DEATH BECOMES HER (1992)

  • Director: Rober Zemeckis
  • Writers: Martin Donovan and David Koepp
  • Starring: Meryl Streep, Goldie Hawn, Bruce Willis, and Isabella Rossellini
  • Accolades: 1 Oscar (Best Visual Effects)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on HBO Max, Buy or rent with Amazon Video, YouTube, or AppleTV

Robert Zemeckis’ biggest legacy over his career as a director has been as an innovator in the field of special effects. Death Becomes Her is not one of his most popular films, nor should it be, really, but it represented a major leap forward in terms of technology. It is the first movie, for example, in which computer graphics are used to replicate skin tone. This doesn’t sound like a lot, but if you think about it, this movie is the ancestor of every movie that uses CGI to make its actors look different. Not only could computers be used in place of makeup, they could do things makeup just couldn’t. Like putting a hole through the middle of Goldie Hawn, for example.

The movie is ostensibly a satire, I suppose about Hollywood’s fetishistic absorption with youth and beauty, though I’d probably say that as such it’s not particularly effective. Yes, the fight against aging is likely hollow and futile. Beyond that, the movie seems to mostly exist as a way to show off Zemeckis’ various tricks. It stars Meryl Streep as a vain actress obsessed with staying young, Bruce Willis playing against type as her wimpy undertaker husband, and Goldie Hawn as his jealous, formerly mousy ex from whom Streep “stole” Willis many years ago. Hawn shows up again years later, looking much younger and hotter, and sends Streep into a spiral that ends in her taking a “magic potion” from a mostly-naked Isabella Rossellini, who claims to be 71 and spends her time lounging around a huge gothic mansion with literally Fabio as her bodyguard. She tells Streep that the potion will keep her young and beautiful forever, but warns her to “take care of her body.”

As things turn out, she does not, as Hawn is trying to get Willis to murder her so they can get back together. He ends up pushing her down the stairs, and she ends up with her head on the wrong way, but still survives, gets up, walks around, and yells at him. When Hawn shows up, she shoots a giant hole in her with a shotgun, only to find that Hawn gets right back up, hole and all. She, of course, looked so young and hot because she also took the magic potion. The third act of the movie gets us back to Rossellini’s mansion, but doesn’t spend too much time on actually making sense.

Industrial Light and Magic tested out a variety of techniques to achieve the effects in Death Becomes Her, most of which would end up used in more successful movies, like the following year’s Jurassic Park. The effects themselves, however, are a success right away. This is one of the earliest movies I’ve seen that involve computer graphics that don’t look dated in the slightest. It was not a pleasant experience for the actors, however: Streep complained afterwards that the slow pace of shooting required by the effects killed any possible comedy the movie might have been going for. She’s right, most of the jokes fall pretty flat. It’s all more campy than anything else, which is why it is apparently so popular among drag queens. Streep herself said that she liked the way the movie turned out, but the experience of shooting with the effects “was like being at the dentist.” She vowed never to star in another effects-driven film, a promise that she has for the most part kept up since, with the exception of some voiceover work, which is obviously not the same thing.

Beyond the issue of many of the jokes not working, Death Becomes Her suffers heavily from having nobody to root for. Even Willis’ character, who comes out smelling the sweetest, is mostly a whiny nobody, and the two women are gleefully amoral. Outside of the silliness of the various effects, the biggest joy of the movie is in Street and Hawn’s performances, both of which chew the scenery as much as possible. I sometimes think that the broader a satire goes, the less successful it’s likely to actually be as a satire. This movie does not have a subtle bone in its body.

There is something to be explored in the macabre fate left to both Streep and Hawn, who we eventually see many years later, trapped in their decaying bodies, held together by caked makeup, paint, and plaster. Their refusal to age has gone so far that they now have to constantly construct themselves anew. This seems to me more like an interesting movie than the one we actually get, which only gets to that point near the very end. Indeed, the film once had a much longer coda, including a character played by Tracey Ullman that ended up cut from the movie entirely, but Zemeckis heavily re-edited the movie to make it “move faster” after test screenings went badly. 

As hinted at above, Death Becomes Her still lives, likely to the surprise of everyone involved, as a camp touchstone in the LGBT community. Vanity Fair ran an article about its renaissance titled “The Gloriously Queer Afterlife of Death Becomes Her,” and the movie actually served as the theme, multiple decades later, for an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race. That over-the-top camp quality likely doesn’t hurt, but I do think there’s more to it than that. As I said, this is a movie about people striving to look a certain way, hanging onto an image even after death. This is becoming a lower and lower bar every year, but there is apparently a Death Becomes Her musical in development (at least there was pre-COVID, who even knows now), with Kristin Chenoweth in the Meryl Streep role. I doubt Robert Zemeckis could have imagined that when he decided to make a movie where he got to put a big hole in Goldie Hawn.

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