There was a time, if you came over to my house, when I forced you to watch Death Becomes Her. I taped it off television on an old VHS with a ripped label, my childhood print scrawling the title across. I took great pride in my perfect timing, nearly eliminating all traces of commercial breaks. The tape was almost ruined with my watches and re-watches and rewinding re-watches; it was my favourite movie, and I wanted everyone I knew to see it. My twelve-year-old brain posited that if they didn’t love it, they probably couldn’t love me. After all, if we couldn’t laugh at the same things, how long could any relationship last?
Death Becomes Her is a tale about relationships that last forever—in sickness or in health, ‘til death do us part. In 1992, Robert Zemeckis brought two Hollywood stars together and worked the hell out of them, pinballing their personalities off each other until the whole machine lit up to create a movie that still makes us laugh today.
By this time, Meryl Streep was already locked down as a legend; she’d won two Academy Awards for Kramer vs. Kramer and Sophie’s Choice and had received a nomination in nearly every role thereafter. In Madeline Ashton, Streep would find one of her most hysterical roles, one she couldn’t pass up despite its unlikely addition to her resume. Madeline is a movie star desperately clinging to the edge of the limelight, terrified by the aging process and emptiness of her life. Meryl was warmed up and ready for the part coming off Postcards From the Edge with Shirley MacLaine, playing a drug-addicted celebrity on the downfall forced to move in with her aged, starlet mother. She was more than prepared to chew up the scenery opposite another household name.
Goldie Hawn’s bright-eyed and bubbly career had taken off, too; her Oscar came in 1970 for Cactus Flower, and she’d made a name for herself in the likes of Private Benjamin, Overboard, and Bird on a Wire. Playing the role of Helen Sharp appealed to her gregarious sense of humour and allowed her to play both temptress and recluse. Haunted by always coming in second, her men and her spotlight stolen by Madeline, she let hate drive her nearly to insanity.
Both women were beautiful, in the prime of their careers, and would play epic rivals reduced to fighting over scraps, in this black comedy that plays with the theme of eternal life and the true cost of living forever.
Death Becomes Her opens on a teeth-grittingly bad musical scene, a take on Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth. Madeline sings and dances, projecting her insecurity to a crowd who is already on their way out the door. She’s lost her appeal to nearly everyone except Ernest Menville (Bruce Willis), illustrious plastic surgeon and fiancee of Helen, Madeline’s high school frenemy. Ernest has failed the test, though he exclaims, “I have no interest in Madeline Ashton!” a hard cut to their wedding day proves otherwise. And so it begins, the conflict that will set this whole insane story into motion.
Seven years later, Helen is salaciously watching Madeline be strangled in one of her movies, eating icing with her fingers, surrounded by cats with her exaggeratedly fat ass on display. Almost everything is exaggerated in Death Becomes Her, from it’s playfully evil score by Alan Silvestri to the ‘30s Hollywood-esque delivery of lines. This is what makes the women’s over-the-top rivalry work, and it’s perfectly balanced by the quieter presence of Bruce Willis. His comedy takes a quieter tone that’s easily missed if you don’t pay attention. Ernest is a pathetic man, too afraid to stand up for himself and one who goes from a respected surgeon to a hacky ghoulish undertaker who uses spray paint to maintain the beauty of cadavers. He gets through life with hard liquor and a resignation to his fate.
After all these years, Helen has held onto her rage until the moment in a group therapy session where she decides to kill Madeline and take Ernest back. Her elaborate plot involves a total physical transformation, a grand seduction, and a murder meant to look like accident with the help of Madeline’s own husband.
Meanwhile, Madeline’s main struggle is her aging body. She books excessive plastic surgery procedures to the point of being refused service for her health and safety. Interested by her mention of money, her surgeon recommends her to Lisle Von Rhoman (Isabella Rossellini) who offers her a potion that will restore her beauty but also give her everlasting life. Madeline still holds to the adage that if it seems too good to be true, it probably is, and doesn’t make a house call until she’s seen Helen’s incredible transformation and been summarily dumped by her much younger boyfriend (cue rainstorm.) She’ll drive like white lightning to meet Lisle and change her fate.
Rossellini is the definition of otherworldly anytime she’s on screen, and Lisle Von Rhoman is the perfect part for her to shine. She’s stunning and mysterious, living proof of the power of the potion she peddles. She’s lived long enough to see through every desperate person who arrives at her doorstep and convinces them to pay the price, one that’s different for everybody. Madeline initially refuses, but after a demonstration writes a cheque and is filled with girlish glee as she watches her butt tighten and her breasts pop into their former place of glory.
Nothing can stop her now that she’s beautiful and perfect and will remain so forever. Not even a broken neck caused by Ernest pushing her down the stairs. Not even realizing she’s dead but somehow still alive, not even when she becomes aware that Helen has also taken the potion as she rises from the crimson fountain, having been shot at close range by Madeline’s gun. This is a realization that will bring them to confront their issues head-on. This scene is a bit of an early-’90s marvel, proof that the Academy Award received for Special Effects was well-earned. Madeline, her head twisted and weak, fights Helen with a blown-out stomach, two shovels (meant for grave digging) clanging in front of firelight. This would become a memory for the scrapbook when Meryl’s shovel would strike Goldie in the face, leaving her with a scar for life.
Madeline and Helen are the perfect example of frenemies, a display of the sick competitive female friendship that can take hold of two hurt people. Ernest is a bumbling buffoon, hardly a prize for either of them, and some may be tempted to dismiss the film as two women fighting over a man. But it’s not really about Ernest just as it has never really been about any of the men before. The truth is that Madeline and Helen are obsessed with each other, obsessed with their own flaws, and have been playing this game since their relationship began. Both of the women struggle with low self-esteem and crippling fear that manifests as spite. It’s fun as hell to watch, but it’s indicative of a greater problem in human relationships and how our own issues can turn us into monsters—when our own comfort and desires come before anyone else, and how far we’ll go to obtain them.
Helen has resented Madeline for decades; the only motivation in life she embrace is from her decision to kill Madeline, devoting the next seven years to plotting her elaborate revenge. She plays both fields to manipulate and twist people to achieve her own goals. She tells Madeline that she has no ill feelings towards her and blames Ernest. On the other hand, she seduces Ernest and pities his bad marriage, placing the blame on Madeline. One has to wonder, if she had successfully murdered Madeline, what would she do with the rest of her life? Up until then, it has been her only motivation. We can guess (or hope) that as so many fairy tales go that she would end up face to face with herself and horrified by what she sees.
The two women will learn some brief lesson when their feud comes to a halt. Both of them are tired of fighting and say what the other wants so desperately to hear: “I thought you were cheap,” “I hurt you on purpose” dissolves to giggling, girly friendship. Assessing the damage to their dead bodies, the women learn that they’ve got to keep Ernest around for maintenance—and they’ve got to do it quick. The two team up now to obtain and share what they’ve been running after all along—their alcoholic undertaker. It’s simplest to say that Ernest is not on board with living forever. When it comes down to a life-or-death decision, he chooses to die rather than spend eternity with Mad and Hel.
In choosing a natural life and death and staring eternity in the face, Ernest has learned an important truth: our lives are what we make of them, and the value in them is only made real by how little time we really have. Much later at his funeral it’s expressed that he changed his life at 50 and made the world a better place with a ridiculous amount of accolades and accomplishments. He “learned the secret of eternal life and eternal youth” according to a rousing speech from the priest. Seeing eternity and choosing to bypass it inspired him to make the most of the years he had left. Madeline and Helen have eternity, but it’s unlikely they’ll ever learn the same lesson no matter how much time they have to ponder it. They are really destined to bicker together for eternity, their crude vow “I’ll paint your ass, you paint mine!” is funny the first time, but surely not the 50th as their bodies fall apart and become crude caricatures of who they once were.
I don’t think Zemeckis had some grand message to posit with Death Becomes Her, even if one can be found within. I think he aimed to make an entertaining dark comedy with compelling leads that people would remember. He did just that. Even at its most ridiculous the film is infinitely quotable and that reflects not only on the writing, but the performances of those lines. From Madeline quietly telling Ernest, “Could you just… not breathe” in the limo, to when she’s wagging her tongue at the “flaaaaaaacid undertaker” Meryl’s delivery is razor sharp. Ernest is equally hilarious in his lameness, upset that his wife’s been taken to the morgue because “she’ll be FURIOUS!” clutching his dartboard and weakly swearing he’ll leave. No matter who says it, most of what’s said in Death Becomes Her is funny both because of the writing and because of how it’s said. Everyone involved gave it their all and we as the audience reap the rewards.
When the film was released, reviews were mixed. Some felt it was a technical marvel that lacked a cohesive plot. Others found it too campy. Today it’s heralded as a fan-favourite and it packs a nostalgic punch. Knowing the careers of the stars involved, it’s a treat to look back at this piece of the ’90s and see them bend backwards to accommodate Zemeckis’ zany material. At times goofy, sad, uproarious (and even when dated), Death Becomes Her will likely live forever, first as a cult classic, then as a commentary on living your best life and embracing time and all its markings. I know it will be one of my favourites forever.
Featured Image: Universal Pictures