Death Becomes Her: Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn's schlocky pursuit of eternal youth

Two hyper-competitive frenemies seek the help of the dark arts to stay young in Robert Zemeckis’s 1992 comedy that became a cult classic

What does it mean to age gracefully? In Robert Zemeckis and David Koepp’s supernatural black comedy, Death Becomes Her, the strong suggestion is that staying happy, healthy and wrinkle-free isn’t really about wellness, but more about being well-connected.

The film’s leading ladies Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn were both in their mid-40s when the film premiered in 1992. Although the story celebrates the allure of magic in a world obsessed with science, the issues explored felt real and personal: Streep once famously referred to the film as a documentary on LA’s obsession with hiding natural signs of ageing.

Death Becomes Her is set in 1970s Hollywood – an era in which regular plastic surgery appointments, unfaithful partners, faking your own death for self-preservation, and carrying a can of skin-tint spray paint in your purse were on-trend.

At the heart of this romantic-comedy-gone-sour are two hyper-competitive frenemies, both struggling to confront their own mortality: has-been Broadway star Madeline Ashton (Streep) and deeply insecure writer Helen Sharp (Hawn). Their life’s mission? To one-up each other, professionally and personally. Ashton steals Sharp’s fiance; Sharp emerges years later as a fresh-faced published author. Ashton secretly chases a younger love interest when bored of her new husband; Sharp plots a way to get her ex-fiance to fall back in love with her.

Bruce Willis painting Meryl Streep’s face in a scene from the film Death Becomes Her, 1992.
Dr Ernest Menville (Bruce Willis) paints the face of Madeline Ashton (Meryl Streep) in a scene from Death Becomes Her. Photograph: Archive Photos/Getty Images

A twisted love triangle forms with the fickle plastic surgeon-turned-reconstructive mortician Ernest Menville (Bruce Willis, for whom the role was a sharp detour from the hypermasculinity of the first two Die Hard movies). Once celebrated for doing his finest work on keeping Hollywood’s shiniest stars wrinkle-free, he’s now reduced to the under-appreciated art of helping the deceased look more natural than they did when alive.

One stormy night, Ashton is dumped by her younger, secret boyfriend who’s embarrassed by the age gap. Crushed, she ends up on the doorstep of Lisle Von Rhuman (played by the enchanting Isabella Rossellini), a wealthy socialite dealing in the dark arts.

Von Rhuman, sympathetic to Ashton’s age-related insecurities, has the answer to making all those problems (wrinkles, under-eye bags and sagging skin) disappear: a rare and expensive magic potion that promises at least a decade of perfect, unchanged beauty.

On paper, it’s a dream come true. But this is Beverly Hills, so there’s a catch: beauty is pain, and the curse of siempre viva (that’s Spanish for “always alive”) means your body – for better or worse – remains stubbornly immortal, surviving even the most gruesome accidents.

Isabella Rossellini as the dark-arts dabbling Lisle Von Rhuman in Death Becomes Her.
Isabella Rossellini as the dark-arts-dabbling Lisle Von Rhuman. Photograph: Allstar/Universal

This witchy, absurdist feature film was woefully ahead of its time, predicting the rise of scripted reality television with its no-details-spared scenes and plot twists. Despite being a commercial success (grossing $149m worldwide), the movie was critically panned as pitiful and grotesque. It went on, however, to capture the imagination of a younger generation of drag queens and cult-obsessed cosplayers, as well as develop a growing queer fandom.

In the early 90s, it was unheard of to recreate lifelike human skin and body parts with computer graphics on-screen, like a 180-degree headspin or a gaping gunshot inflicted gut hole. But Death Becomes Her relies on these gloriously gauche special effects as set pieces, for which the film’s visual effects team won an Oscar and a Bafta.

Although the film starts out as a revenge plot, steeped in pettiness and sorcery, what unravels alongside the tranquilliser-spiked wine glasses and outdoor bloodbaths is an oddly endearing story of female friendship – and the importance of choosing to hold each other up (sometimes in the most literal sense) instead of succumbing to rivalry.

• Death Becomes Her is available to stream in Australia on Foxtel Go and Binge. For more recommendations of what to stream in Australia, click here


Nathania Gilson

The GuardianTramp

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