I have always wondered about Robert Zemeckis’ Death Becomes Her (1992); the ground-breaking/effects-laden Grand Guignol; ostensibly, another minor masterpiece from Zemeckis - this one about sex, betrayal, lust, jealousy, death, immortality and murder…well, sort of, though decidedly not in that order - since the movie I saw in 1992 bore no earthly resemblance to the one being peddled in the trailer used to promote it. Granted, trailers are made months in advance of any theatrical release and often contain outtakes never used in the final cut. But Death’s trailer incorporates snippets of whole subplots and glib social commentaries about fading youth and stardom, never again to materialize on the movie screen. For decades thereafter, the lore surrounding the prevue cut of Death Becomes Her grew to near mythic proportions; some attesting to the greatness of an unseen ‘classic’ screened before these revisions were made; others, hinting to be in possession of these missing pieces that even Universal Studios was unable to locate in their vaults. After a 2008 fire decimated a sizable portion of the studio’s back lot the rumor surfaced all of this excised footage had been among its casualties. In hindsight - always 20/20 - the reality seems less opaque; Death Becomes Her was ill-received during its sneak peaks. Heavily edited by Zemeckis, it was to evolve into a more tightly paced, often witty, if jovially macabre variation on the old ‘fountain of youth’ tall tale; updated and relocated to – where else? – Hollywood, where such cravenly mad obsessions to stay eternally firm and fabulous seem more a syndrome than symptomatic of our natural fear of death, thus creating a Mecca (some would say, a mockery) from the cottage industry of plastic surgery.
Two major plot devises were ultimately lost in Zemekis’ revamp: first, the original ending, but even more egregiously, Tracy Ullman’s entire performance as the empathetic bartender who befriends and eventually marries a befuddled and frantic Dr. Ernest Menville (the character played by Bruce Willis). She believes his story – that the socially affluent are populated by a cloistered sect of perennially ageless pseudo-zombies, given eternal life by a slinky - if slightly demonic sorceress, Lisle Von Rhuman (Isabella Rossellini). Zemeckis’ original intent was to create a parable exposing the destructiveness of our youth-absorbed culture. According this premise, Ernest’s first wife, screen queen, Madeline Ashton (Meryl Streep) and her fair-weather friend, Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn) were to be inadvertently reunited with Ernest and Ullman’s second Mrs. Menville in Switzerland near the end of our story; these two bitches left to contemplate eternal happiness in stark contrast to the happily aging marrieds while they, although as luminous as ever on the outside, had allowed personal jealousy and bitterness to add a layer of moral/intellectual decay to their character from the inside.
Evidently, prevue audiences did not appreciate this highbrow subtlety; Zemeckis also believing he had somehow sidestepped the insidiously wormy venom permeating the first two-thirds of this never-to-die rivalry between girlfriends. Thus, a new vision emerged; darker, more aberrant and apocalyptic, and, with more sequences scattered throughout the movie falling prey to the cutting room floor, including an elaborate prelude to the mummification yet to follow. Here, Ernest – driven half-crazy in his Dr. Frankenstein-ish pursuit to mask Madeline’s ravages of bodily decay, and having transgressed from one-time gifted plastic surgeon into the perverse custodial care of his decomposing wife and her ongoing ‘repairs’ – keeps Madeline in the kitchen freezer to delay her inevitable rot; occasionally taking her out of this deep freeze to test new theories; desperate to keep her externally sound for decades, possibly even centuries. Hmmm….perhaps, eternal life is a death sentence after all. Arguably, Zemeckis embraced these changes, though in the final analysis they altered both the premise and tone of his film. Aside: I had sincerely forgotten how ominously grotesque this comedy is; the Oscar-winning visual effects pioneered by Ken Ralston, Doug Chiang, Douglas Smythe and Tom Woodruff Jr., truly at the forefront of the CGI revolution that has since taken over and all but obscured Hollywood’s present storytelling age.
Whatever the reasons for Zemeckis’ alterations, the results arguably proved worth the effort. Despite overwhelming negativity from all but a handful of critics, Death Becomes Her opened at #1 with a respectable gross of $12,110,355.00. It would go on to earn an even more impressive $149 million; along the way, rewriting the technical know-how in then state-of-the-art visual effects. As with other films made by Zemeckis, the focus herein is not on the barrage of mind-bending/body-contorting SFX, but rather an intricately plotted story, co-written by Martin Donovan and David Koepp; high-powered by obviously relished performances from Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn. Interestingly, Streep would famously decry making the movie as a ‘tedious exercise’, hampered in her acting prowess by being forced to emote in front of a green screen rather than intimately relate to a real life costar in many of her key scenes. Death Becomes Her was a transitional piece for Streep – revered as a ‘serious’ actress. However, at the age of 42, she had fast become the victim of Hollywood’s insipid and unoriginal ambition to prematurely brand every actress over forty as ‘over the hill’ has-been. Film critic Gene Siskel infamously suggested, Streep’s endeavors to “lighten her (screen) image” had severely “clouded her ability” to choose good scripts. I disagree. While no one could confuse Death Becomes Her as another Out of Africa (1985), despite the fleeting appearance of that latter movie’s director (the late Sidney Pollack) in a cameo as a very nervous doctor who suffers his own fatal heart attack after examining the ill-fated (and already quite dead) Madeline, Streep’s performance in Death Becomes Her is a superb departure from the sort of forthright, if suffering, grand dames she had played, imbued with the same caliber of dedication to the part, ingeniously tweaked to accommodate the precepts of screwball comedy.
And let us never mistake that at its core, Death Becomes Her is a comedy; a ghoulish and repulsive one at that, but playing into the time-honored traditions of adult silliness found in such iconic masterpieces as Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940). The screenplay, while hardly perfect, is far more imaginatively structured than its initially vapid fashion-conscious parody about imploding Hollywood-types, nursing very fragile egos, would suggest; pumped full of a rare vintage of richly rewarding/darkly conceived philosophies about life, the ethereal, and, the hereafter. Yes, we get the point about these two insidiously competitive gal pals, too far gone down the proverbial rabbit hole of cosmetic frontiers in collagen shots and chemical peels. Madeline and Helen would rather be reincarnated as that ancient flower of false youth – even after death – than sincerely face the reality they were born mortal. How cruel is Mother Nature with her promise of youth stolen away by the natural law, replaced with decades of slow, steady and very sad decline? The film asks us to reconsider both sides to its Rip Van Winkle-esque fantasy; pro and con and not only from the perspective of our feuding female protagonists, already irreversibly afflicted by the gift…or is it curse...of spending eternity in a limbo consciousness as two rapidly putrefying corpses. Conversely, having chosen the uninterrupted path of life, Ernest Menville will learn how to maximize the potential of whatever years he has been afforded – making the most of life while it lasts, unlike his ex and her best friend, who never even first consider the true meaning of Lisle’s declaration, ‘sempre viva’ before swallowing this ‘touch of magic in a world obsessed with science’ that will ultimately make them both miserable for all time without end.
Death Becomes Her opens on a rainy eve in 1978; Madeline Ashton, a one-time shimmering movie star, already considered something of a has-been by her dwindling fan base, is staging her big comeback on Broadway in ‘Songbird’; a musicalization of Tennessee Williams’ famed play, Sweet Bird of Youth. Most of the audience finds Madeline’s disco-tech cavorting with a male ensemble utterly distasteful and void of virtually all artistic merit. Not so for Dr. Ernest Menville, seated in the audience next to his plain-Jane fiancée, Helen Sharp. After the performance, Helen reluctantly indulges Ernest’s desire to go backstage and congratulate Madeline. She is an incurable flirt, more so after discovering Ernest is a gifted plastic surgeon; just the sort of guy she could wrap around her little finger to get some free cosmetic work done to shore up the first signs of crow’s feet and a few wrinkles in her forehead. Ernest tries to assure Helen, who is desperately tugging at her handkerchief, that he has absolutely zero interest in Madeline. But a jump cut later and we are at Madeline and Ernest’s wedding, Helen suffering a complete nervous breakdown from this betrayal and abandonment as she clutches her scarf so tightly that her hands begin to bleed. Flash forward seven years: Helen, grown obscenely obese, and, barricaded in her apartment full of cats, is hauled off to an asylum where she drives both her psychiatrist (Alaina Reed-Hall) and the other patients into fits of wild distraction with her chronic need to blame Madeline for her unhappy life. Jolted from her cyclical contemplation by the analyst’s suggestion she needs to eradicate Madeline from her mind Helen instead takes the advice literally. Let the games begin!
Flash ahead again – another seven years. We learn married life has not been kind to Ernest and Madeline, she indulging her sexual desires in a series of meaningless affairs while henpecking her husband’s self-respect into tatters. He begrudgingly tolerates her whoring around. The couple is united in their mutual desire to see what has become of Helen in the interim, having received an invitation to her book launch party. While Ernest is sincerely set to embrace the new Helen, Madeline is insidiously hoping she has aged more obviously. Thus, when both Madeline and Ernest catch a glimpse of a heavy-set creature in a trench coat from the back, each assumes this must be Helen; the woman stepping aside to reveal a svelte and remarkably youthful Helen instead, surrounded by a slew of sycophantic admirers. Time has stood still for Helen – or so it would seem; actually, improved upon her looks and demeanor. She is accomplished and sexy and Ernest quite simply cannot take his eyes off her for a moment.
Naturally, this drives Madeline to wild distraction. Her pursuit of a more rigorous regiment of pills, lotions and injections at her local spa to stave off the specter of Father Time is met with a rather cryptic referral to an imposing Gothic-styled Beverly Hills mansion presided over by the sultry and half-naked vamp, Lisle Von Rhuman. Who is this woman, flanked by a pair of Dobermans and as equally impressive set of muscle-bound male companions (John Enos III and Fabio)? Lisle introduces Madeline to a mysterious pink potion that harbors the secrets of eternal life. At first, Madeline does not believe her hostess. However, after a brief demonstration of its potency, Madeline agrees to pay a shocking one million dollars in return for a small flask of this elixir she drinks before considering a warning: that in achieving eternal youth and vitality Madeline has incurred an everlasting responsibility to be kind to her body; to nurture and look after it; also, to agree to disappear from public view after a period of ten short years – either, by faking her own death or simply moving somewhere remote, to stave off suspicions bound to grow about her perennial youthfulness. Madeline wholeheartedly agrees to these provisos but almost immediately becomes a victim of her own vanity, eager to test her new body on some old lovers sure to find her even more desirable now.
Meanwhile, Helen has arrived at the mansion Ernest and Madeline share, seducing Ernest with visions of murdering his philandering wife so Helen and he can take up right where they left off so many years ago. As Helen has obviously taken better care of herself in these intervening decades, and Ernest is, as a plastic surgeon, superficially drawn to firm bodies, he entertains Helen’s ambitious plot; to taint all the wine glasses with a strong narcotic, knocking Madeline out and carrying her lifeless body to the edge of a steep ravine; staging everything as a drunken incident. Alas, this plan goes awry when Madeline, returning home later that same evening, is confronted by an angry Ernest on the spiral staircase leading upstairs. Ernest tells Madeline he knows all about her various trysts and she berates him yet again about his inadequacies as a lover; a miscalculation that causes Ernest to fly into an unanticipated rage; first attempting to strangle Madeline, then push her down the flight of stairs, presumably to her death; Madeline breaking virtually every bone in her body on her epic descend to the bottom.
Ernest is at first elated by the realization Madeline is no more, telephoning Helen with the good news, only to discover Madeline risen from the dead and angrier than ever at him. She is, however, in need of his help – to reset her twisted limbs. Ernest takes Madeline to the local emergency. There, the attending doctor is both perplexed, and then utterly horrified to learn the extent of Madeline’s injuries seem to indicate she is no longer among the living. Though she is still quite able to talk, her heart has stopped beating and her body is slowly returning to room temperature. Unable to explain this phenomenon, the good doctor suffers a fatal heart attack and dies; Ernest hurrying to rescue his wife from the morgue and stealing away with her remains for further consideration and study. Meanwhile, Helen has followed Ernest and Madeline home. She confronts Ernest with their plan having gone awry and Madeline, now realizing her husband and best friend intended for her to die, instead exacts revenge on Helen by shooting her in the gut with Ernest’s hunting rifle; the blast propelling Helen into the terrace lily pond where she momentarily lays lifeless in a watery pool of blood.
It does not take long for Helen to stir. Madeline realizes what has occurred. Helen drank Lisle’s potion too. Though murdered, she cannot die. Alas, both women begin to realize that although they are unable to expire, they have, in fact, destroyed their bodies beyond any form of natural repair. Ernest attempts to shore up the damage by applying layers of airbrushed flesh tone paint to their graying cadavers, but it is no use. The paint gradually begins to peel, revealing the ravages of their mutually destructive jealousy lurking just beneath. The girls reconcile their differences and agree to bond together. However, when Ernest informs both Madeline and Helen he has kept true to his promise to remain at their sides ‘until death did them part’, the girls plot to kidnap Ernest to Lisle’s and force him to drink the same potion; thus making him their eternal slave. Ernest resists Lisle’s invitation to partake of this secret elixir; escaping her Dobermans and security personnel into a vast ballroom where assorted celebrities, including the likes of James Dean (Eric Clark), Elvis, Andy Warhol (Bob Swain), Jim Morrison (Dave Brock) and Marilyn Monroe (Stephanie Anderson) (apparently, all having escaped their fates by similar circumstances) are indulging in something of a reunion. Unable to make it beyond the bolted front doors, Ernest scales the rooftop instead. This ends badly when he loses his footing, becomes entangled on a dislocating eaves trough, then plummets through the glass ceiling of Lisle’s atrium and into her pool. The splash breaks his fall and spares his life. Ernest escapes into the night.
Flash forward for the last time: 37 years into the future. Ernest Menville is no more. Having eluded Madeline and Helen all these years, he remarried, and lived a fruitful second life that enriched not only his own prospects but also those who knew and loved him best. The eulogy is interrupted by a pair of dissenting cackles from the cheap seats; Madeline and Helen hidden beneath their mourning attire, later revealing the grotesque ravages of their earthly bodily decay; skin creped, rotted and peeling (I can only imagine the stench); the pair still bitter/still fighting over the last can of spackle Helen has misplaced. Tripping on the discarded can on the steps of the chapel, Helen and Madeline take a severe tumble to street level. In their advanced state of decomposition their bodies break apart from the strain; dismembered arms, legs, torsos and heads lying on the pavement with Madeline’s upside down visage idiotically inquiring as to where they have parked the car.
Death Becomes Her is so wickedly appealing as a cautionary ‘be careful what you wish for’ parable that it lingers in the mind long after the houselights have come up. If it were ever to be remade, in all likelihood it would acquire the trappings of a B-budgeted horror flick instead of a perverted screwball comedy. The cache in hiring three major stars and an award-winning director to helm this piece ensured considerably more effort put forth to achieve even more unsettling results. Deliciously, the film stands its ‘fountain of youth’ premise on end; the serum sealing the fate of these two highly unworthy custodians of eternal life. Madeline and Helen have destroyed themselves. Now, they have forever to reconsider the illegitimacy in this exercise. Unabashedly, Zemeckis and his writers present us with even more contemplation along the way; Ernest’s confrontational inquiry to Lisle – “then what?” followed by a laundry list of ‘things to consider’ before swallowing the potion. What if he gets into an accident or is physically damaged in some other irreparable way? How does one live comfortably forevermore without say an eye, or a finger or a foot? And what of the loved ones who have not partaken in this nightmare. To watch the world known best to us all grow old, wither and die while we remain perennially trapped in a time capsule of our own design.
This is not the template for eternal happiness but rather an everlasting purgatory from which no amounts in ageless beauty can offer sufficient compensation. Topically, if not philosophically, Death Becomes Her challenges the audience to briefly reconsider this crisis in living beyond the natural order. As written by Martin Donovan and David Koepp, Death Becomes Her may not be existentially deep. It is however, wildly entertaining with some truly ‘gross out’ moments and cringe-worthy special effects cleverly timed along the way, though always to make a point against the argument that life eternal is preferable to our present state of aging toward the inevitable end game. Moreover, Death Becomes Her just feels like a Robert Zemeckis movie, imbued with the director’s trademarked jauntiness and energy, his verve for acid good humor counterbalanced by these queasy and ghoulish moments. We are, after all, watching two dead bodies fight to preserve at least the appearance of life. The superb audio-animatronic technological wizardry and tech-savvy dawning of computer-generated SFX still hold up remarkably well, perhaps because Zemeckis never allows them to take over and dictate the action of his narrative.
Even the gaping hole in Helen’s abdomen gets a perverse hearty chuckle when, during a subsequent confrontation, Madeline thrusts a shovel handle like a javelin through this gaping hole, missing her mark but achieving an astonished gasp from the audience as a weary Helen sits down with one end of the implement stuck between the pillows of the couch directly behind her, the other protruding like a stiff phallus from her middle. Again, no one could confuse Death Becomes Her with high art. It is palpably pulpy and downright farcical to the point of absurdity. But its principles play its highly implausible narrative with an air of conviction that is pretty hard to top; especially Isabella Rossellini’s frequently nude, though artfully photographed demigod who adds unexpected girth to her declarations “Sempre viva” and “screw the natural order!” with wild-eyed and sadistic abandonment. In the final analysis, Death Becomes Her is a healthily balanced SFX extravaganza with a compelling story to tell; far more than the sum of its monstrous head-twisting, gut-exposing, fantastical age-defying dark ride effects into the great unknown: a satirical comedy elevated by its Hollywood trickery instead of slavishly devoted to it, unabashedly hostile, occasionally sexy, and thoroughly hilarious with oodles of sass to spare.
Were that we could champion Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray release. For almost a decade, Death Becomes Her has been available in Europe in a Region B locked disc from Universal Home Video proper. It appears Shout!’s ‘new’ Blu-ray is sourced from these identical digital files. Last year, I was trumpeting the ‘new’ Universal edict that seemed to suggest their tight-fisted old ways had had their day and the studio had since turned a corner in its preservation philosophy; wholeheartedly invested to release complete restorations in hi-def of some of their deeper catalog titles. Heck, last year’s Spartacus (1960) seemed to hint as much. Alas, my mistake. We have seen too many less than stellar efforts put forth this year from The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Xanadu and other catalog titles, either released via Universal Home Video or via third party distributors like Shout! Worse, at least for Shout!, they seem to have cut out providing a host of extra features to augment their ‘collector’s edition’ series. What we get here is a truncated – if newly produced – ‘making of’ – scant on sound bites from Zemeckis, and others who worked on the film behind the scenes. No discussion about the sneak peek that necessitated cuts and changes; no mention of Tracy Ullman’s deleted scenes, no audio commentary to accompany the movie, and most regrettable of all, no deleted scenes to showcase the missing footage that fans had sincerely hoped would add to their viewing enjoyment. The only other extra included herein is a badly worn vintage ‘making of’ – even shorter on insight, depth and fruitful conversations than the aforementioned featurette.
Death Becomes Her isn’t a washout entirely on Blu-ray. Indeed, there is much to admire; certain scenes illustrating some impressive clarity and considerable amounts of fine detail. Colors are robust. But flesh tones veer to either extreme pink or orange, depending on the scene. There are also more than a handful of scenes that suffer from a residual softness. The main titles are plagued by edge effects, while certain scenes also appear as though some artificial sharpening has been applied to unnaturally enhance their visuals. Film grain is rarely natural or appealing; a few scenes looking very thick and unattractive indeed. The audio is DTS 5.1 and fairly aggressive. It supports the movie’s action without providing any standout moments. Overall, factoring in Shout! does not do its own transfers, Death Becomes Her on Blu-ray looks about as good – or as lackluster – as almost Universal releases put forth during Blu-ray’s infancy. By now, we ought to have expected a lot more from Universal. This is a middling effort – passable, but just that. Pass or stay…you decide.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)