged somewhat awkwardly in Robert Zemeckis’ filmography between the blockbuster majesty of the Back To The Future trilogy and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and the more serious works like Forrest Gump and What Lies Beneath, sits Death Becomes Her. Essentially a far-out, madcap comedy that deals with a pair of monstrous, feuding women who discover that the secret of eternal life lurks under the shiny veneer of Beverley Hills, the movie was essentially buried alive by critics who simply couldn’t adjust to the mixture of it’s wildly chaotic tone and state of the art special effects, I feel the years have been phenomenally kind to this bizarre little blockbuster. After all, we now live in times where the acidic charms of Joan Crawford and the devastating pull downs of Bette Midler are things that generate a huge camp following – so was Death Becomes Her’s greatest sin only that it was before it’s time?

It’s 1978 and mousey writer Helen Sharp brings her cosmetic surgeon fiance Ernest Menville to meet the glamorous and hugely monstrous ego of her actress frenemy Madeline Ashton as she stars in an excruciating musical based on Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth. Notorious for stealing many of Helen’s previous boyfriends throughout their poisonous friendship, Madaline keeps her unbroken record by sinking her claws into Ernest post haste and before you can say “psychotic break”, the two are married, leaving Helen to languish in a cat filled apartment as she consumes ice cream at a frightening rate before being admitted to a psychiatric hospital.
Years pass and the toll being married to the astonishingly narcissistic Madeline has turned Ernest from a prominent plastic surgeon to an alcoholic undertaker, now using his skills to reconstruct cadavers for their funerals while Madeline herself mourns for no longer boasting unblemished skin and “tits like rocks” as age does its number on her. However, their miserable lives get even worse when Helen comes back into their lives looking absolutely stunning and younger than ever. Madeline is predictably horrified, but unbeknownst to her, Helen approaches the hapless Ernest with a plot to off the faded actress, make it look like an accident and try to rebuild their lives. However, unbeknownst to them, Madeline has stumbled across a secret society in Beverley Hills that, for a fee, can not only restore your crumbling looks, but make you young forever by essentially turning you immortal – something that’s right up the actresses alley.
Rejuvenated, Madeline returns home only to push the hen pecked Ernest too far who pulls the trigger on the murder plot prematurely by letting his wife take a brutal, neck cracking tumble down a flight of stairs – but Madeline and Ernest are about to discover that immortal means exactly that and that Helen’s suspicious makeover may have actually come from the same source. Ernest is about to find himself in the middle of the mother of all cat fight grudge matches as both Madeline and Helen have lot to get off their newly dried-up chests.

In a time when reality shows and instagram posts still demand complete and utter perfection in the human body (how many times are we to be told that we’re all beautiful by supernaturally gorgeous influencers?), there’s truly never been a better time for Death Becomes Her to be unearthed for a whole new audience and unsurprisingly the movie already has a large LGBTQ+ following – seriously, how has this movie not been remade with drag queens? It would be perfect! The reason for this is than not only is the film a ludicrous, black comedy that combines a stunningly cynical outlook with some cartoonish body horror that’s Chuck Jones meets David Cronenberg, but it’s nicely vicious with it too.
The two female leads are vapid, self obsessed, life-sucking harridans, while infamous action hero Bruce Willis plays a middle aged with a spine of an earthworm, so I can understand why people back in 1992 were a little confused, but Zemeckis is obviously relishing telling a story about these morally worthless people and it’s devilishly infectious. From Alan Silvestri’s Danny Elfman-esque score to Willis’ wildly unhinged screaming, the satirical nature of the movie may be a subtle as a rhinoplasty performed with a lump of masonry, but that’s exactly the point and it strives to reach the overblown heights of other, neo-screwball comedies such as the Cohen Brother’s Raising Arizona.
Willis proves to be the weakest of the three leads, which is weird considering that stylished comedy is what made him famous in the first place with Moonlighting, but while he bellows and shrieks from beneath his cookie duster moustache, he manages not to invoke the irritating hysteria of Hudson Hawk. Goldie Hawn, on the other hand, can do this shit in her sleep thanks to a history of comedies like Overboard and Private Benjamin, but the real jewel here is Meryl Streep, who grasps the role of Madeline with both hands and chokes every drip of comedy gold she can from it. She is, plainly speaking, a magnificent piece of shit, launching off on self pitying tirades at a moments notice without a single shred of remorse whatsoever. It’s no surprise why all three actors took their roles as none of the character’s status quo’s stay still for the slightest minute with Streep and Hawn especially starting off as glamorous and meek respectively, then morphing to old and/or fat, then to insanely glamorous and then to unkillable bitches who parade their gruesome wounds nonchalantly like Daffy Duck during hunting season.
At the time, the CGI used to reduced two of Hollywood’s most glamorous actresses to ravaged, spite hurling ragdolls was sensational and it’s nice to see that it’s mostly held up quite well as Streep’s horrendous neck trauma (caused by surely the nastiest cinematic staircase fall this side of The Exorcist) and Hawn’s shotgunned torso give us some wonderfully morbid slapstick to chew on. ILM’s flashy mauling of two of America’s sweethearts may not be anything special these days, but without the initial awe (or horror) of seeing an Oscar winning actress stumbling around with her head twisted all the way around, the movie can finally be judged on its humor and not unnecessarily be compared to Jurassic Park or Terminator 2.

Silly, spiteful and gloriously mean with a killer final shot, Death Becomes Her gleefully sticks its elbows into the ribs of stardom and growing old as disgracefully as you possibly can to give us a caustic take about the living dead in Beverley Hills which bizarrely feels less sarcastic with every passing year.

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