Directed By: Robert Zemeckis
Starring: Meryl Streep, Bruce Willis, Goldie Hawn
Tag line: "Some people will go to any lengths to stay young forever"
Trivia: When several test screenings resulted in negative feedback, this film underwent some major re-editing
An effects-laden treat, Robert Zemeckis’ 1992 film Death Becomes Her shines a darkly comedic light on jealousy and vanity by introducing us to a couple of women who’ve spent their entire lives trying to out-do one another, a rivalry destined to continue even after both of them are dead.
Actress Madeline Ashton (Meryl Streep) and her good “friend”, writer Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn), have, for years, been bitter rivals. The competition between the two reaches its zenith when Madeline seduces Helen’s fiancé, Ernest Menville (Bruce Willis). As a result, Ernest breaks up with Helen and announces he’s instead going to marry Madeline. Years later, Helen invites the “happy” couple to a party celebrating the release of her new book, Forever Young. To Madeline’s dismay, Helen is positively stunning, and doesn’t look as if she’s aged a day since they last met (actually, she looks younger). Refusing to be outdone by her foe, Madeline pays a visit to beauty specialist Lisle von Rhoman (Isabella Rossellini), who provides her with a potion that gives the taker both eternal beauty… and eternal life. Sure enough, the potion transforms the aging Madeline into a youthful, attractive woman, but when her rivalry with Helen turns violent, she discovers everlasting life definitely has its disadvantages.
Streep and Hawn are simultaneously sexy and repulsive as the bitchy combatants, each taking turns winning the audience’s sympathy, only to toss it away the moment their jealousy gets the better of them. When Madeline seduces Ernest, it destroys Helen’s psyche, causing the poor girl to check herself into a mental health facility, where, over the years, she becomes morbidly obese, all the while plotting her revenge. Once she’s back in the picture, the suddenly-gorgeous Helen sets to work trying to woo Ernest (which isn’t difficult, seeing as he and Madeline have grown to despise one another). To bring her scheme full-circle, Helen even suggests that Ernest poison Madeline, thus clearing the way for the two of them to finally be married. Both actresses are convincing in their roles, as is Bruce Willis, whose nebbish Ernest is a far cry from Die Hard’s John McClane.
While the conflict between Madeline and Helen keeps things interesting early on, the film doesn’t really come alive until the final act, at which point the excellent special effects take center stage. Featuring such imagery as a human head, still attached to its body, twisted all the way around, and a shotgun blast that leaves a large, gaping hole in one character’s abdomen (without killing them), Death Becomes Her shows us, in as extreme a manner as possible, the far-reaching effects of competitive jealousy. The fact that it makes us laugh in the process is perhaps its most impressive accomplishment.