No matter how many times I see it, Death Becomes Her exists first and foremost as a VHS box sitting on the cramped shelf of my old video store right next to Sister Act; the cast is faint from a distance, and susceptible to tricks of the Mandela effect — it’s Meryl Streep, Bruce Willis, and Goldie Hawn, though if you tell me otherwise, I just might believe you. I bet you can picture the box yourself, the three leads front and center in formal dress, except Streep’s head’s twisted Exorcist-style, and there’s Willis thrusting a candelabra through Hawn’s torso. Given its release, sandwiched between the last Back to the Future film and Forrest Gump, it’s obvious why this box office success and VFX Oscar-winner feels like a forgotten stepchild in Robert Zemeckis’ filmography. It doesn’t help that it’s the most cynical feature from the Spielberg protege since Used Cars, a side of the director that was only further sublimated as his career rolled on. Yet, this is what makes Death Becomes Her so delicious and instrumental to understanding Zemeckis beyond his reductive reputation as a craftsman of schmaltz, uplift, and technical wizardry.
For example, there’s nothing surprising about his pull toward horror — his student shorts include a man tortured to death by an elevator (The Lift) and a psychiatric patient rampaging through the suburbs (A Field of Honor). He wrote Bordello of Blood, worked on Kolchak: The Night Stalker, and by 1992 was producing and directing episodes of Tales from the Crypt — “Yellow” with Kirk Douglas is a particular standout. And so this vicious Tales-esque script from David Koepp and Martin Donovan, about two women chasing youth and vitality at any cost, and the man caught in the middle, fits neatly in the wheelhouse. There’s also obvious connective tissue to the noir stylings so inherent to Who Framed Roger Rabbit resurfacing here, and in an interview with NBC’s Bobbie Wygant, Zemeckis describes the film as “Beetlejuice meets Sunset Boulevard”. Lofty ambitions aside, I would suggest two alternate reference points to capture the far wobblier result: George Miller’s The Witches of Eastwick and Susan Seidelman’s She-Devil. Death Becomes Her’s broad fantastical satire and muddled social commentary is situated somewhere between these two, but its true strength lies not in coherent thematics, but in its messy ridiculousness, outsized performances, and a script armed with daggers of one-liners.
The film opens with a gaudy faux-Broadway production titled Songbird, where marquee star Madeline Ashton (Meryl Streep) cascades down a staircase with a song a la Marylin Monroe. Happy and wholesome couple Dr. Ernest Manville (Bruce Willis) and Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn) watch from the audience, Helen keeping an eye on her husband, and Ernest entranced by the stage. The stars are dressed-down, leaving Hawn meek and demure and a bespectacled and mustachioed Willis looking like Martin Mull. Jumping forward, the fading yet glamorous Madeline will go on to steal and marry Ernest, leaving Helen to plot her revenge; a familiar setup to She–Devil where Streep, playing a superstar author, did the same to Roseanne. However, if She-Devil had its sympathies in the corner of the beleaguered housewife as feminist parable, Death Becomes Her quickly dispels any such notion with its time-skip to a deranged Helen — Hawn outfitted in a grotesque fat suit — mulling about a filthy cat-littered apartment dreaming of murder. No, the sympathies here are squarely with “the pure-hearted man” whose life is derailed by his love of these women, one who ultimately finds his manhood and becomes an inspiration for his community in the process. It’s a theme that might be exhausting in a more sincere film (as proven by Zemeckis two years later), but is rendered so patently absurd in this context that it plays like camp.
It’s this kooky sensibility that serves as the film’s saving grace; the quips come fast, loose, and abundant, with Streep delivering some of the most quotable — “Oh for Christ’s sake, at least lie quickly,” and “Can you just not breathe?” — with deliriously punchy exasperation. However, nothing embodies this more than the introduction of a sorceress played by Isabella Rossellini — who offers the promise of a magic potion — into the hijinks. This magic it seems is the only way for the now worn-down Madeline Ashton to compete, with the shocking return of the renewed, svelte, and vibrant, but no less murderous, Helen Sharp. Thus far, Streep’s frantic scenery chewing, Willis’ mannered anxiety, and Hawn’s animated facial expressions have, for better or worse, carried the show, but the introduction of Rossellini’s Lisle Von Rhuman reanimates the affair, arriving on scene all elegance, menace, and sex, dressed in a flowing velvety skirt with nothing but beaded necklaces for a top.
Accompanying Von Rhuman and her gorgeous man-servants, of course, (“Keep your ass handy,” she asides to one) is Zemeckis’ bag of technical tricks held aloft by Industrial Light & Magic. Just the year prior, ILM pushed the FX envelope with Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and here pulled along by Zemeckis, they again succeed, creating CGI skin textures for the first time to realize some of the horrors pictured on the poster. The film’s second half is awash in the farcical living dead consequences of the magic potion, building up to a final showdown between Madeline and Helen which culminates in a question as to why they’d fight so hard over Ernest in the first place. The trouble is everything centers right back on his righteous refusal of immortality just as things are about to get interesting. There’s a sense that the film is leading toward a culmination akin to The Witches of Eastwick, with its rejection of the hetero nuclear unit and an embrace of sisterhood, and yet, the ultimate destination of the slapped-on coda is the exact opposite. Nevertheless, even in its preachy ending, the tone never drops into the maudlin sentimentality that runs its course through so much of Zemeckis’ mainstream work, and there’s an odd pleasure to revisiting his disjointed noir dreamscape thirty years down the line, a feeling not unlike rummaging the stacks of your old video store.
Part of Robert Zemeckis: Movie Magician