Starring Bruce Willis, Goldie Hawn, Meryl Streep
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Distributed by Scream Factory
Robert Zemeckis is a director who has frequently pushed the boundaries of technology available to cinema, breaking ground and paving the way for future filmmakers to enhance their own projects. For a long while he had a hot streak, beginning with Used Cars (1980) and ending sometime around 2004, when he delivered the dead-eyed The Polar Express. His fascination with the motion-capture used for that particular picture took over his filmography for nearly a decade with viewers complaining the “uncanny valley” computer effects work didn’t quite look right. But I digress. Just one year before Jurassic Park (1993) showed off what CGI was capable of producing, Zemeckis made a picture that took full advantage of the still-nascent computer tech with his supernatural story of jealous rivals, Death Becomes Her (1992). Here, the blending of reality and technology is practically seamless, and though the film is a minor footnote in cinema it does feature some truly cutting edge effects work, in addition to also boasting a strong leading triumvirate in Bruce Willis, Meryl Streep, and Goldie Hawn.
Broadway, 1978. Actress Madeline Ashton (Meryl Streep) performs in a show – Songbird! – that bombs big time. Backstage after the curtain drops, Madeline is met by long-time rival Helen (Goldie Hawn), a writer who is engaged to marry a plastic surgeon, Ernest (Bruce Willis). Because Madeline can’t stand the thought of Helen gaining happiness, she quite easily lures Ernest away from his fiancée. Cut to seven years later and Helen is a wreck, living in a mental hospital and weighing well over a couple hundred pounds. She is entirely fixated on getting her revenge on Madeline. Cut to another seven years later and we learn life isn’t so rosy for Ernest and Madeline, with the two practically living separate lives under the same roof. Madeline is a has-been actress, while Ernest has lost his career in surgery, reduced to doing reconstructive work on corpses at a mortuary. One night, Madeline gets an invitation to a book release party for Helen’s new novel and, eager to show up her old nemesis, decides to attend with Ernest in tow.
Both she and Ernest get a major shock when they see Helen, who looks like she’s back in her mid-20s, looking all svelte and sexy. This greatly upsets Madeline. She goes to the home of a woman her skin care specialist recommended, a mysterious lady named Lisle (Isabella Rossellini) who is a supposed expert in youth rejuvenation. There, Madeline is given a potion said to stave off aging, but she must agree to stay out of the public eye after ten years so as not to draw suspicions. Madeline agrees and drinks up, quickly turning into her younger self. Her change comes a little late, however, as Helen has successfully seduced Ernest, convincing him to kill Madeline. He does – inadvertently, with a push down the stairs – but he gets a huge shock when Madeline, bones broken and neck twisted around Exorcist style, gets up and starts to stumble about. Turns out, not only does the potion reverse aging but it essentially makes the consumer immortal… though any damage done to the body remains.
After Madeline learns to accept the fact she’s technically dead, Ernest brings her home to work things out. Helen arrives, too, leading to a big back-and-forth between the three of them. Once Madeline discovers the plan the other two hatched to kill her, she does the sensible thing and shoots Helen point blank with a shotgun. Unfortunately, the blast only leaves a gaping hole in Helen’s abdomen that has no other effect on her. Ernest is rightly scared off by the two warring women, but they realize if their bodies are going to have to survive decades of abuse they’ll need someone to keep them “fresh” and in working order. Oh, Ernest, dear…
Zemeckis knows how to do black comedy for mass audiences, delicately balancing disturbing humor with guffaw moments. The smart script allows him to play with many ripe elements – vanity, Hollywood, female rivalry, absurd anti-aging techniques, jealousy, murder. These two women appear to have everything a person could want yet it is their rivalry that continually draws out the worst in each other. Nothing in life matters except one-upping the other. The lengths to which both of these women go to achieve such petty successes drives the humor, their morbid victories adding an extra layer of ridiculousness to the process. It’s funny to see the panic on their faces not when their rival is “killed” but once it’s revealed they’re both on the same playing field. Madeline and Helen are both shrewd and cunning; although once it becomes clear neither can kill the other a tenuous truce of sorts must be achieved, not that either one is any less catty toward the other.
There is some great chemistry between the three leads. Nothing needs to be said about Streep. If she’s in a film, you can be damn sure she’s nailing her role. And here, playing a once-glamorous Hollywood star? Please. Hawn is equally great, displaying more of an arc than Streep’s character is given, allowing her to act out a range of emotions and appearances. Fat Goldie Hawn is a thing of nightmares. And then there’s Willis. Remember when there was a time that he gave half a shit about being an actor? He’s still in that mode here, and his milquetoast, sheepish character is a nice change from the action heroes he’s known for.
Death Becomes Her is a fun romp for the gallows humor crowd. Zemeckis’ pacing is great, allowing the film to have fun with the many little twists and turns without ever becoming dull or stagnant. The film is never any better than its minor cult status suggests, but even as a somewhat overlooked entry in Zemeckis’ oeuvre the strong special effects work manages to make up for a lack of depth. Good on Scream Factory for rescuing this title from Universal’s dungeon and giving it a new life on Blu-ray.
Framed at a ratio of 1.85:1 with a 1080p image, Death Becomes Her opens with some rough visuals – film grain is chunky, definition is poor and muddy, and colors are blasé. But once the film moves past the opening scenes, the picture does improve a good amount. Colors look stronger, small details become more apparent, black levels stabilize, and film grain looks much smoother. Dean Cundey was the director of photography here, so fans of his work should have a rough idea of how this picture looks. Universal is notorious for providing wildly inconsistent transfers to their catalog, and most are in dire need of greater remastering. This is not terrible by any standards, though the picture does look more dated than it should.
As per usual, Scream Factory has provided an English DTS-HD MA track with 5.1 surround sound or 2.0 stereo options. Dialogue sounds excellent, with no level issues. Sound effects are nicely separated and have some real “weight” to them, allowing the multi-channel option to provide a decent sense of immersion. Rears don’t come into play very often, only adding minor bits of ambiance sporadically. Subtitles are available in English.
“The Making of Death Becomes Her” – Zemeckis, along with a handful of crew members from the film, sits down for a new interview that covers the original script ideas, quality of the cast & crew, production, and more.
“Vintage Behind the Scenes Featurette” – This is your standard mid-90s EPK, filled with the requisite talking heads discussing their roles.
A photo gallery and the film’s theatrical trailer finish out the extra features.
- NEW The Making of Death Becomes Her featuring interviews with director Robert Zemeckis, producer Steve Starkey, writer David Koepp, director of photography Dean Cundey, production designer Rick Carter and special effects artists Lance Anderson and David Anderson
- Vintage “Behind-the-Scenes” featurette
- Photo Gallery
- Original Theatrical Trailer