Death Becomes Her (1992): Zemeckis’ Black Comedy, Starring Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn–and Nasty Special Effects

In Robert Altman’s The Player, the immoral studio executive wants to eliminate the writer from the creative process. In his new, darker than dark comedy, Death Becomes Her, director Robert Zemeckis has an even nastier proposition. While he can’t get rid of his actors completely, he uses them as props.

Never mind that he has a stellar cast, headed by the talented Meryl Streep and the charming Goldie Hawn. Having made Romancing the Stone, Back to the Future, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Zemeckis, the most commercially successful filmmaker of the past decade, probably feels he can do whatever he wants.

Death Becomes Her follows the logic of an irreverent cartoon, populated by human actors used as animated characters. According to my rough estimate, of its 103 minutes running time, the movie is really funny and entertaining for only half an hour, and passably amusing for another half hour. But you are still left with 40 minutes of special effects that are so excessive they literally stop the movie cold.

As he demonstrated in Roger Rabbit, a bravura piece of filmmaking that integrated live action and animation, Zemeckis is a technical wizard. His visual effects in this movie are always brilliant–you are treated to the sight of Goldie Hawn, first shown as grotesquely obese, then as a woman without a stomach. There are close-ups of Meryl Streep’s breasts getting tighter and moving in and up, and later of the actress without a neck and other parts of her body.

The film begins quite promisingly, setting up a competition between Madeline Ashton (Streep), a vain, aging actress, and Helen Sharp (Hawn), a troubled, mousy editor. Streep steals Hawn’s sweetheart, a plastic surgeon (Bruce Willis), away from her and marries him. But when he outlives his usefulness as a surgeon, their marriage turns sour and loveless. Soon, the two desperate women turn to a priestess of eternal youth (Isabella Rossellini, looking even more exotic than in her ads), who gives them a magical potion.

You don’t have to be a feminist to detect the movie’s misogynist texture. The picture is ruthless in its treatment of Beverly Hills’ matrons, women who would do anything and everything to remain young and beautiful. But Beverly Hills has been such a frequent satirical target by filmmakers, that it has become too easy and too safe–it’s time to choose another setting!

The men in the movie are inexplicably left out, even though many men, especially in Southern California, are also victims of our obsession with youth. Though the movie takes a male point of view toward its heroines, Bruce Willis’ character is not spared eitherhe’s persistently emasculated by Streep and degraded by Hawn, who literally tells him how to kill his wife.

With a subject that is decidedly not of interest for younger moviegoers, Death Becomes Her might unfortunately offend its potential audiences: women concerned with aging and men fearing the domination of women.

The rivalry between the two women, depicted as bitches whose goal in life is as much to look glamorous as to outdo each other, is so obscene it becomes vulgar. The comedy may also be read as an inside joke about the plight of fortysomething actresses (the real age of Streep and Hawn) in Hollywood, and what they are willing–or compelled–to do to maintain viable careers.

Death Becomes Her is without doubt Streep’s movie. For those who still doubt her comic skills, here is additional proof of how versatile she is. Streep is playing here a similar role to the one she embodied in She-Devil. The film’s obsession with good looks and its revenge motif recall She-Devil.

Despite star billing, Hawn has the less flamboyant role, though within its limitations, she gives a respectable performance. Hawn mostly reacts to Streep’s brazen behavior, and reactive roles are usually less engrossing. There’s also good work from Bruce Willis who’s almost unrecognizable.

Watching Death Becomes Her, you feel obliged to applaud the state- of-the-art effects, though the movie itself becomes a victim of its overwhelming visual pyrotechnics.