Death Becomes Her
Death Becomes Her was one of the most underrated mainstream releases of the early 1990s. It takes the black, horrific humour of cult films like Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead (1982) series, and marries that to the anti-romantic misanthropy of Danny DeVito’s The War of the Roses (1989).
In its vision of two ghastly women (Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn) joined together in an infernal pact to maintain their youthful good looks, Robert Zemeckis’ film conjures a pop version of Naomi Wolf’s non-fiction best seller The Beauty Myth (1990) as filtered through the supernatural fantasy of The Witches of Eastwick (1987). It was probably inspired less by the actual details of Wolf’s thesis than on the massive media buzz and the arguments it provoked.
Co-writers Martin Donovan and David Koepp (who are both also directors in their own right) described this mix of elements and influences best: “We were looking to do Night of the Living Dead  as Noel Coward would have done it”.
The comedy is brittle and brutal – and particularly withering when it comes to dealing with the abyss between the sexes. Bruce Willis plays Dr Ernest Menville (!), an unlovely plastic surgeon forever puzzled by the obsession with physical beauty that drives the women in his life. Streep and Hawn respectively play Madeline and Helen, catty rivals who manage to inflict some extraordinary damage on each other.
Ultimately – and uncannily – these ladies manage to become virtual twins as they enter a fabulous Beverly Hills netherworld (guarded by Isabella Rossellini as Lisle von Rhuman) of the rich, famous and undead. Madeline and Helen meld, in the course of the film, into the one character, as they move and talk in concert, and grow more and more alike both in looks and behaviour. Unfortunately for them, everlasting youth proves not so easy to maintain.
Yet what gets strengthened by all this gross artifice is the War between Woman and Man. This abyss between the sexes is clinched in one of the film’s best (and almost final) lines, when we hear that Menville – wise, old, benevolent, virile patriarch that he became past the age of 50 – established in his lifetime a Centre for the Study of Women, that species whose radical Otherness once so bedevilled and perplexed him.
As a film that dives into the pool of contemporary anxieties and fantasies about glamour, ageing and man-woman relationships, Death Becomes Her can hardly be beaten. But it was, on the whole, rather badly received by dopey reviewers at the moment of its initial release. On the contrary, in spectatorial terms, it provides a good instance of what the old Hollywood mogul David O. Selznick called the icebox effect (and Alfred Hitchcock gaily adopted as Fridge Logic): an event-film that gets people talking excitedly about afterwards as they raid the refrigerator for snacks.
Hawn vibed along with this in slightly more contemporary terms when she described Death Becomes Her as a movie that’s “going to be a great one to go to have coffee afterward. Because everybody’s going to have a point of view, everybody’s going to argue”.
An integral aspect of the icebox (or coffee shop) effect is the way that High Concept films (as this most certainly is) are designed precisely as an almost chaotic clash of different values and viewpoints – a mosaic of entry points for audience members of distinct persuasions. That’s part of its connection with The Witches of Eastwick, a film whose influence on pop culture has been underestimated.
Yet Death Becomes Her does not really accommodate any positive champion of the glamour ethos (a defence which is always possible, if increasingly hard to uphold in our contemporary world). The film is deliberately disrespectful of the pre-existing beauty icons it parades – particularly Rossellini, whose character possesses delusions of immortal beauty that are relentlessly mocked (a mockery in which she delights as a performer, and as a real-world spokesperson for natural beauty without cosmetic surgery).
All is Vanity, it seems, in this sarcastic pop universe where the spectacular highlights are grotesque physical mutations: Streep’s twisted-up body trundling along whilst chatting obliviously; a hole in Hawn’s stomach; the pieces of both their smashed bodies spinning on a pavement. An unforgiving comedy of manners, the film especially targets the ephemerality and superficiality of beauty fads – particularly in the lifestyle capital of Beverly Hills.
Zemeckis revitalises the tradition of extreme black humour that surfaced with such magnificence in The War of the Roses. Here, as in DeVito’s film, we pass in a single cut from the rapturous wedding of actress Madeline and Dr Menville to a relationship in an advanced state of inevitable decay: she’s ageing and no longer working, he’s descended to the level of expertly painting the dead bodies of celebrities in a morgue. Meanwhile, the jilted Helen has gone from a winsome young novelist to an obese psychotic, bent on revenge.
The film’s title is one of its most brilliant and assured pop inventions. Death becomes her: death, cold and inanimate, taken as a woman's ultimate beauty mask or fashion accessory. Cultural arguments about glamour and beauty have always polarised around two extremes, with life, movement and ineffable personality on one side – and death on the other. The still life or death mask of 1960s glamour: picture Edie Sedgwick in Andy Warhol's films like Beauty #2 (1965), blank, strung out and anorexic, her body jerking to attention only when a pop disc blares from somewhere off-screen. For some disenchanted onlookers of the glamour parade, it is only a small step from these Warholian Superstars of the ‘60s to the Supermodels of the ‘90s like Linda Evangelista or Elle McPherson.
The pessimistic side of the glamour debate, into which Death Becomes Her fits, is the tradition of Oscar Wilde’s 1891 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray and its many appropriations, including Billy Wilder’s variations on this theme from the classic Sunset Boulevard (1950) to the extraordinary, largely unsung Fedora (1978).
Zemeckis, best known in mass/pop terms for the Back to the Future (1985-90) series – but loved by cinephiles far more for his earlier, outrageous I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978) and Used Cars (1980) – is here given full rein to explore the darkest vein of his humour. Aided by a spellbinding set of special effects processes, he devises a barrage of brilliantly timed jokes about the human body in ever more deformed states.
It’s a fine example of the anti-humanist element in American culture – an aspect that tends to get swept under the carpet of that nation’s history. But it’s a carpet worth lifting, to explore what lies beneath.
This review incorporates material from the “Confession of a Mask” chapter of my first book, Phantasms (1994).
© Adrian Martin June 1993