It’s an adage in Hollywood that very few films involving early special effects have survived the test of time. If said film is about Hollywood itself that can be an even tougher sell. When Death Becomes Her was released in 1992, the famous head-twisting effect was used to promote and sell the picture. Unfortunately, the film didn’t do all that well with cinema-goers at the time, but it has become a cult classic and deservedly so.
The story concerns two dear old friends who happen to despise each other. Madeline Ashton (Meryl Streep) is a fading actress reduced to performing in appalling musical adaptations of Tennessee Williams’ plays. Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn) is a writer with a penchant for wringing a handkerchief a little too tightly when she’s stressed (which is most of the time) and a mild eating disorder. Helen is engaged to Ernest (Bruce Willis) a highly skilled plastic surgeon and cosmetologist. Despite Helen’s fear that Madeline will steal her beloved from her, she brings Ernest to meet her old rival…and Ernest abruptly leaves her for Madeline, sending Helen into a downward spiral of unhealthy eating and therapy.
Eventually, things between Ernest and Madeline take a turn for the worst. Reuniting with Helen at her latest book launch, Madeline is horrified to discover that Helen has not only lost the weight, but has gained an incredible youthful glow. When Helen makes Ernest question whether he chose the right woman, Madeline takes the advice of her plastic surgeon and visits a sorceress named Lisle (a quite terrifying Isabella Rossellini) who provides a potion that can restore youth and vitality forever. Madeline and Helen discover however that the price for beauty and immortality may not necessarily be worth it.
There are a number of outstanding elements to this film and at the top of the list is undoubtedly Goldie Hawn and Meryl Streep. Streep perfected the classic Hollywood diva here, enjoying every savage bit of the biting dialogue and excellent comedic moments afforded to her by the excellent script (shout out to David Koepp and Martin Donovan). Anyone familiar with Goldie Hawn will know exactly what she’s capable of and she truly shines here. Her turn as Helen with a hole blasted through her stomach is one of the creepiest and most hilarious moments in cinema.
Another reason why Death Becomes Her is one of the best films of all time is that it serves as a nice reminder that Bruce Willis can actually act! It’s a pity that his action roles usurped his career so early on, as he did start out with comedy (remember Moonlighting, you guys?) and is surprisingly excellent when he makes the effort. The script is one of the best of the early 90’s, well-worded barbs fly at every opportune moment and the humour still works 24 years on.
The cinematography is superb, with the mise-en-scene being delightfully reminiscent of Hitchcock. Of course, the film also stands the test of time because it does not rely on a man to save the day, in fact it’s quite the opposite. Hawn and Streep hold down the fort and do so winningly. This is a rare pleasure and it speaks volumes that more than two decades after its release, this is one of the very few films to feature two (or more) women as the main actors. Every detail was painstakingly thought through, even down to the showcasing of Hollywood’s inability to forgive women for aging. It is glorious to see Hollywood being painted in a truthful, misogynistic light that is so rarely shone on it.
If you haven’t seen Death Becomes Her and you enjoy darkly tinged humour with almost edible dialogue, you should make it your business to check it out. On a scale of 1-10, this one goes up to 11.
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Michelle Audrey 2016