I have a great fondness for Robert Zemeckis films. His good ones are always so wonderfully weird. ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’, the ‘Back to the Future’ trilogy and to a lesser extent, ‘Forrest Gump’ but most definitely ‘Death Becomes Her’ have and unique, dark and comical qualities that make them really memorable films.
I wanted to talk about ‘Death Becomes Her’ because it’s a film that has some big names and yet feels like a B-Movie and I don’t mean that as a criticism. You’ll see what I mean by the end but first, you know how this goes, plot time.
Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn) takes her fiancée, Ernest Menville (Bruce Willis) to a show starring her old friend, Madeline Ashton (Meryl Streep). Madeline is very obsessed with looking young and once she finds out that Ernest is a plastic surgeon, she’s instantly interested. Ernest and Madeline end up getting married, leaving Helen heartbroken and very vengeful against Madeline.
14 years pass. Madeline and Ernest have been very unhappily married leading to Ernest becoming an alcoholic and giving up his prestige job as a plastic surgeon to being a restorative mortician. Madeline has taken to drastic measure to maintain her youth including blood transfusions but when her options run out, she is directed towards a mysterious woman, Lisle (Isabella Rossellini) who offers her a potion that will grant her eternal youth. Madeline accepts but as she was told and eventually finds out, there’s a catch.
So, we’ve got Meryl Streep, Goldie Hawn and Bruce Willis and how has this film not got more attention?
The character of Madeline is actually a great commentary on women who are in the public eye who are terrified of getting older. When we first see Madeline, she’s in a shitty musical playing to an auditorium where people are getting up and leaving. It’s clear her career has gone down the toilet with age which is how Hollywood works especially with women. As time moves on, younger actresses begin to be worked into the equation and you get pushed out onto poor musicals.
There was one thing that I’m super confused about.
It’s clear that Madeline has had a career in film since Helen is seen watching her movies and Madeline and Ernest live in a big mansion which must cost a lot of money and they have a housekeeper who they must pay. These luxuries come from having a great career in Hollywood and not a mortician’s wage. Maybe a plastic surgeon’s wage but we don’t know how long Ernest has been a mortician or why he stopped being a plastic surgeon. When he’s fighting with Madeline before the famous ‘stair fall’, he says ‘you’re not going to take all of my money’. It doesn’t seem like he’s got a lot of money to take.
The final straw for Madeline after seeing Helen at her book launch. She’s lost weight and she’s glamourous and what really hurts, she looks younger than Madeline. Madeline also witness her take Ernest to one side and be flirty with him. Madeline then goes to see her young lover, Dakota (Adam Storke) but finds that he’s no longer interested in her and is with a girl more his own age. That’s when Madeline rushes to Lisle.
Of the three main characters, none of them are what anyone would call ‘good people’. I would say that Ernest is probably the protagonist but he’s the one who started all this by leaving Helen for Madeline. Madeline constantly mentally abuses her husband and cheats on him whilst Helen conspires with Ernest to kill Madeline so they can be together. My point is that a divorce could solve all this quite nicely.
What I really like about ‘Death Becomes Her’ is that it was a pioneer when it came to visual effects. You all know what I’m talking about.
The scene after where Madeline takes the potion and she’s enjoying her younger, firmer body. She and Ernest have a war of words which pushes Ernest too far and he tries to strangle Madeline at the top of a long staircase. Realising that he’s throttling his wife, he removes his hands, but Madeline is left teetering on the top step. When she really should be begging him to help her, she can’t resist throwing in a jibe at his manhood which causes him to not so much ‘push’ more ‘gently poke’ her off balance.
What results is a wincingly painful sequence where we see Madeline break her neck and probably many more bones as she falls down the stairs. There’s no doubt that she’s totally dead… or is she?
In what is no doubt an infamous scene, as Ernest is on the phone to Helen to discuss what to do next, Madeline’s crumpled, mangled body begins to stir in the background. As she figures out how to pick herself up and walk with her head on backwards, she approaches Ernest who points out her disfigured body and she begins to realise what she’s done her body.
This was something else that was a little bit confusing.
You’d think that if the potion can restore someone’s youth by presumably reviving dead cells, then it will also heal any injuries. In this case, if someone suffers a fatal injury then they will continue to walk and talk but their body will rot.
In the case of Madeline, when she’s taken to hospital and the doctor bends her broken wrist all the way back, she feels no pain. Her body temperature is that of a dead person, she has no pulse and no heartbeat. Her skin begins to go pale which means that she requires Ernest’s expertise as a man who makes dead people look alive.
When Helen comes around to help Ernest bury Madeline who she thinks is dead, Madeline learns of the plan the two concocted and responds by blasting Helen in the stomach with a shotgun. Helen survives because she too took the potion but now she has a massive hole in her midriff and some of the VFX gags are really cool. Such gags are easily done these days but such feats had never been accomplished before. For digital effects, this was a first.
Industrial Light and Magic did the CG effects for the film and to make Meryl Streep walk with her head on backwards, she had to perform the motions of herself walking backwards with a blue mask on her head and prosthetics around her neck. She then had to perform the same actions against a bluescreen except this time facing forwards and the two were composited together.
The ending is probably the most satisfying as it’s drenched in irony.
Helen and Madeline work out their differences, realising that they are both in the same boat and require Ernest to keep them looking fresh. However, Ernest has had enough of their bullshit and is doing what he should have done years ago, he’s leaving them. The decaying duo decide to remove Ernest’s free will, take him to Lisle who will convince him to take the potion so he will live forever and keep them maintained.
Ernest realises what they’re up to and is chased to the roof where he ends up hanging from a drainpipe by the world’s strongest braces. Since his face appears to be sealed, Madeline and Helen beg him to drink the potion as it’s ‘the only way he’ll survive the fall’. Although he will live for eternity, it will be as a crumpled mess. Ernest decides that being dead is better than being their slave and so falls and I thought that he died in the fall but I was wrong. Ernest falls into Lisle’s swimming pool and survives.
37 years later, Madeline and Helen attend Ernest’s funeral who died old man having lived an adventurous life with a large family and many friends. Meanwhile, Madeline and Helen have had no one but themselves to keep each other company and maintain each other. The irony is that the two women who survived on their looks now look like Barbie dolls that have been scribbled on by toddlers. The film ends with the two falling down the steps to the church and smashing into pieces. Seems just.
‘Death Becomes Her’ cost $55 Million to make but made $149 Million at the box office. On top of that, the film won an Academy Award, a BAFTA and a Saturn Award for the Visual Effects whilst Isabella Rossellini won a Saturn Award for ‘Best Supporting Actress’. The film was nominated for a bunch of other rewards.
One question that was posed to me was, ‘Would you drink the potion?’. I’ve thought about it and I don’t think I would. Eternal youth and beauty sounds like a good thing but how long would it take for it to get boring? Plus, accidents happen. You’d live forever but what’s the point if you have to be super careful and move around a lot so people wouldn’t become suspicious? Plus, you’d have to watch everyone you love die. Nah, not for me.
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