“Meryl, you are a special effect,” Goldie Hawn said at Meryl’s 2004 AFI Lifetime Achievement ceremony, and while the line got a laugh, some might argue that what Hawn said is true. Meryl has appeared in, on average, one film per year, and decade after decade she continues to impress us with her incredible transformations. Best of all, she continues to surprise us, not just in her choice of roles, but in her choice of genres. In the late 1980s and early 1990s she moved away from dramas to have a bit more fun, in four comedies ranging in scope and broadness. Her fourth and final comedy for a long while—she wouldn’t return to anything close to the genre until 2002’s Adaptation—is also the only film Meryl has made in her entire career that relies heavily on special effects. The splendidly entertaining and endlessly imaginative Death Becomes Her, directed by Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump), may not be one of Meryl’s most important films, but it’s easily one of my five favorites she has ever appeared in.
More than any movie I’m discussing in this series, Death Becomes Her is the one I have a long history with, and such great affection for. It is the first film starring Meryl I ever saw in a theater. It was at the United Artists Sunrise Mall in Roseville, California, in the summer of 1992. Why my mom thought I, at seven years old, would enjoy a black comedy about youth, beauty, and death, I’ll never know, but I have a clear memory of sitting in the theater enraptured in the film from beginning to end. I spent many hours the rest of that year writing my own version of the story down on paper, as well as a sequel starring myself and two of my best friends called Death Becomes Him. When the movie was released on VHS, my mom bought me a copy for Christmas, and for the next year, I played it over and over and over again. I remember as late as high school bringing friends over to screen the film—”You haven’t seen Death Becomes Her? Then your life is not complete. Sit down!” was basically my pitch—but when I screened it again for this series, it had been a few years, at least ten or more.
So being such a fan more than twenty years ago, how does Death Becomes Her hold up after all this time? It is definitely an uneven film, and, I’m sad to say, some of the special effects, so revolutionary at the time—they won an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects that year—look a bit phony. The scene of Madeline talking to Ernest after her fall down the stairs looks particularly dated. What hasn’t aged, and what still puts a smile on my face, is the sharp script by Martin Donovan and David Koepp, and the memorable comic performances by Goldie Hawn, Bruce Willis, and, of course, Meryl. Considering that Meryl had never worked closely with visual effects before, her turn here is particularly inspired, with her comfortable in the skin of one of her most self-obsessed and nasty characters this side of Miranda Priestley, and with her game for everything the special effects wizards throw at her.
The story begins in 1978, where Ernest Menville (Willis) and Helen Sharp (Hawn), a loving couple, go to see the latest Broadway production starring the critically panned Madeline Ashton (Meryl). Most of the audience walks out, but Ernest sure likes the show, and is delighted to meet Madeline backstage. Soon enough, Ernest and Madeline are married, and the scorned Helen spends the next seven years fattening herself up and hating on Madeline. Another seven years pass, and Madeline is losing everything—her looks, her career, the love of her husband. So she turns to Lisle Von Rhuman (a stunning Isabella Rossellini), an eccentric but gorgeous woman living in a Vincent Price-esque castle who bestows onto Madeline a potion that promises immortality and eternal beauty. Madeline is delighted by her newfound youthful appearance; however, when Ernest pushes her down the stairs, causing her to break her neck, havoc ensues. She and Helen, who we also come to learn has been basking in the glory of the potion for many years, can’t die, so it’s up to Ernest to ensure that these two diva broads will stay beautiful forever—unless, that is, he wants to find a way out.
It’s interesting to note that Meryl preceded this film with Albert Brooks’ Defending Your Life because it is another comedy, albeit more subtle, about death, and the ramifications of both good and bad decisions one makes in his life. Of course, that’s where the comparisons end; if one would describe Defending Your Life as a studious high school freshman, Death Becomes Her is like its nasty, constantly drunk, college-bound older brother. Death Becomes Her didn’t do well at the time because black comedy has always been a hard sell when it comes to theatrical motion pictures, but anyone involved with the film had to have known that it wouldn’t appeal to everyone. None of the three main characters is likable. The movie touches on themes of fleeting beauty, wrecked marriages, animosity toward old friends, fat people as lazy and disgusting. The list goes on and on. This is not a movie your conservative grandmother will appreciate, but if you’re in the right state of mind, it is one of Meryl’s all-time most entertaining films.
When Meryl read the script, she originally thought director Zemeckis wanted her to play Helen, the intellectual writer, and was shocked when she discovered he wanted her for Madeline—of course, in watching the movie today, it’s near impossible to imagine the two actresses’ roles flipped. Hawn’s choice of material over the years was sometimes questionable—I can’t imagine too many are revisiting films like Bird on a Wire, Deceived, and Town & Country these days—but Death Becomes Her offered her one of her most unique and inventive characters to play. The two transformations she has at the beginning of the movie are incredible by themselves, but when Helen finally goes mano-e-mano with Madeline’s character at the mansion, Hawn truly revels in the outlandish qualities of her character. Willis was an unlikely choice at the time for Ernest, considering he was a huge box-office action star in the Die Hard movies, and of the three leads, he might be the one who disappears the most into his character, playing a depressed alcoholic dweeb who looks so unlike the handsome Willis that it takes the viewer a few minutes to recognize that it’s even him.
Meryl, however, looks to be having the most fun of all. She is the main character in the movie, a woman who obsesses over her image so much that she is incapable of feeling anything resembling love for her husband, and anything but animosity toward younger, more beautiful women than she. Of course Meryl was, and still is, a stunningly gorgeous person, so the make-up artists had their work cut out for them when they needed to make her appear less than flattering in the two scenes that lead up to Madeline’s taking of the potion. Meryl is more known for her dramatic work than her comedic work, but her performance in Death Becomes Her has to be considered one of her most hysterically funny of her career, and absolutely worthy of her Golden Globe nomination she received in early 1993. The role allows her to play all sorts of different colors. She gets to sing and dance in the film’s stupendous all-in-one-take opener. She gets one zinger after another throughout the movie, with more than a few particularly memorable—just the way she says the line, “NOW a warning?” is a classic. And she also had the opportunity, for the first time, to work with special effects. While Meryl has commented in a later interview that she didn’t particularly enjoy working with all the innovative and time-staking effects in Death Becomes Her, it is a treat for the viewer to see Meryl, so known for her dramas, express great delight in surrounding herself with the most inventive special effects of the time.
There’s not much left to say about Death Becomes Her, except, where’s the special edition Blu Ray? Zemeckis, whose celebrated films like Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Forrest Gump have all received special edition releases with generous supplements, has not yet contributed toward such a release for Death Becomes Her. And it’s not to say there are no supplements in existence. There are surely many neat behind-the-scenes featurettes that could be made about the visual effects process, and even more enticing, in what is one of the holy grails of lost footage from a modern classic, the original ending was excised and a whole subplot involving Meryl’s Plenty and Into the Woods co-star Tracey Ullman was completely removed (you can see hints of her character in the film’s theatrical trailer). As of this writing, there is no special edition, no Blu Ray release, and only an old DVD release from January 1998 that offers merely a full frame presentation. Here’s hoping Universal will eventually give fans of Death Becomes Her the release the film deserves.
Death Becomes Her marked the end of Meryl’s momentary hibernation into the world of comedies. She returned the following year with the critically panned drama The House of the Spirits, and spent the rest of the 1990s appearing in more serious work, most of them acclaimed and well-respected. While it is easy to admire Meryl’s work in a movie like The Bridges of Madison County or One True Thing, it’s comedy that most actors say is the hardest of all, and what Meryl does in Death Becomes Her has to be considered one of her most challenging and groundbreaking performances of her entire career. She manages to make us sympathize with a mostly unsympathetic character, and gets us to laugh time after time, even though the material itself is extremely dark and frequently demented. Death Becomes Her is one of my all-time favorite guilty pleasures, a movie I can return to again and again. I’m already looking forward to the next time I give the disc a spin in my player, if only to hear Meryl one more time say the immortal line, “Ernest… my ass… I can see… my ass!”