Revisiting Robert Zemeckis’ Death Becomes Her

Bruce Willis, Goldie Hawn and Meryl Streep starred in Robert Zemeckis' Death Becomes Her. Anyone else share our love for it?

Robert Zemeckis’s geek credentials are pretty well established. He directed the Back To The Future trilogy, which instantly guarantees him a lifetime membership to the Den Of Geek treehouse. But for me, personally, his best film has always been Death Becomes Her, a dark comedy about vanity and sex and the living dead. It’s a film I saw many, many times as a child, which seems kind of odd when you consider the subject matter, but it’s rated PG and seems to have been thought of as a knockabout comedy for all the family to enjoy. Looking back at it now, though, it’s got a lot more to it than that; it’s cleverer, darker, and way more cynical than I could ever have appreciated as a kid.

The film begins in 1978, at a performance of a Broadway musical. Madeline Ashton (Meryl Streep) is starring in Songbird, a musical adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird Of Youth. All too appropriate, given the plot of this movie, though you’d have to listen closely to a seemingly throwaway bit of dialogue to be able to ID the show, and it doesn’t really matter anyway. What makes is that it’s a bad show. What we get to see of it is sort of embarrassing, as Madeline parades across the stage, singing her heart out to an audience that’s already putting on its coat and leaving.

The only person who actually seems to be enjoying the show is a shabby-looking man whose date is openly glaring at him as he applauds. That, basically, is our introduction to the dynamics of the three main characters. The woman is Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn), a school friend of Madeline’s. Having lost many boyfriends to the infinitely more glamorous Madeline over the years, Helen’s testing her new fiancé to see whether he can resist her charms. And when they head backstage, it turns out he can’t. Madeline, for her part, is mainly interested in him because he’s a world renowned plastic surgeon, and she’s worried she’s losing her looks. One quick cut later, Madeline is getting married to one Dr Ernest Menville (Bruce Willis), while Helen seethes with rage at the back of the church.

There are plenty of classic movies about fading stars and warring divas – think All About Eve, or Whatever Happened To Baby Jane – and there’s an intentional whiff of 1940s glamour about Death Becomes Her’s opening scenes. Here, though, rather than peevishly succumbing to the ruins of old age, Madeline and Helen (or Mad and Hel, as they ‘affectionately’ nickname one another) find a way to defeat time.

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Separately, the two women are introduced to the otherworldly Lisle von Rhoman (Isabella Rossellini, who’s dressed in costumes that can never quite be described as ‘clothes’). For an exorbitant price, she offers them a magical potion that restores their youth and grants them eternal life – the catch, though, is that since they can’t die, they’ll be stuck in their bodies for an awfully long time, no matter what happens.

The thing you probably remember most vividly about this movie is that Meryl Streep gets her head turned backwards and Goldie Hawn gets a hole blown through her midriff, but it actually takes quite a while for the movie to get to that point. A lot of time passes in the movie, too: it skips forward seven years from the opening scene at the theatre to show Helen grown fat and unhinged, then skips forward another seven years to show the abject misery of Madeline and Ernest’s relationship.

During those skipped 14 years, Ernest has gone from adoring his glamour-puss of a wife to regarding her as less than human. To cope, he drinks so heavily that his glittering career as a plastic surgeon is a thing of the past; instead, he now works with corpses, using spray-paint to make their pallid skin look human again. It’s an extremely convenient career for him to have moved into, considering how things shake out, but it’s also a really bizarre role to see Bruce Willis in.

In 1992, when Death Becomes Her was released, Willis had already made two Die Hard movies, and was on his way to becoming an established action star. He was in his late 30s, and had the physique of, well, an action movie star. So for him to play an aging, dowdy, moustachioed alcoholic took some doing – but swamped under loose-fitting clothes, with rumpled, thinning hair, it’s possible to look at Ernest Menville and not even see Bruce Willis.

His beta male status is kind of a joke in the movie, because as much as Madeline and Helen tell him he’s an irresistible sexual being, he… really isn’t. He’s passive, meek, even bumbling, and if either of the women took a step back and really looked at him, they probably wouldn’t even want him. What they want, really, is what the other one has. It’s their obsession with one another that’s ultimately their undoing…

So yup, once we’re 14 years into the movie, and Helen’s made her triumphant appearance as a slinky author, the real fight begins. Helen seduces Ernest, plotting with him to murder Madeline, but he ignores her carefully laid plans and takes action for maybe the first time in his life: he pushes his wife down the stairs to her death.

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And that’s where the fun begins. Death Becomes Her is now more than 20 years old, and yet the special effects still look amazing. You can sort of tell that something’s not quite right about Madeline’s backwards head, a hint of blue-screen work, but it still looks better than a lot of modern CGI effects. It helps that she’s wearing a prosthetic, too, so it’s not all done on a computer. Although it’s not a film that immediately springs to mind when you think about ground-breaking special effects, Death Becomes Her really did push at the limits of what was possible.

When you think about it, there’s a ton of effects trickery going on – the cast need to age, then become youthful again; Madeline gets her neck broken, twice; and Helen, well, Helen has an enormous gaping hole through her torso, and in one scene manages to sit down so that a pole sticks straight through her. There’s a glimmer of cartoonishness about it, but the effects are never noticeable enough that they’re distracting; you can kind of believe what you’re seeing.

Then again, what else would you expect from Industrial Light & Magic – the company that, one year later, would be responsible for bringing dinosaurs back to life for Jurassic Park?

Another thing that’s really striking about this film, on a rewatch, is how utterly brilliant the score is. I hadn’t seen the film for years, despite my childhood obsession with it, but as soon as I heard the main theme it all came flooding back. It’s just so fantastically creepy – but playful, too. The score was written by Alan Silvestri, a composer who’s also responsible for the scores of Flight Of The Navigator, Predator, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and dozens more, including, more recently, The Avengers. For Death Becomes Her, he uses a lot of violins, and you can almost hear echoes of the Psycho strings sometimes; it’s dramatic, even overblown sometimes, but unforgettable.

The music works perfectly with the melodramatic themes of the story, and combined with the lavish production design – which is almost Tim Burton-esque, sometimes, though maybe a little more restrained – it highlights the utter weirdness of the film. For something that most of us probably saw when we were kids, there’s something deeply sinister about this film, and deeply sad, too. After all, youth and eternal life sound great, but when you have to spend forever lurking in the shadows, never showing your face, only associating with people you hate, well, the idea kind of loses its shine.

For a silly comedy, there’s a proper philosophical point underscoring the plot – though it shies away from getting too sentimental. The funeral scene at the end is a perfect illustration of that: the priest’s words seem sincere and the kind of comforting message you’d want to hear when someone’s died, but rather than linger, Zemeckis takes us out of the church mid-sermon. We go with Madeline and Helen, laughing hysterically.

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The cut of Death Becomes Her that we know and love today, though, isn’t the original one. When the movie was shown to test audiences, many of them hated the original ending, so it was completely changed – which also meant chopping out an entire subplot about a bartender Ernest falls in love with. There are other deleted scenes along the way, too, including a bit about Ernest temporarily storing Madeline in the freezer. Was that cut for time, or because it was extra gross? It does kind of raise some questions about how much preservation Helen and Madeline might really need, further down the line.

Considering this is a film about sex and death, it’s pretty coy about both of those things; Madeline has a lover, but we only see him when he’s rejecting her, and though Lisle is basically naked at all times, her sexiness is terrifying. There’s not even much swearing, although the original script was more explicit.

Without seeing the original cut, it’s hard to say, but for the most part it seems like the changes worked. Except for one minor detail: although the dates on screen show us that time has jumped forward seven years, twice, with the section in the middle featuring  an obese Helen – Goldie Hawn sporting an unconvincing fat suit – hatching her plan to murder Madeline, when the two women meet again they say they haven’t seen one another for 12 years. Originally, it would’ve been 12 years, but in the version of the film that was released, 7 + 7 now apparently makes 12. Oops.

The chosen dates do seem to be deliberate, though, since Helen takes the potion on October 26 1985, a date that just might be familiar to Back To The Future fans. The whole film is actually littered with references: there’s more than one reference to Frankenstein, for example, and the party scene at Lisle’s house is packed with visual gags. Again, that’s something I definitely didn’t notice or understand as a kid; I might’ve managed to recognise the Elvis and Marilyn Monroe characters, but definitely not James Dean, Jim Morrison, or Greta Garbo. (I’d love to explain what the floating nuns mean, but I’ve got no idea – anyone?)

So-called family films nowadays do tend to shove in a few jokes to keep parents entertained, but this feels almost the other way around. It’s an adult movie that’s had its edges softened so kids can watch it, even if almost everything about it will go over their heads. I was expecting to get a nostalgia kick out of rewatching it now, but really, it was like seeing it for the first time – or, like I’d finally learned enough of a foreign language to finally understand something I’d seen but not grasped previously. If you’ve not revisited this film recently, I wholeheartedly recommend it.

One last bit of frankly amazing trivia to wrap up: before the film’s title was decided, Bruce Willis suggested two ideas: “It’s Death, Baby” or “My Man Death.” As a kid, I never really understood the title, because “becomes” in the sense of “suits” or “looks good” has kind of fallen out of use, but even so… My Man Death? I think it might have been a bit harder to love that movie.

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