‘Death Becomes Her’ – ’92 Cinema Revue

Death Becomes Her – #1 in the US (July 31 – Aug. 21)

All-Time Domestic $58,422,650 | All-Time International $90,600,000

All-Time Worldwide $149,022,650

Death Becomes Her will live forever as a camp classic thanks to stellar performance and even more stellar effects.

Robert Zemeckis had finished the finale of the trilogy Back to the Future trilogy by the time 1992 rolled in. That trilogy and Who Framed Roger Rabbit cemented him as a master showman in special effects showcases, a far cry from his I Wanna Hold Your Hand days. Yet, Zemeckis is the man directing the action on screen with a team of true wizards of imagination behind the scene.

Zemeckis’ films are powered by the visual effects house Industrial Light and Magic. ILM was responsible for making a galaxy far, far away reality, time travel possible, and making the toon world come to life. In 1991, ILM had blown away audiences with their work Terminator 2: Judgment Day and was ready to take on an enormous task with Jurassic Park. However, they needed a test run first to harness their new skin texture technology and how to blend computer-generated imagery (CGI) and animatronics seamlessly. Reteaming with Bobby Z (as the cool kids call him) would give him that opportunity and another Academy Award with the fantasy-comedy Death Becomes Her. Though intended as part of a new Tales from the Crypt film alongside From Dusk Till Dawn and The FrightenersDeath Becomes Her became a standalone film focused on two rivals battling their youth and themselves. 

Madeline Ashton (Meryl Streep) is an aging star on the stage and former friend of Helen Sharpe (Goldie Hawn). The two have not seen one another in 14 years because Madeline stole Sharpe’s former fiance Ernest Menville (Bruce Willis), from her. Upon seeing Sharpe’s new youthful look at a book release party. Madeline gets jealous as she feels her youth is fading. She meets Lisle von Rhuman (Isabella Rosellini), who offers her a key to immortal life with a small potion. As with all potions, it does come with a few caveats. Sharpe has plans to get rid of Madeline once and for all and get her former love back in her arms. As both plots converge on each other, the wackiness begins to unfold.

Madeline Ashton (Meryl Streep) and Helen Sharpe (Goldie Hawn) keep an on eye Ernest Menville (Bruce Willis).
Source: Universal Pictures

Death Becomes Her is a hilarious macabre wonder with dazzling effects on display amplified by terrific performances from the trio of leads. Come for the actors involved, but stay for the masterclass clinic by ILM. It’s held up significantly, even if some parts can be more dated than others.

Streep and Hawn battling one another are more than reason alone for the admission price. Streep has this petty bitchiness to Madeline that is astounding. Every action of her comes off as mean and selfish, with strep playing it as if nothing is wrong. It sells how much of a jerk she is, and it’s perfect. Her reactions and responses are also killers. I love her reaction to Roselinni’s “Now, a warning,” wondering why she did not say it before taking the drink. Hawn as Sharpe is terrific; even if she has more sympathetic reasons than Madeline, she also has selfish and less desirable goals. She’s manic and obsessed but a psychopath. Hawn plays her as the lover scorn with tremendous hate in her heart but also retains that lighter comedic gold Hawn is known for. When she and Streep clash with words and shovels, it displays insults and more harm than a local deli. There’s a definite Bugs vs. Daffy energy to the two. 

Bruce Willis is no slouch, playing a total schmuck of a man as a great foil to the greed of the others. Willis came from comedy, which shows as he delivers on that front, being hysterical when allowed. Shame he didn’t step into more comedies during his career outside of whatever the hell The Whole Nine Yards was. Finally, Rosellini gets a mention even if her moments are pretty brief. Her first appearance is astounding, wearing nothing but jewels and a few comedic marks of her known having this other-worldly speech and presentation but also accepting a check as payment with quick reluctance. 

Helen Sharpe (Goldie Hawn) comes out of the water a holier person than before. Source: Universal Pictures

If this was indeed the test run, ILM’s team on the film succeeded with the highest marks. The effects are immaculate, supervised by Scott Squires, produced and designed by Debbie Denise and Doug Chiang, respectively, with animation led by Wes Takahashi. Madeline’s broken and twisted neck is a fun effect if a bit dated. Then she stretches her neck in a blend of the two after being whacked with a shovel, which is astounding. It’s so seamless that it still holds up even in modern high-definition restoration. They succeeded on that test but were dazzled with another. The “hole in the body” is a sight to behold. It’s true movie magic on display. Looking up how they did it after the fact using a blend of 2D and 3D animation sounds like rocket science. Yet, it’s still very effective and could fool anybody watching the film for the first time. The effects work in tandem with the story by being a device to shape it rather than merely being a spectacle for spectacle’s sake the way Honey, I Shrunk the Kids was.

The only detriment of the film itself is that the film feels like a reaction to the rise of Tim Burton. Death Becomes Her is a Zemeckis film wearing a Tim Burton costume, being less of his voice and more the imitation of contemporaries surrounding him. It has the look of what one would expect from a Burton film with large gothic sets and a zaniness that is on par with Beetlejuice or Pee-Wee before it. It also has the same sensibilities as Barry Sonnenfeld’s The Addams Family the year prior. It can easily be attributed to Burton or Sonnenfeld before even thinking of Zemeckis as a director choice. Yet, given this is before the “so earnest it beats you over the head” Forrest Gump, it’s great to see Zemeckis break from the comfort zone and expand on his reach. I’ll take any pre-motion capture animation obsession with Zemeckis film.

Lisle von Rhuman (Isabella Rosellini) and Madeline Ashton (Meryl Streep) come to an agreement to have the potion for immortality. Source: Universal Pictures

Death Becomes Her will live forever as a camp classic thanks to stellar performance and even more stellar effects. ILM perfected the showcase with Streep, Hawn, and Willis at the height of their powers, bringing their A-game. It’s a devilishly good time and worth another visit, even if it feels like someone else is telling the story.

Revue Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Next week, Clint Eastwood ventures into the Western genre that made him a star one last time with Unforgiven.

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