Death Become Her
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Although it managed to walk away with the Best Visual Effects Oscar for 1992, Robert Zemeckis’ black comedy Death Becomes Her received a lukewarm critical reception when first released. Much of the criticism stemmed from the fact that Zemeckis, known for such sweet, whimsical films as Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, had gone on to create a film about two vain, unpleasant women hell-bent on inflicting physical and psychological harm on one another while they manipulate a spineless plastic surgeon who seems to use his awareness of his own inadequacies as a man to justify his reprehensible behaviour.
While one can argue that the film was merely “too dark” to be appreciated in 1992, (the same year Tim Burton took an undeserved beating from several viewers and critics for his nihilistic, yet brilliant, Batman Returns), one cannot deny that Zemeckis and his cast and crew are completely infatuated by the all the backstabbing, scheming, and nonchalance towards violence and human life going on in Martin Donovan and David Koepp’s script. The film doesn’t care that its characters are one-dimensional and unlikable; its primary goal, which it more or less accomplishes, is to glamour his audience with the seductive lure of dirty deeds. That the film manages to conjure up an occasional belly laugh in the process only makes it more endearing.
The first half of Death Becomes Her follows the miserable lives of the three central characters in a manner so unflinchingly brutal, the viewer might feel guilty for the incurred laughs. Meryl Streep plays aging Hollywood starlet Madeline Ashton, who nabs herself a plastic surgeon husband, Ernest Menville (Bruce Willis), by luring him away from her “dear friend” Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn) in what seems to be no time at all (“I have absolutely no interest in Madeline Ashton”…cut immediately to Willis and Streep walking down the aisle). Morphing into an obese wreck, who gets evicted from her home and yelled at by her therapist for being obsessed with Madeline, Helen decides to take action by eliminating her completely. Cut to fourteeen years later, when Madeline and Ernest’s marriage is on the rocks, and Helen re-emerges as a svelte bombshell conspiring with Ernest to kill Madeline. Meanwhile, Madeline, reaching a breaking point over her fading beauty, turns to a mysterious enchantress (Isabella Rosselini) who gives her a potion that will allow her to live as a young and pretty thing forever…even if somebody should kill her.
A huge part of what makes the film so much fun is the joy and reckless abandon with which Streep, Willis, and Hawn bring their characters to life, all nicely acting against type. While Streep has since proved that she can do comedy with such films as The Devil Wears Prada, at the time of Death Becomes Her’s release, it was relatively uncharted territory for her. Her turn as Madeline Ashton is by no means an exercise in subtlety, but she latches on to the brashness at the heart of the character and runs wild with it. Although Hawn is no stranger to comedy, she ditches her traditional bimbo act and becomes startlingly seductive in the scene when she tries to manipulate Willis. It soon becomes clear that both Hawn and Streep’s characters are merely trying to play the femme fatale while being inherently uncouth, and this only adds to the comedy. Willis has yet to play another character as meek and nerdy as Ernest, and his effectiveness in the role is a nice juxtaposition to the domineering leading ladies. Watching the three stars let loose here is akin to witnessing them perform at an improv workshop at the Actor’s Studio after they’ve each had a couple of drinks.
While one has to pay lip service to the jaw-dropping special effects that come into play in the film’s second half, (where Streep and Hawn become full-fledged zombies complete with rubbery, broken neck and a gaping hole in the stomach,) it is actually from this point on where the film disappoints. For all the tension and plotting that bubbles up beforehand, when the decades-spanning feud between Streep and Hawn finally comes to a head, all the film gives us is a series of effects-heavy sight gags and surprisingly lame insults. (Hawn to a deformed Streep: “I will not speak to you until you put your head on straight.” Streep to Hawn: “You former fatso!” Ugh.) One can only imagine what kind of spectacularly bitchy lines a Paul Rudnick type would have conjured up for such a moment. Most anticlimactic of all, the film completely abandons the revenge plot in the last half hour, and instead focuses on Willis’ questioning of the moral implications of the immortality potion. Consequently, the final product plays out like two different movies, with the Solondz-esque black comedy morphing into something that feels downright Spielbergian.
However, while the script regresses towards a messy denouement, the same can luckily not be said for Zemeckis, who laces his scenes with a macabre, madcap glee that’s awfully hard to resist. Madeline and Ernest’s mansion, for instance, is such a labyrinth of Gothic decadence, that it’s hard to imagine how a murder could not take place there. And Alan Silvestri’s giddy, bombastic, Psycho-inspired score often tricks the viewer into believing he’s watching an actual film-noir thriller, instead of a spoof of the real deal. Indeed, just like many of the best horror films, (Carrie, Jaws, Psycho, to name a few) are complemented by a tongue-in-cheek undertone, what makes Death Becomes Her so intriguing after all these years, is its cheeky blurring of the remarkably thin line between horror and comedy.
– Jonathan Youster