Death Becomes Her
|Death Becomes Her|
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Robert Zemeckis|
|Produced by||Robert Zemeckis|
|Written by||Martin Donovan|
|Music by||Alan Silvestri|
|Edited by||Arthur Schmidt|
|Distributed by||Universal Pictures|
|Box office||$149 million|
Death Becomes Her is a 1992 American black comedy film directed by Robert Zemeckis, written by David Koepp and Martin Donovan, and starring Meryl Streep, Bruce Willis, and Goldie Hawn. The film focuses on a pair of rivals (Streep and Hawn), who drink a magic potion that promises eternal youth, but experience unpleasant side effects when they physically die, becoming walking, talking corpses in the process.
Death Becomes Her won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. The film received mixed reviews from critics, but was a commercial success, grossing $149 million worldwide. It has developed a strong cult following, particularly among the LGBT community.
In 1978, narcissistic actress Madeline Ashton performs a poorly received musical of Sweet Bird of Youth on Broadway. She invites long-time friend Helen Sharp, an aspiring writer, backstage along with Helen's fiancé, plastic surgeon Ernest Menville. Ernest is smitten with Madeline, and breaks off his engagement with Helen to marry her instead. Seven years later, Helen is obese, depressed and committed to a psychiatric hospital where she begins plotting 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 is an alcoholic 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 youth rejuvenation.
Madeline and Ernest attend the party for Helen's novel, Forever Young, and discover that somehow, Helen is slim and youthful. Dumbfounded and depressed by Helen's appearance, Madeline secretly witnesses Helen tell Ernest that she blames her 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 the secret of her beauty and youth—an expensive 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 keep the existence of the potion secret, and to take good care of her body.
Helen seduces Ernest and convinces him to kill Madeline. When Madeline returns home, she and Ernest argue, during which she falls down the stairs, breaking her neck. Believing Madeline dead, Ernest phones Helen for advice, initially not seeing Madeline stand and approach him with her head twisted backward. At Madeline's request, Ernest drives her to the emergency room. Madeline is told 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. After rescuing Madeline, Ernest considers her resurrection 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. Although the blast creates a hole in her abdomen, Helen survives, revealing that she drank the same 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 do one last repair on their bodies. They realize they will need regular maintenance and scheme to have Ernest drink the potion to ensure he will always be available.
After bringing Ernest to Lisle, she offers to give him the potion free of charge in exchange for his surgical skills. Ernest refuses to drink it when he realizes the pitfalls of immortality. 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 the potion 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. The two women are parodies of their former selves, with cracked, peeling paint and putty covering most of their grey and rotting flesh. Helen trips at the top of a staircase. When Madeline hesitates to help her, Helen grabs Madeline and the two tumble down the stairs, breaking to pieces. As their disembodied heads totter down together, Helen sardonically asks Madeline where she parked their car.
- Meryl Streep as Madeline Ashton
- Bruce Willis as Dr. Ernest Menville
- Goldie Hawn as Helen Sharp
- Isabella Rossellini as Lisle von Rhoman
- Ian Ogilvy as Chagall
- Adam Storke as Dakota Williams
- Alaina Reed Hall as Psychologist
- Michelle Johnson as Anna Jones
- Mary Ellen Trainor as Vivian Adams
- Susan Kellermann as ER nurse
- William Frankfather as Mr. Roy Franklin
- John Ingle as Eulogist
- Debra Jo Rupp as Patient
- Fabio as Lisle's bodyguard
- Sydney Pollack as Emergency Department Doctor (uncredited)
Death Becomes Her was a technologically complex movie to make, and represented a major advancement in the use of computer-generated effects, under the pioneering direction of Industrial Light and Magic. For example, 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. 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.
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. Both films shared cinematographer Dean Cundey and production designer Rick Carter, in addition to ILM.
The production had a fair number of mishaps. For example, in a scene where Helen Sharp and Madeline Ashton are battling with shovels, Meryl 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, 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.
The film was made entirely in Los Angeles and used several locations also frequently used in film and television, including the Greystone Mansion (Ernest's funeral home) and the Ebell of Los Angeles (Helen's book party). 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.[unreliable source] The ending scene where Helen and Madeline tumble down a set of stairs outside a chapel was filmed at Mount St. Mary's University (Los Angeles) in Brentwood.
The theatrical version of Death Becomes Her omitted or shortened many scenes featured in the rough cut of the movie.[unreliable source?] Robert Zemeckis decided this was needed to accelerate the pace of the film and eliminate extraneous jokes. Most dramatically, the original ending was entirely redone after test audiences reacted negatively to it. The 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. Zemeckis thought the ending was too happy and opted for the darker ending featured in the final cut. Ullman was one of five actors with speaking roles in the film to be eliminated. 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. None of the scenes have been released publicly, but sequences can still be viewed in the original theatrical trailer.
Release and reception
The film opened at number one at the box office with $12,110,355 on the same weekend as and ahead of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Bebe's Kids. It went on to earn over $58.4 million domestically and $90.6 million internationally.
The film's release on DVD was called "appallingly bad", "horrible" and "sloppy" due to the quality of its transfer, which has been said to suffer from excessive grain, blur, and muted colors. 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. The film was initially distributed in an open-matte, fullscreen edition with an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 in the United States before a widescreen version with its intended ratio (1.85:1) was released and subsequently distributed worldwide. The latter version has also been mistakenly labelled anamorphic. It was later released in North America on Blu-ray from Shout Factory on April 26, 2016.
The film received mixed reviews. Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a rating of 52% based on reviews from 48 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." Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "B" on an A+ to F scale.
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|Academy Awards||Best Visual Effects||Won|
|BAFTA Award||Best Visual Effects||Won|
|Golden Globe Award||Best Actress – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy (Meryl Streep)||Nominated|
|Saturn Award||Best Fantasy Film||Nominated|
|Best Director (Robert Zemeckis)||Nominated|
|Best Writing (Martin Donovan, David Koepp)||Nominated|
|Best Actor (Bruce Willis)||Nominated|
|Best Actress (Meryl Streep)||Nominated|
|Best Music (Alan Silvestri)||Nominated|
|Best Make-up (Dick Smith, Kevin Haney)||Nominated|
|Best Supporting Actress (Isabella Rossellini)||Won|
|Best Special Effects||Won|
Death Becomes Her has acquired a significant cult following, especially in the LGBT community. 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". 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. The winner of season 5, Jinkx Monsoon, has cited the movie as an inspiration to become a drag queen. They have participated in Death Becomes Her-themed photoshoots, and in 2018 they played Madeline in a drag stage show parody called "Drag Becomes Her".
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.'
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