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Remembering the Unabashed Zaniness of Death Becomes Her

Robert Zemeckis' Hollywood satire succeeds by never doing anything with subtlety.

By Matthew Jackson
Death Becomes Her (1992)

There's nothing wrong with realism in movies, of course, but sometimes we as an audience spend far too much time breathlessly devoted to the moving target of "believability." While I certainly enjoy documentaries and docudramas and found footage horror films devoted to a sense of realism above all else, I also really like it when I know I'm watching a movie. I like big sweeping camera movements and elaborate costumes and sets that look like something out of a comic book, and I like when everyone involved in making a film with that sense of style seems to be in on the artifice.

This works particularly well with a film like Death Becomes Her, Robert Zemeckis' 1992 black comedy (available now from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment), because "artifice" is one of the most prominent themes in the story. Starring Goldie Hawn and Meryl Streep as two frenemies who'll do anything to look young forever, and Bruce Willis as the plastic surgeon caught between them both, it's a film packed with satire that's always venomous but never subtle, visual effects that dazzled audiences in 1992, and a cast who knows exactly what their assignment is for this particular project. The result is a film that's a dose of pure gallows humor fun, with a little bit of old Hollywood charm thrown in. 

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That old Hollywood charm comes almost immediately, when it's clear that Zemeckis is going to focus on glamour in both his costumes and sets to sell the spectacle of the whole film. Death Becomes Her opens with a musical number as Streep's Madeline tries to prove she's still got it as an actress, then transitions after a couple of time jumps to a world of mansions and elegant parties, as Madeline, Ernest (Willis), and Helen (Hawn) begin a delicate and ultimately gruesome dance involving a love triangle, a magic potion, and the quest for eternal youth. Things get particularly extravagant when the potion itself is introduced along with its maker, the mysterious Lisle (Isabella Rossellini), a woman who seems allergic to wearing actual clothes who lives in a vast, towered palace of a house complete with hunky manservants. Together, these scenarios and the lavish sets that surround them conjure a fascinating blend of Gothic and melodramatic, placing us in a heightened reality that's ripe for the film's particular plot. 

When that plot –– the potion of eternal youth and the rather spooky side effects it has –– finally kicks in, we're not only primed for the kind of over-the-top fun Zemeckis and company are about to have, but we're pulled in by the film's blending of old and new. The production design, costume design, and even the score are also rooted in a certain sense of Hollywood classicism, like this film could have been made in the 1940s with a different cast and the same luxurious homes. Then Zemeckis –– ever the tinkerer when it comes to advances in visual effects –– starts to play with new advances in computer generated visuals, turning Streep's head in several unnatural ways and giving Hawn a shotgun blast through the stomach with impish, cartoonish glee. These effects might not seem particularly impressive by 2022 standards, but they wowed audiences and won the film an Oscar in 1992, and even now there's an inventive charm to the ways in which Zemeckis deploys these new advances. 

It's all in service, of course, to a rather on-the-nose satire about the lengths to which some people will go to achieve some sense of eternal youth and beauty. While that satire might feel a little too unsubtle at times, it's the dark humor of Death Becomes Her that continues to shine through three decades later. The satire might get you, or it might not, but it's hard not to get swept up in the sense of fun that permeates this film. It's two hours of movie stars, big production values, and one of our most beloved genre directors just letting loose and playing in their chosen space, and that's easy to enjoy. 

Death Becomes Her is currently available from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment.

Originally published Mar 21, 2023.