Death Becomes Her

PLOT (spoiler alert!!!):

In 1978, the narcissistic, manipulative actress Madeline Ashton (Meryl Streep) performs in “Songbird”—an ill-conceived musical version of Sweet Bird of Youth by Tennessee Williams—on Broadway. Following her performance, Madeline invites her long-time rival Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn), an aspiring writer, backstage, along with her fiancé, plastic surgeon Dr. Ernest Menville (Bruce Willis). Ernest is visibly smitten with Madeline, which worries Helen, who has lost other men to Madeline in the past. Although Ernest reassures Helen there is nothing going on between him and Madeline, he soon breaks off his engagement with Helen and weds Madeline. Seven years later, Helen has been committed to a psychiatric hospital after becoming fixated upon Madeline. Obese and depressed, Helen is encouraged to “erase [Madeline] from [her] mind” in order to move on. Helen feigns rehabilitation and is released, all the while plotting revenge on Madeline.

After an additional seven years, Madeline continues to live well financially in Beverly Hills with Ernest, but the two are miserable in their marriage. Madeline’s career is all but over, and Ernest is an alcoholic reduced to working only as a reconstructive mortician. Following the receipt of an invitation to a party later that evening celebrating Helen’s new book, Madeline rushes to a spa where she regularly receives extensive facial treatments. Understanding the urgency of Madeline’s situation, the spa owner gives her the business card of Lisle von Rhoman, a woman who specializes in beauty and youth rejuvenation. Madeline dismisses the spa owner’s advice and returns home to prepare for the party.

Madeline and Ernest attend the book-signing party for Helen’s novel Forever Young and discover that Helen is now thin and youthful looking. Dumbfounded and depressed by Helen’s new appearance, Madeline goes to see her young lover but discovers he is spending the evening with a woman his own age. Dejected, Madeline re-discovers Lisle’s business card and drives to her home. There, Lisle (Isabella Rossellini) is revealed as a mysterious, wealthy socialite who appears to be in her thirties. However, Lisle discloses her true age as 71, and reveals to Madeline the secret of her beauty: a potion that promises eternal life and an ever-lasting youthful appearance. Madeline purchases and drinks the potion and is returned to her youthful form. However, as a condition of purchase, Madeline must disappear from public life after ten years in order to keep the existence of the potion a secret. Lisle also warns Madeline to take good care of her body.

Meanwhile, Helen has seduced Ernest and convinced him to kill Madeline, intending to drug her and fake a drunk-driving accident, which will then free Ernest from Madeline and allow him to wed Helen. However, when Madeline returns home (now appearing young and beautiful), she and Ernest have an argument, during which Madeline falls down the stairs and breaks her neck. Believing Madeline to be dead, Ernest phones Helen for advice, not noticing as Madeline slowly stands and approaches him with her head now twisted backwards. Horrified, Ernest assumes that she has a seriously dislocated neck and drives her to the emergency room. After losing consciousness in the emergency room, Madeline is taken to the morgue due to her body having no pulse and a temperature below 80°F. After rescuing Madeline, Ernest takes the sign of her “resurrection” as a miracle, returns home with Madeline and uses all his skills to repair the damage to her body.

Helen later arrives at her mansion, demanding information about Madeline’s situation. Overhearing Helen and Ernest re-discussing their earlier plot to stage Madeline’s death as an accident, Madeline confronts Helen and then shoots her with a double-barreled shotgun. However, although the blast causes a gaping basketball-sized hole in her stomach, Helen does not die. She and Madeline both realize they drank the same potion. Finally fed up with the pair’s rivalry, Ernest prepares to leave for good but Helen and Madeline convince him to do one last repair on their bodies. The pair quickly realize that their bodies will need constant repair and scheme to have Ernest also drink the potion in order to ensure he will always be available.

After bringing Ernest to Lisle, she makes an impassioned argument for immortality and offers to give him the potion free of charge. Ernest refuses, stating he’d rather live his own life and die rather than spend an eternity with only Madeline and Helen for company and no way to escape. He pockets the potion and attempts to flee, but during his escape becomes trapped on the roof. After slipping and becoming stuck on a rain gutter, held up only by his suspenders, Helen and Madeline implore Ernest to drink the potion in order to survive the impending fall. Ernest refuses, drops the potion, and seemingly falls to his death. However, Ernest survives the fall, crashing through a glass skylight and landing in Lisle’s pool, and escapes. After Lisle effectively excommunicates Madeline and Helen from her group, the pair realize they must now rely on each other for companionship and maintenance for the remainder of their “lives”.

Thirty-seven years later, Madeline and Helen attend Ernest’s funeral, where he is eulogized as having lived an adventurous and fulfilling life. The two bicker as they leave Ernest’s funeral, upon which it is revealed they are now horrifying parodies of their former selves, with cracked, peeling paint and putty now covering most of their grey and rotting flesh. While walking, Helen accidentally trips on a can of spray paint Madeline had earlier dropped, leaving her precariously teetering at the top of a staircase. After deliberately hesitating to help her companion, Helen grabs Madeline and the two tumble down the stairs, literally breaking to pieces as they crash to the bottom. As their disembodied heads roll and totter together, Helen sardonically asks Madeline, “Do you remember where you parked the car?”


We live in the age of plastic surgery. Take for instance one of the stars of Death Becomes Her, Meryl Streep. This film was released in 1992 and for the most part she hasn’t changed much. Good genes? Perhaps, but I prefer to think its more the work of a good surgeon. The obsession with beauty and staying young is the heart of this film.

What is this about?

Goldie Hawn and Meryl Streep run wild in this black comedy that mixes rapier wit with cutting-edge special effects. Insufferably vain, the two “frenemies” discover the secret of eternal youth — and find that it has a few unadvertised drawbacks.

What did I like?

Relevant. Beauty has always been an obsession in Hollywood, going back before the “Golden Age”. Many films have been made about said obsession, some memorable and some not-so-much. This is one of those films that has managed to stay relevant over the years, thanks to the constant focus on beauty and youth in Hollywood. Obviously, this is a little different, what with the magic, immortality potion, but that is what makes this film special.

Special effects. The special effects are a little bit dated, let’s not kid ourselves, and yet that is part of the charm of the film. We know this was released in the early 90s and the technology just wasn’t where it is today, but that still doesn’t make it any less fun to watch Meryl Streep twist and turn her body, not to mention have many altercations with her “frenemy”, played by Goldie Hawn.

Isabella. Stepping out of character from what I’ve seen of her in the past, Isabella Rossellini takes a turn as an over-the-top socialite (who may actually be a witch, of sorts). Playing a bit of a vixen, complete with wearing next to nothing, you can’t help but pay attention to her when she is on the screen, and that is not even mentioning her natural beauty. I almost want to say we should have gotten a bit more of her, but that might have diluted the character, so we got just the right amount.

What didn’t I like?

3 way. Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn had great chemistry together. When paired with Bruce Willis’ character they have a dynamic rapport that serves the film well. However, when it comes to all three being together, the part just don’t come together as well as they would like. I can’t tell who, but it seems as if it is Willis who isn’t pulling his weight.

Au natural. There quite a few comedic moments in this film, it is a comedy, after all, but whoever it is that wrote this script either didn’t get the idea that this was supposed to be a dark comedy and just tried too hard with the jokes, many of which don’t fit with the tone of the film and/or fall flat.

Selfish. At the heart of the film’s premise is the selfish and vain nature of these women, but that also serves as the film’s downfall. Because of their selfish nature, the film’s stars become very unlikable, which is never a good thing. Unless your star is a villain, then they should be likable, otherwise you end up alienating the audience. Thankfully, this film had the talents of Goldie Hawn and Meryl Streep to keep it afloat, but heaven forbid lesser actresses were cast.

I know more than a few people who love Death Becomes Her, for various reasons. I can’t say that I love it, but I did really like it. With elements of fantasy sprinkled in with murder and comedy, this makes for quite the interesting picture. Do I recommend it? Yes, it is definitely worth a viewing or two. Plus it has arguably the best actress of our generation, Meryl Streep. So, how can you go wrong? Give it a shot!

4 out of 5 stars


One Response to “Death Becomes Her”

  1. […] is amazing how much that term has changed over the years, as films like this and to a lesser extent Death Becomes Her, were actually funny. On the other side of things, today’s dark comedies such as Ghost World […]

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