Death Becomes Her (1992) Retro Review

Death Becomes Her is a delightfully dark comedy from director Robert Zemeckis. It stars Meryl Streep as a hammy over-the-hill actress, Goldie Hawn as a psychotic femme fatale and Bruce Willis in one of the most surprising and entertaining performances of his career.

I can’t remember why exactly but I rented this film several times as a child. It might have to do with the special effects, for which the film won an Academy Award (‘92’s CG has not aged well but the practical effects are still captivating). I suspect it may have had more to do with Goldie Hawn’s blood red evening gown and the fact that she and Meryl Streep eventually duel each other with shovels. My appetite for sex and violence seems to have developed early. Watching it today, I’m impressed by how ghoulishly gleeful the film is…and how incredible Isabella Rosselini is. The woman oozes seduction with her husky voice and barely there wardrobe and she effortlessly conveys the promise, nay the right, of eternal youth and beauty.

The film begins in 1978, when Madeline Ashton (Meryl Streep) is a Broadway headliner. Her best friend/enemy Helen (Goldie Hawn) is engaged to Dr. Ernest Menville (Bruce Willis), a brilliant plastic surgeon but a meek, soft-spoken milquetoast. He is immediately taken with Madeline and she, in turn, takes him – as she has taken many of Helen’s past lovers. Ernest and Madeline marry soon after and Helen has a mental breakdown that lasts for about seven years. Fast forward another seven years and we come to the present day. Dr. Menville is now a pitiful drunk who can no longer operate on anything but dead flesh, reduced from the toast of Beverly Hills to a fumbling mortician. He is trapped in a loveless marriage with the aged, bitter and self-obsessed Madeline. When the couple can stop bickering long enough to attend a party in honor of Helen’s new book, Madeline is shocked to discover her fifty-year-old rival looks as young and vibrant as ever. Driven by her desperation to reclaim her failing looks, Madeline purchases a magic potion from the mysterious Lisle (Isabella Rossellini). The potion restores her to her prime, but its magic only extends so far…

This is a great fantasy film that contains only one fantastic element: the magic potion that preserves youth but can’t do anything about bodily death. Its characters are, with one exception, morally atrocious. And where a lesser film would annoy us with such a cast, Streep and Hawn are so vindictive, so spiteful, so obsessed with outdoing each other that their madcap competition plays like an estrogen-infused Looney Toon. How far Helen sinks into depression is caustically cartoonish. How terrified Madeline is of aging is cryptically comedic. And yet there is an acidic edge here, a satirical point to the depraved proceedings: How far would you go to outclass your most hated enemy, whom you claim on the surface is your most beloved friend? The bipolar relationship women can sometimes share is hyperbolized here to its inevitable conclusion, and how these two end up depending on each other is wickedly good.

And then there is Bruce Willis in what would today be a baffling case of miscasting. Of course in 1992 Willis was still closer to his comedic roots and still willing to take risks. Our big tough action guy, in this film, is just a big drunk puppy dog for the ladies to kick around. It’s not a very subtle performance but it’s not a very subtle movie. And by the end of it you’re really rooting for the guy to get the hell out of the twisted situation he’s bumbled into. It’s too bad we’ve lost this Willis to the bored analog of the twenty-first century, but it’s enjoyable to watch the actor at a time in his career when he gave a damn.

Death Becomes Her is a classic Zemeckis film. There really isn’t too much subtext, the jokes are big and the special effects are artfully done. But like all good Zemeckis films, the performances are so far above the material that you can tell everyone’s having a great time. Meryl Streep said in an interview that this was her first, last and only big special effects film because the mechanical necessities made the acting tedious. And that may be, but it’s a pleasure watching this Academy Award-winning actress scream and sneer her way through this feature. Both she and Hawn prey on the nebbish Willis like cold reptiles and claw at each other like feral cats.

When looking up the rating for this movie I was surprised to find that it’s PG-13. It plays like a much darker film, a not-too-distant cousin to the gallows comedy of the Addams family. I highly recommend it for dark, stormy and silly nights.

Death Becomes Her (1992)
PG-13
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Universal Pictures
104 Minutes

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2 comments

  1. J.K. Reply

    I think, like all children, I developed an unhealthy fear of death around 6 years old. Then, after I saw this movie with my mom, I became equally afraid of immortality. There was just no winning. But I re-watched this film a couple years ago and the humor & style make it a classic. I’m glad Zemeckis got over Polar Express & Cast Away to do more edgy films like Flight.

    • Pierce Nahigyan Reply

      He’s one of the classic new-Hollywood directors who really just seems to want to have a good time making movies. Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit give him a gold star in my book forever.

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