Death Becomes Her


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Death Becomes Her
"Both female stars are on fine form here, relishing the chance to let go and unleash the full force of their personalities."

Look at Meryl Streep today, in her prime at 72, and it's hard to believe that she was ever less than glamorous - let alone that, 30 years ago, people thought of her as old. What's her secret? You may well ask. In this underrated but widely loved 1992 film she plays Madeline, an ageing actress desperate to recover her looks. She wants fans to look at her the way they used to, she wants her toy boy to continue to desire her. She's even beginning to care about what her husband, millionaire mortician Ernest (Bruce Willis) thinks. Most of all, however, her panic is driven by the sudden transformation of her longstanding rival Helen (Goldie Hawn) from a depressive frump into a bright eyed, scarlet clad temptress. She just has to have some of what she's having.

What she has had, it emerges, is a special potion available to a select group of clients at tremendous expense from the scantily clad, gratuitously mysterious Lisle Von Rhuman (Isabella Rossellini). It's a treatment which comes with a catch, which viewers may guess from the title. What's more, as seekers after cosmetic solutions have discovered throughout the ages, it doesn't solve every problem. Madeleine may look and feel fantastic again, but she still has to deal with Helen, whose desire to destroy her doesn't end with competition over looks, and who has been busy seducing Ernest.

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Both female stars are on fine form here, relishing the chance to let go and unleash the full force of their personalities. At the time of release, there were precious few roles in which actresses over 40 got to express their sexuality, and even fewer which trusted them to carry scenes on the basis of their charisma. Though they're glammed up to the nines, looks aren't terribly important here as they'd be magnetic regardless, and the viciously barbed dialogue written by Martin Donovan and David Koepp gives them plenty to chew on. Willis, for his part, gets to set aside what was at the time a highly marketable tough guy image to play their hapless foil. Balding, badly dressed and unable to stand up for himself at the best of times, his earnest Ernest is hopelessly lost when he finds himself being fought over by two women neither of whom really gives a damn about him, their focus being wholly on one another.

Working with a limited supply of locations (a large part of the film's budget went on the special effects, which wowed viewers at the time and still stand up well today), Robert Zemeckis conjures up a nightmarish vision of Hollywood which perhaps hit a little too close to home for some. The film was not well loved in its time, joining a list of works like Jackie Brown and Starship Troopers which most critics failed to understand until years later. It's tremendously entertaining though, its stars easily able to keep pace with its big dramatic beats, and Zemeckis directs with the confidence essential to comedy. Death Becomes Her doesn't pull any punches. Hollywood deserved it, and so do you.

Reviewed on: 17 Sep 2021
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Death Becomes Her packshot
The rivalry between two ageing actresses only becomes more bitter when they acquire the gift of eternal youth.

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Writer: Martin Donovan, David Koepp

Starring: Meryl Streep, Bruce Willis, Goldie Hawn, Isabella Rossellini, Ian Ogilvy, Adam Storke

Year: 1992

Runtime: 104 minutes

Country: US


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