Death Becomes Her

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Death Becomes Her
Theatrical release poster
Directed byRobert Zemeckis
Written by
Produced by
CinematographyDean Cundey
Edited byArthur Schmidt
Music byAlan Silvestri
Distributed byUniversal Pictures[1]
Release date
  • July 31, 1992 (1992-07-31)
Running time
104 minutes[1]
CountryUnited States[1]
Budget$55 million[2]
Box office$149 million[2]

Death Becomes Her is a 1992 American satirical black comedy fantasy film directed and produced by Robert Zemeckis. Written by David Koepp and Martin Donovan, it stars Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn as rivals who fight for the affections of the same man (Bruce Willis) and drink a magic potion that promises eternal youth.

Filming began in December 1991 and concluded in April 1992, and was shot entirely in Los Angeles. Released on July 31, 1992, to mixed reviews from critics, Death Becomes Her was a commercial success, grossing $149 million worldwide on a $55 million budget. The film was a pioneer in the use of computer-generated effects; it went on to win the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects.[3]


In 1978, narcissistic actress Madeline Ashton performs in the poorly received Broadway musical Songbird!. She invites long-time frenemy Helen Sharp, an aspiring writer, backstage along with Helen's fiancé, plastic surgeon Ernest Menville. Smitten with Madeline, Ernest breaks off his engagement with Helen to marry Madeline instead. Seven years later, Helen is obese, depressed and committed to a psychiatric hospital where she plots revenge on Madeline. Another seven years later, Madeline and Ernest live in Beverly Hills, but they are miserable: Madeline's acting career has declined and Ernest, now an alcoholic, has been reduced to working as a reconstructive mortician. Receiving an invitation to a party celebrating Helen's new book, Madeline rushes to a spa where she regularly receives facial treatments. Understanding Madeline's desperation, the spa owner gives her the business card of Lisle Von Rhuman, a mysterious, wealthy socialite who specializes in rejuvenation.

Madeline and Ernest attend the party for Helen's novel, Forever Young, and discover that Helen is slim, glamorous and youthful. Dumbfounded and depressed by Helen's appearance, Madeline witnesses Helen tell Ernest that she blames Madeline for his career decline. After the soiree, Madeline visits her young lover, but discovers he is with a woman his age. Dejected, Madeline drives to Lisle's home. Lisle, claiming to be 71, but looking decades younger, reveals a potion that promises eternal life and an everlasting youthful appearance. Madeline purchases and drinks the potion and is rejuvenated, regaining her beauty. As a condition of purchase, Lisle warns Madeline to disappear from the public eye after ten years to conceal the potion's existence, and to treat her body well.

Helen seduces Ernest and convinces him to kill Madeline. When Madeline returns home, she and Ernest argue, during which the latter pushes her down the stairs, breaking her neck. Believing Madeline dead, Ernest phones Helen for advice, but drops the phone in shock when he sees Madeline approach him with her head twisted backward. At Madeline's request, Ernest drives her to the emergency room. There, Madeline is told by a doctor she is technically dead, and faints. She is taken to the morgue due to her body having no pulse and a temperature below 80 °F (27 °C). After rescuing Madeline, Ernest considers her reanimation a miracle and uses his skills as a mortician to repair her body at home. Helen demands information about Madeline's situation. Overhearing Helen and Ernest discussing their plot to kill her, Madeline shoots Helen with a shotgun. The blast leaves Helen with a hole in her torso but otherwise unharmed, revealing that she has also taken Lisle's potion. The two briefly fight before apologizing and reconciling their friendship. Fed up with the pair, Ernest prepares to leave, but Helen and Madeline convince him to repair their bodies one last time. Realizing they will need regular maintenance, they scheme to have Ernest drink the potion to ensure his permanent availability.

The pair knock out Ernest and bring him to Lisle, who offers to give him the potion free of charge in exchange for his surgical skills. Ernest is very tempted, but after some thought he fundamentally disagrees with the idea of immortality, especially considering the consequences Madeline and Helen are already suffering. He pockets the potion and flees, but becomes trapped on the roof. Helen and Madeline implore Ernest to drink the potion to survive an impending fall. Ernest, realizing that they only need him for their own selfish reasons, refuses and drops it to the ground, but after falling he lands in Lisle's pool and escapes. Lisle banishes Madeline and Helen from her group, leaving the pair to rely on each other for companionship and maintenance.

Thirty-seven years later, Madeline and Helen attend Ernest's funeral, where he is eulogized as having lived an adventurous and fulfilling life with a large family and friends. Now appearing grotesque, with cracked, peeling paint and putty covering most of their grey and rotting flesh, they mock the eulogy and leave early; outside the church, Helen slips on a dropped can of spray paint and falls down a flight of steps, dragging Madeline with her after she refuses to help her. Their bodies shatter to pieces at the curb, and Helen sardonically asks Madeline if she remembers where she parked their car.




Before Bruce Willis was cast, Kevin Kline was the first choice to play Dr. Ernest Menville; however, he fell out of the project due to a pay dispute with the studio. Jeff Bridges and Nick Nolte were both considered before Willis was eventually cast.[1]

Visual effects[edit]

Death Becomes Her was a technologically complex film to make, and represented a major advancement in the use of computer-generated effects, under the pioneering direction of Industrial Light and Magic.[4][5] It was the first film where computer-generated skin texture was used, in the shot where Madeline resets her neck after her head is smashed with a shovel by Helen.[4] Creating the sequences where Madeline's head is dislocated and facing the wrong way around involved a combination of blue screen technology, an animatronic model created by Amalgamated Dynamics, and prosthetic make-up effects on Meryl Streep to create the look of a twisted neck.[6][7]

The digital advancements pioneered on Death Becomes Her would be incorporated into Industrial Light and Magic's next project, Jurassic Park, released by Universal only a year later. The two films also shared cinematographer Dean Cundey and production designer Rick Carter.[8]

The production had a fair number of mishaps. In the scene where Helen and Madeline are battling with shovels, Streep accidentally cut Goldie Hawn's face, leaving a faint scar. Streep admitted that she disliked working on a project that focused so heavily on special effects and vowed never to work on another film with heavy special effects again, saying:

My first, my last, my only. I think it's tedious. Whatever concentration you can apply to that kind of comedy is just shredded. You stand there like a piece of machinery—they should get machinery to do it. I loved how it turned out. But it's not fun to act to a lampstand. "Pretend this is Goldie, right here! Uh, no, I'm sorry, Bob, she went off the mark by five centimeters, and now her head won't match her neck!" It was like being at the dentist.[9]


Principal photography for Death Becomes Her began on December 9, 1991, and wrapped up on April 7, 1992.[1] The film was shot entirely in Los Angeles and featured several locations frequently used in film and television, including the Greystone Mansion (Ernest's funeral home) and the Ebell of Los Angeles (Helen's book party).[10] The exterior of Madeline and Ernest's mansion is located at 1125 Oak Grove Avenue in San Marino, but the interior was a set built on a soundstage.[1] The ending scene where Helen and Madeline tumble down a set of stairs outside a chapel was filmed at Mount St. Mary's University in Brentwood.[11][12]


Multiple scenes that were filmed were omitted from the film's final cut.[13][1] Director Robert Zemeckis decided on cutting the scenes to accelerate the film's pacing and to eliminate extraneous jokes. Most dramatically, the original ending was entirely redone after test audiences reacted negatively to it.[14] That ending featured Ernest, after he has fled Lisle's party, meeting a bartender (Tracey Ullman) who helps him fake his death to evade Madeline and Helen. The two women encounter Ernest and the bartender 27 years later, living happily as a retired couple while Madeline and Helen give no sign that they are enjoying their eternal existence.[13] Zemeckis thought the ending was too happy and opted for the darker ending featured in the final cut.[13] Ullman was one of five actors with speaking roles in the film to be eliminated.[13] Other scenes that were eliminated included one in which Madeline talks to her agent (Jonathan Silverman) and one in which Ernest removes a frozen Madeline from the kitchen freezer he has stored her in.[13] Some of the scenes can be viewed in the original theatrical trailer.[15]


Box office[edit]

Death Becomes Her was a box office success and opened at number one at the box office with $12,110,355, the same weekend as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Bebe's Kids.[16][17] It went on to earn over $58.4 million domestically and $90.6 million internationally.[2] In Taipei, Death Becomes Her set a box-office record by earning $269,310 in two days, marking it the "biggest opening ever" for overseas distributor United International Pictures.[1]

Home media[edit]

The film's release on DVD was called "appallingly bad" due to the quality of its transfer, which has been said to suffer from excessive grain, blur, and muted colors.[18] A BBC review described it as "horrible" and "sloppy".[19] Many online DVD forum users speculated that the DVD transfer was taken from the Laserdisc edition of the film and called for a restorative release. Death Becomes Her was initially distributed in an open matte fullscreen (1.33:1) edition in the U.S. while a Widescreen version with its theatrical aspect ratio (1.85:1) was released worldwide. The latter version has also been mistakenly labelled anamorphic.[20] It was later released in North America on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory in 2016.[21][22]


Death Becomes Her received mixed reviews from critics.[23][24] Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a rating of 55% based on reviews from 55 critics with the consensus: "Hawn and Streep are as fabulous as Death Becomes Her's innovative special effects; Zemeckis' satire, on the other hand, is as hollow as the world it mocks."[25] On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 56 based on 24 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews".[26] Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "B" on an A+ to F scale.[27]

Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert both gave Death Becomes Her a 'thumbs down', commenting that while the film had great special effects, it lacked any real substance or character depth.[28]


Award Category Recipient Result
Academy Awards[29] Best Visual Effects Ken Ralston, Doug Chiang, Douglas Smythe, and Tom Woodruff Jr. Won
BAFTA Award[29] Best Visual Effects Michael Lantieri, Ken Ralston, Alec Gillis, Tom Woodruff Jr., Doug Chiang, and Douglas Smythe Won
Golden Globe Award[30] Best Actress – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy Meryl Streep Nominated


Death Becomes Her has acquired a significant cult following, especially in the LGBT community.[31][32] In, Jessica Ritchey wrote, "Time has been kind to 'Death Becomes Her', and the mordantly funny eye it turns to Hollywood pretense and our cultural inability to forgive women for aging. With the virtual extinction of Hollywood's interest in women over thirty, it's a real pleasure to see a film centered on and held down by two actresses as strong as Streep and Hawn."[33] An article in Vanity Fair titled "The Gloriously Queer Afterlife of 'Death Becomes Her'" called the film a "gay cult classic" and "a touchstone of the queer community".[34] The movie is screened in bars during Pride Month, while the characters of Madeline and Helen are favorites of drag performers. In this vein, the movie inspired a Death Becomes Her-themed runway show on season 7 of RuPaul's Drag Race.[31] The winner of season 5, Jinkx Monsoon, has cited the movie as an inspiration to become a drag queen. Jinkx has participated in Death Becomes Her-themed photoshoots,[35] and in 2018 they played Madeline in a drag stage show parody called "Drag Becomes Her" alongside season 6 contestant BenDeLaCreme.[36]

Tom Campbell, an executive producer of RuPaul's Drag Race, reflected on the appeal of the movie to gay audiences:

They're fighting for beauty. They're against the system. They're also villains, but we understand their complexity. We root for the undead divas because they're trying to win a game that's rigged against them, and—to borrow an apocryphal quote from Ginger Rogers—they sort of have to do it 'backwards and in high heels.'[34]


In December 2017, a Broadway musical adaptation of Death Becomes Her was reported to be in development, with Kristin Chenoweth tapped to star.[37] The book is written by Marco Pennette and has an original score by Julia Mattison and Noel Carey.[38] In April 2023, an industry reading of the musical was held, featuring Megan Hilty as Madeline, Jennifer Simard as Helen, and Christopher Sieber as Ernest.[38]

It is produced by Broadway In Chicago and Universal Theatrical Group, and will be directed and choreographed by Christopher Gattelli. The musical is scheduled to run at the Cadillac Palace Theatre from April 30 to June 2, 2024.[39]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Death Becomes Her (1992)". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. Retrieved September 11, 2020.
  2. ^ a b c "Death Becomes Her (1992)". Box Office Mojo.
  3. ^ Weinraub, Bernard (March 30, 1993). "Oscar's night started at noon in Hollywood". The New York Times. p. 9. Archived from the original on April 29, 2023. Retrieved April 29, 2023 – via open access
  4. ^ a b "Death Becomes Her (Universal Pictures)". Retrieved December 19, 2017.
  5. ^ Blaise, Judd (August 21, 1992). "Special Effects, Acting Bring 'Death' to Life". Sun Sentinel. Archived from the original on December 22, 2017. Retrieved December 20, 2017.
  6. ^ Death Becomes Her (1992) Vintage Bonus Clip: Meryl's Mom & Special Effects (HD). June 23, 2016. Archived from the original on December 11, 2021. Retrieved December 20, 2017 – via YouTube.
  7. ^ Amalgamated Dynamics Inc. (July 25, 2015). DEATH BECOMES HER Recreating Meryl BTS Special Edition. Archived from the original on December 11, 2021. Retrieved December 20, 2017 – via YouTube.
  8. ^ Taylor, Drew (June 11, 2013). "5 Versions of 'Jurassic Park' You Never Saw". Retrieved December 20, 2017.
  9. ^ "Depth Becomes Her". Entertainment Weekly. March 24, 2000. Archived from the original on October 14, 2007. Retrieved January 25, 2007.
  10. ^ "The Ebell of Los Angeles - Filming". Archived from the original on December 22, 2017. Retrieved December 20, 2017.
  11. ^ "Movies Filmed at Mount Saint Mary's University - Chalon Campus". Retrieved December 20, 2017.
  12. ^ "Death Becomes Her". Retrieved May 22, 2023.
  13. ^ a b c d e Fox, David J. (August 9, 1992). "A look inside Hollywood and the movies.: THE VANISHING: 'Death Becomes Her' and the Lost Ullman Ending". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved March 12, 2018.
  14. ^ O'Brien, Jon (July 31, 2017). "Death Become Her 25th Anniversary: 12 things you may not know about the classic comedy". Metro. UK. Retrieved March 12, 2018.
  15. ^ Death Becomes Her (1992) Meryl Streep, Bruce Willis - Official Trailer (HD). April 11, 2016. Archived from the original on December 11, 2021. Retrieved March 12, 2018 – via YouTube.
  16. ^ Welkos, Robert W. (May 10, 1994). "Weekend Box Office 'Honors' Tops in a Lackluster Bunch". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved December 28, 2010.
  17. ^ McNary, Dave (August 3, 1992). "Death Becomes Her' tops weekend box office". UPI. Retrieved May 22, 2023.
  18. ^ "Death Becomes Her DVD review". Retrieved November 13, 2012.
  19. ^ Haflidason, Almar (October 12, 2000). "Films - review - Death Becomes Her DVD". BBC. Retrieved November 13, 2012.
  20. ^ "A stroll down the DVD memory lane". July 8, 2012. Retrieved November 13, 2012.
  21. ^ "Undead Comedy 'Death Becomes Her' Getting Blu-ray Release!". Bloody Disgusting. January 7, 2016.
  22. ^ Salmons, Tim (April 20, 2016). "Death Becomes Her: Collector's Edition". The Digital Bits. Retrieved May 22, 2023.
  23. ^ McCarthy, Todd (July 27, 1992). "Death Becomes Her". Variety. Retrieved October 3, 2010.
  24. ^ Gleiberman, Owen (August 14, 1992). "Skin-Deep Satire". Entertainment Weekly. Archived from the original on June 2, 2007. Retrieved May 22, 2023.
  25. ^ "Death Becomes Her (1992)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved March 15, 2023.
  26. ^ "Death Becomes Her Reviews". Metacritic. CBS Interactive. Retrieved September 8, 2022.
  27. ^ "CinemaScore".
  28. ^ "Death Becomes Her review". Siskel & Ebert. Season 6. Episode 44. August 8, 1992. Retrieved May 22, 2023.
  29. ^ a b "Death Becomes Her Awards". Industrial Light & Magic. Archived from the original on November 2, 2020. Retrieved October 29, 2020.
  30. ^ "Death Becomes Her". Retrieved October 29, 2020.
  31. ^ a b Pugachevsky, Julia (June 21, 2013). ""Death Becomes Her" Is Ruling Our Lives: NewNowNext Style". Retrieved June 10, 2018.
  32. ^ Jackson, Matthew (March 21, 2023). "Remembering the unabashed zaniness of 'Death Becomes Her,' now streaming on Peacock". SYFY Official Site. Retrieved May 22, 2023.
  33. ^ Ritchey, Jessica (May 3, 2016). "Chuck Jones Meets "Sunset Boulevard": On Robert Zemeckis' "Death Becomes Her"". Retrieved May 22, 2023.
  34. ^ a b Puchko, Kristy (August 3, 2017). "The Glorious Queer Afterlife of 'Death Becomes Her'". Vanity Fair. Retrieved June 10, 2018.
  35. ^ Rudolph, Christopher (May 17, 2013). "Jinkx Monsoon and Ivy Winters Star in Ricky Middlesworth's 'Death Becomes Her' (PHOTOS)". HuffPost. Retrieved June 10, 2018.
  36. ^ Rotter, Joshua (March 10, 2020). "Can drag queens beat death? Find out in 'Drag Becomes Her'". 48 hills. Retrieved May 22, 2023.
  37. ^ Wong, Curtis M. (December 13, 2017). "'Death Becomes Her' is About to Become a Broadway Musical". HuffPost. Retrieved June 10, 2018.
  38. ^ a b "Death Becomes Her Musical in Development". April 12, 2023. Retrieved May 22, 2023.
  39. ^ Evans, Greg (September 5, 2023). "Death Becomes Her Stage Musical Sets Pre-Broadway Chicago Run For Spring 2024". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved September 6, 2023.

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