We return to our regularly scheduled movie reviewing after a bit of a break. Thank goodness I took that break or I wouldn’t have today’s movie, the 1992 comedy/horror film Death Becomes Her. Death Becomes Her has been on my Netflix “We Think You’d Like” list for a while and after a late night my friend and I decided to watch it as I’d never seen it. I always love being surprised by movies and director Robert Zemeckis and company made a delightful comedy with horror elements and some amazing makeup work. The film tells of the standards of beauty in women, and the competition for it, and the leading ladies of this story are able to balance the comedy without going overboard. I’m not sure if I can say it, but this might be on my list of favorite movies.
Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn) has always had to compete with her best friend and Broadway star Madeline Ashton (Meryl Streep). When Helen loses her latest beau, the great plastic surgeon Ernest Menville (Bruce Willis) she loses all grip on reality and becomes determined to kill Madeline. After some type in a loony bin Helen publishes a book and looks gorgeous beyond belief…almost too good. Unable to compete Madeline meets a mysterious woman named Lisle (Isabella Rossellini) who offers her a potion promising eternal life and beauty with the caveat that she “must take care of her body.” Madeline now looks beautiful but gets into an altercation with her husband, the same Ernest Menville, and falls down a flight of stairs. The problem is that Madeline can’t die and when she discovers Helen has taken the potion too, it becomes a fit to the death (literally) and their beauty won’t last long.
Death Becomes Her is bizarre because it should be utter crap. The story of two “frenemies” finding a potion that gives them youth only to have them die has all the ingredients to fail, yet its the way the director and screenwriters approach the material that elevates things. They don’t play the movie seriously at all, instead they create this world where Lisle is giving the potion to people who are able to escape from public life after a certain amount of time. She’s had clients retire, fake their deaths, and “I had one client who simply said ‘I want to be alone.'” When Lisle has a party there’s a slew of celebrity “cameos,” famous faces who have disappeared under mysterious circumstances.
The element of women fighting for men and beauty is a theme in film as old as time, the hilarity comes from the fact they end up having to be friends despite hating each other. Hawn and Streep are two actors who are iconic and they have an amazing rapport together. When they meet again at Helen’s book signing and hug, you can see the wheels turning in the others head. Helen is extremely manipulative, pitting Ernest and Madeline against each other, while Madeline is far more straightforward and content to call Ernest an idiot. Their personalities are seen throughout the movie, negating the need for exposition and explicit character development.
At a brisk hour and 43 minutes I never felt bored, instead I was bound up in the wacky antics of these two ladies in their perpetual and absurd game to stay forever young. The makeup works brilliantly as Madeline walks around with a broken neck and Helen has a hole in her stomach. The scene with a doctor (a cameo by late director Sydney Pollack) finding that Madeline doesn’t have a heartbeat and has a heart attack himself is a work of ironic genius. By the end these women are hanging on by a thread (literally!) and have ended up too lonely spinsters not able to enjoy any part of their immortality and youth.
Death Becomes Her is on the Netflix Watch Instantly so if you have it I heartily endorse this film. And Isabelle Rossellini in nothing but a strategically placed necklace is enough to make me question my sexuality, although I think that’s the point as she’s a hilarious lure to make anyone take that potion. A great movie!
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.