Monday, February 21, 2005

Death Becomes Her: On guard, bitch!



DEATH BECOMES HER (1992) With Meryl Streep, Goldie Hawn, Bruce Willis and Isabella Rossellini. Written by Martin Donovan & David Koepp. Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Available on DVD from Universal.

And to think Meryl and Goldie almost did 'Thelma & Louise' instead of this brilliant, dripping piece of movie camp. It would've been fine to see them drive over a cliff, but I'd rather see them fall down the stairs, get shot through the belly, have a shovel fight, and spray paint each other's asses any day. Streep plays Madeline Ashton, a star of stage and screen who thinks vanity is next to godliness, and vice versa. Goldie Hawn is Helen Sharp, the woman who perpetually loses her men to Ashton. The story spans a good 50 years, through which Mad and Hel spar over Dr. Ernest Menville, a brilliant plastic surgeon (Bruce Willis, unrecognizable in his finest performance), and mortality itself.

The plot is perfectly cogent, but to get into its specifics here would take a color-coded flowchart. Both Madeline and Helen are obsessed with staying alive and staying young, and they find a potion that is advertised to do both. But there is one catch that presents itself too late: You live forever, but once your body gets killed (i.e. you tumble down the stairs/are blown wide open by a shotgun), you begin to, well, rot. This is one of the film's wonderful ironies; you drink from the fountain of youth so you never see yourself "fall apart," but then you actually fall apart.

Hawn was 47 and Streep was 43 when they filmed the movie, and their totally committed performances in a film about aging gracelessly is a testament to the pair's talent, work ethic and chutzpah. Streep rages through the movie like Joan Crawford on uppers, all shrieks and crooked eyebrows. Hawn plays a shrinking-violet-turned-venus-fly-trap, spending time either in a gargantuan fat suit or zombie-like blue contacts. Look beneath the hysteria, and both are parodying a part of their own images: Streep as the grande dame of acting and Hawn as the pert waif with loose lips. Even Willis has fun with his image by completely inverting it; anyone who dismisses his abilities should have a double bill of 'Die Hard' and 'Death Becomes Her,' portraits of macho assertion and snivelling submission.

The performances blaze, but the script is the fuel:

ERNEST: Where did you put my wife?
DOCTOR: She's dead, sir. They took her to the morgue.
ERNEST: The morgue?! She'll be furious!

Or this delightful exchange at Helen's book release party:

HELEN: Oh gosh, I'm glad you came. I didn't know if you would. I spoke to my PR woman and she said Madeline Ashton goes to the opening of an envelope. Oh, those people can be so cruel!
MADELINE: (simmering) Mmm.
HELEN: I fired her.
MADELINE: (pleased) Oh?
HELEN: Well, I almost fired her.

Watching it after many years, it's startling how much the film has to say -- about life, beauty, revenge, redemption and, yes, comedy. It's certainly not a message picture, but you can't deny the poignancy of the film's final scene, even if it is swiftly covered up by more cynicism.

Unlike its two main characters, 'Death Becomes Her' has not really lasted. It did decent business when it opened in 1992, won an Oscar for its head-spinning visual effects, and now doesn't even make it onto lists of guilty pleasures or cult favorites. I've met some people who are devout fans, but they also admit to knowing no one else who loves it. I'd advocate a re-release with audience interaction a la Rocky Horror, but I'd hate to think of the corresponding props and hand motions.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Funny, my mom and I were talking about that movie yesterday. It's her favorite Meryl Streep movie (she still hasn't seen Adaptation)
- LKM

Emily said...

I love that movie... my mom wouldn't let me see if until I was 10 because she thought it would scare me. she was sorta right, but it's still a good movie.

Middento said...

OK, this is really ironic, because I wrote my blog post for today before I read yours. What is it about today and movies that are guilty pleasures? (I, too, enjoyed this flick...)

cattleworks said...

I... just sort of wandered over to this post.
Robert Zemekis is a pretty funny, thoughtful guy. I like him because I think he appreciates a good idea.
And will also explore it, too.
It would seem that pairing him up with writer Charles Kaufman might be an interesting combination.
I love watching Meryl Streep in comedies and I always like Bruce Willis.
One of my favorite visual gags is Goldie Hawn as Jabba the Hut in this film.
When i think of Robert Zemekis, I also think of his writing partner Bob Gale, and some day I'll have to follow through on my watching the Speilberg WWII triple feature: SCHINDLER'S LIST, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN and 1941.
Finally, another good comedy that actually did well, but now i think people forget about is WHAT'S UP, DOC? which also boasts another strong screenplay. Perhaps its themes aren't as highbrow as DEATH's, it's still very clever.
Great post, you!

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