“She’s dead, sir. They took her to the morgue.”
“The morgue? She’ll be furious!”
On July 31, 1992 we come to another one of those odd happenings that caused me to label this as Weird Summer. This is the time when an A-list director became enamored of a cynical black comedy and turned it into a big summer movie starring Meryl Streep, Goldie Hawn and Bruce Willis. Writers Martin Donovan (the Argentinian filmmaker who directed APARTMENT ZERO, not the guy from the Hal Hartley movies) and David Koepp (co-writer of APARTMENT ZERO – this was his movie after TOY SOLDIERS) saw it as a low budget indie, and then it got made with a budget bigger than ALIEN 3, and groundbreaking digital effects by Industrial Light and Magic. The effects ended up winning an Oscar and Koepp’s next gig was writing JURASSIC PARK.
Director Robert Zemeckis had put his name on the blockbuster map with ROMANCING THE STONE in 1984, and then triple circled, highlighted and put stars next to his name when BACK TO THE FUTURE was a surprise smash hit the following year. Since then he’d made my favorite of his movies, WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT (1988), followed by the BACK TO THE FUTURE sequels (1989 and 1990). Those were all rated PG, and most of them were produced by Steven Spielberg, so Zemeckis was generally thought of as that kind of family friendly whiz bang popcorn movie guy. And now here he comes with this mean-spirited PG-13 movie aimed at adults, its wider appeal coming from the genuinely envelope-pushing ways it depicts gruesome bodily mutilations.
It makes perfect sense, though, when you consider that Zemeckis was a member of the Crypt Partners (along with Joel Silver, Richard Donner, Walter Hill and David Giler), who since 1989 had produced Tales From the Crypt for HBO. I have found some unverified claims that he considered branding DEATH BECOMES HER as a Tales From the Crypt movie, and it certainly plays like an EC Comics story with its cartoonishly horrible people who get involved in some supernatural business, behave appallingly, and receive ironic karmic comeuppance for it. They also used Danny Elfman’s Tales From the Crypt theme song to score part of the trailer:
Meryl Streep (SHE-DEVIL) stars as actress Madeline Ashton, who “was a big star in the ‘60s” (including in a Michael Caine thriller called DARK WINDOWS), but is introduced headlining the flop Broadway musical version of Sweet Bird of Youth, called Songbird!. While poorly received stage performances often build sympathy for a character (see: ED WOOD, SPIDER-MAN 3), the numerous awkward walkouts here are already funny before we see how petty and vacuous Madeline is. One way the musical is shown to be crass and out of touch is when it breaks out into quasi-disco instrumentation and an allusion to “Do the Hustle,” a very ‘90s joke that still amuses me.
She’s visited backstage by old so-called friend Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn, THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS) and her fiance, renowned Beverly Hills plastic surgeon Dr. Ernest Menville (Bruce Willis, THE PLAYER). He’s playing such a dorky nerd (and with so much hair) that back in ’92 I didn’t recognize him right away. I still get a kick out of his transparent crush and over-enthusiasm for Madeline’s performance.
One trivial/superficial thing that plays different today: Helen’s dark hair and thick bangs were clearly meant to signify drabness, but by today’s fashion standards I think she looks better with that hair.
I’m sure it mostly comes from the script, but editor Arthur Schmidt (JAWS 2, THE JERICHO MILE, THE ROCKETEER) executes many sardonic cuts, such as the one that leaps from Ernest emphatically telling Helen “I have absolutely no interest in Madeline Ashton” to Ernest and Madeline going down the aisle. When we jump to 7 years later Helen is depressed and overweight. We could do without the fat suit today, but the stereotype of a woman who is not named Selina Kyle but whose home is overrun by cats still works as a signifier of severe depression. Check in with me in a few years to see how I feel about it. She only (arguably) turns her life around when she decides to dedicate it to revenge on Madeline via a 7 year plan to seduce Ernest and convince him to kill Madeline. By that time, though, they’re both miserable and Ernest makes corpses look nice for funerals instead of living people.
The supernatural twist comes from Lisle von Rhuman (Isabella Rossellini, WILD AT HEART), a mysterious rich lady who offers Madeline her eternal youth potion. So when Ernest pushes her down a long flight of stairs and her head is twisted backwards, she survives. Soon it becomes a battle and then partnership between the two women, who cannot die but whose bodies are falling apart, so they depend on Ernest to maintain the youthful (or at least alive) appearance that’s so important to them.
The special effects in this movie were absolutely astounding at the time – things no one had thought to do, because they didn’t think they were possible. Most memorably, live action Meryl Streep’s body walks around with separately shot live action Meryl Streep’s head attached backwards, and Goldie Hawn walks around with a large hole through her belly that we can see all the way through. Though this kind of thing could be animated now and no one would think anything of it, the sequences here hold up. Maybe it’s because they couldn’t do it casually, it required all kinds work, therefore they put much more thought into what to do with it – all the different ways to stage it and show it off and all the gags to do with it.
Also, man, I can’t get over Helen not noticing the hole through her belly and instead complaining that she’s soaking wet. Then Ernest being afraid to point it out and instead saying, “And there seems to be something wrong with your, uh— blouse.”
The scene where Madeline (and later the scene where both Madeline and Helen) tumbles down the stairs is brutal. A very effective combination of stunt work, sound effects and a little bit of effects. It’s clear that it’s mostly real people doing it in camera, so it hurts more than the way they’d probly do it now. And it’s really pretty creepy to see the fragile messes they turned into after the “37 years later” card at the end, when they’ve been pathetically trying to disguise the damage to their bodies under layers of sloppily applied paint.
It’s that Cryptkeeper shit that’s most memorable, but there are many small jokes I still find funny: the way they turn on a dime from clearly hating each other to feigning excitement to see each other, the actor who dies with an “expression of happiness on his face that’s completely inappropriate,” Madeline interrupting her young boyfriend’s attempt to explain why he has a woman over by yelling, “Oh fer Christ’s sake at least lie quickly!,” Lisle’s bodyguards being Chippendales-looking-dudes named Tom, Dick and Harry, dressed kinda like Siegfried & Roy (one of them even played by Fabio), the sound effects when Madeline’s breasts magically un-droop, the list goes on.
The movie was reportedly changed quite a bit after test screenings, which explains why the above trailer includes bits of scenes that aren’t in the movie. The biggest change seems to have been the removal of Tracy Ullman as a bartender who Ernest falls in love with. Originally Madeline and Helen remained young and beautiful but unhappy, and then they run into Ernest and the bartender as a happy, in love, retired couple. This is a rare case where the ending didn’t go over well in test screenings so they changed it to a darker one where one of those characters doesn’t exist, one is dead and the other two fall down a set of stairs and break into a bunch of pieces.
In 2000, Streep told Entertainment Weekly that working on the movie was
“tedious. Whatever concentration you can apply to that kind of comedy is just shredded. You stand there like a piece of machinery – they should get machinery to do it. I loved how it turned out. But it’s not fun to act to a lampstand. ‘Pretend this is Goldie, right here. Uh, no, I’m sorry, Bob, she went off the mark by five centimeters, and now her head won’t match her neck!’ It was like being at the dentist.”
That makes it all the more impressive how genuinely, subtly funny Streep is in the movie. I would point in particular to her first reluctant visit to Lisle’s mansion, when she doesn’t yet know what it’s all about or who this weirdo is. Her reactions to the place, to the bodyguards, to the dobermans, to Lisle, to the dramatic presentation of the potion, etc., are all really funny.
And yes, even the obviously very difficult FX-oriented acting comes across as an effective comedy performance.
Another favorite scene is when she’s taken to the doctor after the neck injury and he’s stunned to see that her floppy wrist doesn’t hurt, that her heart isn’t beating, etc. Yeah, you always get that scene in a movie like this, there’s one in RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, and probly DEAD HEAT, but this one is great specifically because Sydney Pollack plays the doctor.
Yes, that’s important because I am 100% positive this is Victor Ziegler from EYES WIDE SHUT (also seen in THE PLAYER) but also because it’s just a really hilarious performance – everything he says, and the ways he tries to play down the craziness of the situation, but then no longer can, is priceless. Also I love when Ernest, desperately reaching for some logical explanation, says, “What about shock? Check for shock,” and he says, “Yeah, it could be shock.”
Still, unfortunately, the movie held up for me less than I expected. The topic of an actress morbidly obsessed with youth and beauty, which was such a popular target of satire in those days, seems as hollow as the characters are meant to be. Yes, I’m sure there really are many vain women like that in Hollywood and Beverly Hills, but I no longer think it’s enough to hang a movie on. Especially now that I know Ernest originally got a happy ending! He’s as shallow and disloyal as either of them, is allowed to age naturally, has gotten rich from the double standard that women aren’t always allowed to, and yet the movie seems considerably more angry at the women than at him.
On the other hand, a 2017 Vanity Fair article claims that it “ended up fizzling on its 1992 release, but eventually found redemption in the embrace of the queer community, who have insured its legacy.” As evidence they cite Pride month screenings and a challenge on RuPaul’s Drag Race, and note that “though they’re technically cast as villains in the film, Drag Race executive producer Tom Campbell sees them as sympathetic figures.” It says they belong “to a lineage of beloved bad women who dared to be both divinely stylish and unrepentantly ambitious.” It says, “We root for the undead divas because they’re trying to win a game that’s rigged against them.” And I definitely think that’s the best way to enjoy the movie. Not as a bitter “Geez, look at these bitches,” but as a celebratory “Geez, look at these bitches!”
And of course on the level of filmmaking craft. Like all Zemeckis movies, the visual storytelling and show-offy camera moves are as meticulously plotted as the FX wizardry. It’s no surprise that this is shot by the legendary Dean Cundey (John Carpenter’s main guy, who had now become Zemeckis’ main guy, and was just starting to be Spielberg’s main guy).
A small example: as Helen tells Ernest her plan to stage a fiery car crash, flames are reflected in Ernest’s glasses.
Also I believe Cundey references his famous shot from HALLOWEEN, where the presumed-dead Shape sits back up in the background.
DEATH BECOMES HER only made a few million more than its budget, and reviews were mostly negative, so its biggest influence at the time was on the advancement of digital effects. The following year we had CG dinosaurs and the year after that we had the Zemeckis-directed best picture winner FORREST GUMP, which applied them to a less fantastical setting. It’s funny to think of it now but I remember going to see that on opening day specifically because it was gonna be some show-offy FX business from the director of DEATH BECOMES HER and ROGER RABBIT.
After his adult drama ‘90s Zemeckis swerved into his mo-cap 2000s. I’m still a fan of the big swings he took on THE POLAR EXPRESS and BEOWULF, and though he’s certainly lost his footing a bit since I still have faith that each of his movies will be interesting. FLIGHT and ALLIED were both pretty good, at the very least. Strangely his latest was released today, straight to Disney+, and it’s a remake of another Weird Summer entry (re-release department), Walt Disney’s PINOCCHIO. Word has been dire so far, but I’ll let you know what I think. At the very least, he’s still doing weird shit.
Zemeckis and his BACK TO THE FUTURE partner Bob Gale had produced another movie intended for release July 3rd. LOOTERS, which their friend Walter Hill had directed from a script they wrote in the ’70s, was retitled TRESPASS and moved to December in an attempt to avoid association with the L.A.riots.