Death Becomes Her

A look back at this underrated black comedy
April 17, 2008

For my tenth article I've decided to do something a little different, and write about the 1992 contemporary classic comedy, Death Becomes Her. I first saw it when it premiered on Showtime, and since then I've loved it and seen it far too many times to count. I was shocked to see that RetroJunk's movie page for it contained nothing more than a plot summary, so I'm gonna rectify that now. Directed by Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump) and written by David Koepp (Spider-Man, Panic Room) and Martin Donavan, the movie basically asks the question, what if you could stay young forever and never die no matter what? What follows is a non-stop twisted and hilarious journey, full of memorable quotes and spectacular special effects that won the filmmakers an academy award in 1993. The film also features cameos from Sydney Pollack (Eyes Wide Shut), Mary Ellen Trainor (Lethal Weapon 1-4) and Debra Jo Rupp (That 70s Show).

Our story begins in New York City in 1978. Broadway actress and aging obsessee Madeline Ashton (Merryl Streep) is the star of a musical production of "Sweet Bird of Youth" entitled "Songbird!" which is getting a less than desired response from audiences. In fact, a rather loathesome response from everyone, except from smitten plastic surgeon Dr. Ernest Menville (Bruce Willis), who is engaged to Madeline's friend Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn). Helen decides to test Ernest's faithfulness to her by bringing him backstage to meet Madeline, who winds up stealing him away from Helen through marriage.

We cut foward seven years later, Helen is now an obese broken down shell of a woman, living alone in an apartment full of cats, and eating frosting straight from the can. After being evicted, Helen is then taken away to a psychiatic hospital where she gets an epiphany that Madeline Ashton must be eliminated.

We then cut forward another 7 years later in Bevery Hills to find Madeline more obsessed with her aging appearance than ever, and Ernest no longer a plastic surgeon but now a depressed alcoholic undertaker. The couple receives an invitation for a book party hosted by Helen, and Madeline desperately tries to get herself made up to look younger by visiting her cosmetic surgeon, only to instead receive a business card to visit a reclusive woman named Lisle von Rhoman (Isabella Rossellini).

After discovering Helen is now thin and more youthful than ever at the party and Madeline's love affair is himself cheating on her with a younger woman, she decides to visit Lisle, who lives in a secluded castle.

Lisle reveals that despite her youthful appearance she's actually 71 years old and the secret to it lies in a special potion, one that stops the aging process dead in its tracks and forces it into retreat. Meanwhile Helen reveals her plans to Ernest for them to get back together, through killing Madeline but making it look like an accident. As they plot, Madeline decides to take the potion, and afterwords Lisle warns her to take care of herself from that point onward.

A fully energized and now youthful-looking Madeline returns home, after which she and Ernest get into a fight, which ends with Ernest losing it and pushing her down the stairs which twists her head around 180 degrees. She then comes back to life much to the shock of Ernest, and after finding out about Helen's plot, shoots a hole right through her stomach, which Helen too miraculously survives.

The truth comes out of both of them taking Lisle's potion (Helen reveals the date to be October 26, 1985 which just so happens to be the present day in Back to the Future) and after hand to hand combat with shovels they decide to put their differences aside. Only problem is now they need Ernest to help them maintain a livelier appearance through his special undertaking techniques, and now he's decided to leave them both.

Madeline and Helen begin to worry, even if they convince him to come back every now and then for touch-ups there's no chance of him living forever like them, so they conclude the best solution to the problem is to render him unconcious and bring him to Lisle's, and maybe she can convince him to take the potion.

So does Ernest take the potion? Well, if you haven't seen the movie yet then I'm not gonna spoil it further for you but be sure you take the time to check it out eventually. So, to wind things down I've got a few extra pieces of trivia related to the movie:

Nearly 40 different mirrors can be found in the background during the duration of the movie, perhaps providing symbolism to the film's central message of obsession over appearance.

During the scene where Madeline and Helen duel, Merryl accidently scarred Goldie on the cheek with the shovel.

Isabella Rossellini's nude scene was in fact not her body, but instead a body double provided by Catherine Bell (JAG, Bruce Almighty). Sorry I can't provide uncensored pics for you guys but I'm trying to keep the article as PG-rated as possible.

A number of scenes were deleted from the movie, including the complete removal of a character played by Tracy Ullman.

So in closing, if you haven't seen the movie yet, I cannot stress enough how much I recommend it. If you love dark, twisted, black humor and amazing special effects and makeup, you'll love Death Becomes Her.
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