Deliciously Dark Death Becomes Her gets Better with Age
by Kristin Battestella
Writer Helen Sharp’s (Goldie Hawn) plastic surgeon fiance Ernest Menville (Bruce Willis) thinks Helen’s childhood friend Madeline Ashton (Meryl Streep) is an amazing starlet. Madeline has stolen Helen’s beaus previously and does so again, but fourteen years later, Helen achieves her revenge by looking stunning and wooing Ernest into her killer plans. Madeline will do whatever she can to compete – including visiting the mysterious Lisle von Rhoman (Isabella Rosselini) for a youthful elixir. Unfortunately, the costly potion leads to bodily disasters if you don’t take care of your beauty, and unlike these desperate ladies trying to stay forever young, the 1992 dark comedy Death Becomes Her only gets better with age.
Director Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future) and writers Martin Donovan (Apartment Zero) and David Koepp (War of the Worlds) open the surprisingly PG-13 Death Becomes Her with 1978 not so well received ritzy as Playbills are tossed aside and stage glory turns sour thanks to show within in a show awkward performances, bad choreography, caricatures on youth, and phony songs about you. Flirtatious winks, polite shade, through the teeth comebacks, and backhanded compliments are played straight as your frienemy steals your man, and Death Becomes Her wastes no time with backstabbing wedding bells and revenge decades in the planning leading to book party invitations and who’s looking swell versus who’s looking worse for the wear changes. The man looming above the frame is reflected in the mirror behind the woman – reverse revealing the personal disconnect as each says things they don’t mean alongside more symbolism and aggressive gestures. Hellish characters and murderous plans are both deliberate and measured yet flippant and off the cuff, as our plastic surgeon is dismissed as a ghoul for not healing but indulging vanity even in death. More quirky visuals layer the Hollywood commentary – what’s with that guy upside on the wheel at the spa? – and reflective camera shots create viewer double take. What if we did look twice and really paid attention beyond face value then what would we see? Death Becomes Her winks at the secret opportunities available to the elite behind closed doors amid insular they know that we know that they know that we know flattery. Confidence only comes with beauty, and the camera’s distorted angles and askew perceptions reiterate this frame of mind as wide shots have the face in the center but the subject at hand in the background. With such in camera staging, one need not resort to fast-paced editing later to compensate and piece together wit or tension because the bags full of makeup, screams overseeing oneself in the mirror without said makeup, and fake tears sprayed in the eyes while practicing crocodile speeches – in the mirror framed by defaced pictures of her obsession – speak for themselves. One woman equals sex while another demeans flaccid, and cuckold phrases reiterate the servile men and obedient dogs as demented one liners, frantic questions, and disturbing calm lead to top of the stairs teetering and the not so dead rising behind one’s back. Formaldehyde is bought in bulk on top of jokes on doing something “funny” with a dead wife and “It’s alive” homages. Eternal youth potions await in a scary, humbling castle where newcomers tiptoe so their heels don’t echo on the floor before sampling this hush-hush, ageless elixir to prove its price. Snake charmers admit the forever young will look suspicious if they don’t disappear, and Death Becomes Her is likewise self-aware of how lacking in self-awareness its desperate characters are when not heeding knives or warnings to preserve the facade. Women who for decades purposely inflict pain without actually harming each other let all the violence out and apologize – tag teaming the man they were fighting over because they need him to maintain their seemingly miraculous vitality forever. Twisted dream sequences, wide lenses, and zooms accentuate the preposterously clever scheme of tranquilizers on the wine glass and finishing dinner before planting the body in a car going off Mulholland Drive as quips about divorce in California, never seeing a neighbor in Los Angeles, and those with no talent for poverty orchestrating murder escalate the satire with handy hardware, bloody bodies in the lily pond, and a hole in the stomach big enough to right see through you.
Everything has to be taut and perfect for Madeline Ashton, and only Meryl Streep (She-Devil) can play a bad actress obsessed with wrinkles without winking and scene chewing for the camera. Madeline strikes the right pose, plumps the bosom, and remains pampered even if she hasn’t worked in some time and is no longer the breadwinner. In order to hide her impoverished past, she must show up Helen at all times and mere makeup won’t do. Despite her fame and wealth, Madeline’s ugliness shows in her mistreatment of the maid or any pretty supple ingenue. When rejected by her younger lover for not considering how he feels, she blames him for making her feel cheap. Even if the spa refuses to do a traumatic plasma treatment, Madeline demands the procedure money is no object because she fears younger women must be laughing at her. She’s shocked at Helen’s transformation and makes excuses about feeling terrible at having happiness at Helen’s expense, but Madeline doesn’t feel that terrible and she’s not really happy. Fortunately, her shady zingers return with her beauty, but Madeline says what she shouldn’t, leading to scary body bags and uncomfortable realizations – although she enjoys having no pulse because nobody can play dead better than she can. Goldie Hawn’s (Overboard) Helen is initially a shy and quiet writer compared to her old school rival Madeline, dowdy and twisting her handkerchief rather than expressing her anger. She warns Ernest that Madeline only wants him because she has him. Madeline has stolen men from Helen before and she wants Ernest to pass her Madeline Ashton test, but when he does not, Helen becomes a gluttonous cat lady obsessed with rewinding Madeline’s onscreen strangulation. Upon eviction, she ruins her therapy group by talking about Madeline before overcoming her outlook by vowing revenge and looking dynamite while doing it. Literary success follows, and Helen lies to Madeline’s face about never blaming her, kissing her cheek as she pits Madeline and Ernest against each other. Now a vivacious vixen, Helen claims sisterhood while plotting with her man – embodying the shade, deception, and fierce competition of the woman scorned even if she doesn’t really want Ernest anymore. She just wants to take him from Madeline and use him for her fatal revenge, and both ladies willingly become a Hollywood type of vampire, consuming the essence of a man for their own youthful survival. What does their undead beauty contest get them? Each other, stuck forever in an “I paint your ass, you paint mine” begrudging.
Ernest Menville was once a famous plastic surgeon, but now Bruce Willis’ (Color of Night) doctor is a postmortem fixer for the Hollywood dead between breakfast bloody marys. Life with Madeline hasn’t worked out, and she’s reviled by his bottom feeder, drinking himself to death existence. When complimented for his mortuary work, Ernest admits the secret weapon for coloring dead skin is spray paint, but he knows it isn’t real work and would sell his soul to really operate again. He argues with Madeline about who ruined whom and won’t take jokes about his clients being stiffer. Though unhappy, wishing to divorce, and easily swept up when Helen comes on to him with sexy words, Ernest is reluctant to go along with her plans, for he takes the change in Madeline’s temperature, pulse, and hair – because that’s what men notice – as a miracle. Ernest gains confidence despite his fear over what he has done, wanting to make Madeline his masterpiece, painting her and carefully mixing the turpentine. He won’t be rushed when her eyes must have artistic balance! Ernest will fix them and then go, but when the ladies need touch-ups, his sudden backbone becomes a problem. Death Becomes Her’s few daylight scenes are about Ernest realizing what took him so long to leave. He was willing to keep his marital promise in spite of the suffering and humiliation, but his obligations are fulfilled in her death do us part. The camera at the not all that it seems spa has to be switched off before Isabella Rosellini’s (Merlin) Lisle von Rhoman can be mentioned, but the million dollar price tag for her mysterious potion is relative to such elite clientele. Her stunning beauty and barely there clothes make it easy to soft sell her elixir – Lisle is sweet when charming a guest, telling them to follow spring and summer but avoid autumn and winters however she’s sassy when ordering her Tom, Dick, and Harry henchmen and intimating with her deceptions. She knows why her clients come to see her, for they are scared of themselves, their bodies, the lengths they go to in maintaining their secrets, and their inevitable failure. Life is cruel, taking away vitality only to replace it with decay, so we want to believe her sweet talking promise to defy natural and endorse the check despite her dominance. The camera heightens Lisle’s look fair and feei foul with carefully orchestrated poses and frames. She’s centered perfectly in each shot with daggers, Dobermans, and amulets. Lisle crosses her legs in her throne chair and says “thank you” when someone exclaims about God, but her seductive wraps and high collared, witchy robes suggest an underlying evil. After imploring our plastic surgeon to now take the youth and beauty he gave to others for himself, Lisle’s full menace is revealed when he questions her on the nightmarish consequences of immortality. Of course, there’s a wink to Rosellini’s casting because she looks so much like her mother, and bemusing not so dead cameos include James Dean, Jim Morrison, Elvis, and Marilyn alongside appearances by Mrs. Zemeckis Mary Ellen Trainor (Tales from the Crypt) and poor doctor with a heart condition Sydney Pollock (Three Days of the Condor).
The naughty but sinister, frenetic strings of Alan Silvestri’s (Predator) theme set the mood for Death Becomes Her amid a dash of jazz, disco beats, and campy cues. Boas and colorful stage backdrops in the opening sequence establish an over the top, garish, tacky and lamé atmosphere before static on the old television, retro patterns, and poor clutter contrast the massive Beverly Hill mansion with gated entries, a grand staircase, hefty doors, and heaps of marble. The made to look ugly, old, and desperate makeup and bodily transformations are well done amid tears and soggy rain making a woman look worse before bemusing good skin versus bad skin comparisons and boob lifts. That pretty left hand with the giant rock ring is always prominently displayed! Subtle nudity is also reflected through windows and doors as supple butt shots provide curves to the sagging and wrinkles. The square nineties blazers and low buttons add masculine angles for the women, however low cut cleavage, deep blouses, and lace invoke feminine symbolism along with thigh-high slits, Egyptian life giving motifs, and our glowing pink potion. Death Becomes Her abounds with mirrors everywhere – frames within frames via television screens, snapshots, and gold portraits pepper every scene. Clever reflections, shadows, and silhouettes do double duty while red stands for passion, black for suspicion, and white for innocence as dramatic overhead drops, balcony dangles, thunder, and shotgun blasts apply terror in the killing scenes. Neck snaps, stairway rolls, holes in the gut, and backwards results are as disturbing as the decision to kill. Sure, some of the bumbling bodies and squashed heads may look poor now, but that also keeps them funny, and there are more intriguing or random visual gags to catch our eye – the doctor throwing away his stethoscope when he can’t get a heartbeat, the yuppie tennis couple with the bruised elbows, those weird ass gliding nuns. The pink pastels and green palm trees in the eighties upscale buildings are perfectly gaudy now, but the blue lighting, black marble, and arrows pointing to the morgue mirror how the characters are inevitably walking towards death. Michelangelo motifs and pools of water could be symbolic life renewals as one tries to escape the locked doors, gilded elevators, grand arches, maze like spires, and those ever present mirrors but Death Becomes Her’s beauty goes from svelte to garish with vampire pale, white out eyes, pasty skin, and gross peeling.
One may love or hate Death Becomes Her but there is no in between and it takes multiple viewings to study the dual nuances, comedic layers, and dark subtleties. Questions on immortality – or at least looking immortal – deepen the commentary on beauty and why women compete to look so enchanting even if it kills them. Today’s dark comedies often feel crass or too disturbing, but the great cast keeps Death Becomes Her mature with a tongue in cheek that doesn’t have to berate the obvious. While not in your face horror, the choice macabre moments and increasingly bleak palette illume our dread and fear of old age. We can laugh at the sardonic winks even as Death Becomes Her calls out Hollywood then and hello look at us on the ‘gram now, remaining delicious because its satire is unfortunately more applicable than ever.
“Do you remember where you parked the car?”
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