Death Becomes Her
This is that lesser-seen Bob Zemeckis, the one who produces – or did – horror movies and HBO anthology series Tales from Crypt. Indeed, it seems Death Becomes Her was originally intended as a “sequel” to the 1972 Tales from Crypt, like later “Tales from the Crypt Presents:” Demon Knight and Bordello of Blood, and it certainly feels like something of an extended, grisly but polished-up TV morality tale, with added camp highlights. Zemeckis’ movie offers a broadside at the Hollywood beauty myth and further, retrospectively, lends itself to darker interpretations of the lifeblood that keeps its stars young and beautiful. It’s also, as was surely evident to anyone half attentive to his career at this point, the latest opportunity for him to indulge his fascination with the latest cutting-edge special effects.
Ernest: The morgue? She’ll be furious!
Death Becomes Her is a grotesque, ghoulish concoction, a one-joke affair all about the punchline – the trouble with trying to make The Twilight Zone or anthology material generally into features – taking delight in the absurd and evermore extensive bodily degradations that ensue from the endless pursuit of vanity. Which is to say, the movie half works: you’re supposed to enjoy this kind of thing without much chance to reflect upon its implications, or it starts to fall apart (such as the mechanics of the undead spending decades – or more – avoiding any fatal accidents because they won’t be able to mend themselves if they don’t). It’s also limited by being all set up. Once you have the two undead dames confronting each other, there’s very little place to go, other than the pursuit of hubby and his preserving agents. And since hubby is only sympathetic by association, rather than inherently – he’s a weak, spineless alcoholic, his head easily turned from any woman in his life by another woman entering his life – there are limits to audience attachment.
Perhaps this is Zemeckis’ fault, opting against a more overtly upbeat, “too saccharine” ending – which was shot – in which Bruce Willis’ Dr Ernest Menville fakes his own death with the help of eventual new wife Toni (Tracy Ullman); they run off to Europe, where Madeline Ashton (Streep) and Helen Sharp (Hawn), growing ever more rancid, encounter them (and end up breaking into pieces). Scenes with Ullman can be seen in the trailer, along with others Zemeckis pared down in order to improve the pacing.
Ultimately, though, the pacing problem rules against it; it’s a movie that sits there without trajectory once the initial confrontation has transpired (earlier scripts included Helen taking the potion after Madeline and not getting fat at all). What you have is akin to what we got with the big-screen The Addams Family the year before, all visual flourish but beset by problems when it comes to maintaining that in terms of kinetic plotting. Zemeckis is trying for the wheelhouse of Sam Raimi – Koepp and Martin Donovan’s script is ideal for his cartoonish approach, with lines like: “She hovers there, like Wile E. Coyote at the top of a cliff” – or the macabre chuckles of Tim Burton – Alan Silvestri’s score seems like he’s been taking notes from Danny Elfman’s for Beetlejuice – but those two have real affection for the characters they use and abuse. Zemeckis’ are vassals for his effects, while Koepp, “fascinated and revolted by Beverly Hills”, is coming at his scenario without any inherent attraction to or empathy for his creations (“strange people who did strange things to their bodies”).
Curiously, given the Tales from the Crypt comparisons, Koepp and Martin Donovan first conceived this as a portmanteau affair (their previous collaboration was Apartment Zero, and this would be the last because of the “wildly divergent” nature of their personalities and styles): “I had this idea that I wanted to do a quartet of movies set in an apartment building in Los Angeles” In the first, a husband kills his wife, “but she’s a witch and doesn’t die”, and “we quickly bagged the idea of the three other stories because we liked that story so much”. What was written as an indie turned out very differently (“Never in our wildest dreams did we imagine the director and cast that we would get”).
This was Zemeckis’ first feature after the back-to-back Back to the Future sequels, but the key development in the meantime was his exec producership of Tales from the Crypt (1989-96). On the one hand, that’s relative scrappy and cheerful, in contrast to the FX extravagance a movie could command. But its essential kernel, that of a very moral tale and one that takes no prisoners, mirrors the way Tales from the Crypt and other anthologies tended to work, teaching their protagonists brutal lessons with an acidic wit. (Steven Soderbergh had looked at the script but felt “it was a little out of my league on a purely technical level at that point in my career”. That, and not really his kind of humour).
Zemeckis was a director whose previous five movies had been in the Top Ten globally for their years, so he could command the money and the talent. Albeit, all including Zemeckis took lower salaries in exchange for profit participation (Kevin Kline, Mrs Bill Gates, was originally cast as Ernest but dropped out over the fee; Jeff Bridges auditioned but didn’t get it). The trio of leads were all in-demand stars, including Hollywood hermaphrodite Meryl – now deceased – who had been turning her hand to comedies after a decade of increasingly strained accents (the “fruits” prior to this being She-Devil, Postcards from the Edge and Defending Your Life). Goldie Hawn had resurged as that rarity with Bird on a Wire, after a patchy few years; the older (relatively) star paired with a younger male co-star (Mel, and again with Bruce here).
Madeline: Do you know what they do to soft, bald, overweight republicans in prison, Ernest?
Bruce – now deceased, rather than retired through dementia – had no sooner become a movie star than he was reconstituted as an undiluted prima donna, his antics on Die Hard 2 (cutting out the jokes, for goodness sake!), Hudson Hawk (an over-indulged vanity project – but a great movie, and a great big bomb), Bonfire of the Vanities (completely miscast) and Last Boy Scout (messing with Shane Black’s pricey screenplay and proving a nightmare for Tony Scott) were becoming legendarily infamous, but every so often, he’d take a part to prove he had what it took (Mortal Thoughts and going forward, Pulp Fiction and 12 Monkeys). The irony of Death Becomes Her is that (a) it’s a comedy role, something he’d become increasingly shy of, despite it being his best foot forward, and (b) it’s an immersive character study, of a diminutive, (put-upon) husband almost a decade-and-a-half older than the actor was at the time. Maybe it was already too late for Bruce at this point, but if he’d made a point of pursuing these kinds of quirky roles, he wouldn’t have entirely exhausted his appeal by the turn of the millennium.
Helen: I will not speak to you until you put your head on straight!
Willis definitely earns the most kudos here. Hawn is great when she’s fat-assed cat woman Hell/Helen (1985), troughing down food as she watches Madeline being strangled on rewind (in a fake Ipcress File Michael Caine movie Dark Windows) Rejuvenated Hell is less essential, though, while Streep… Meryl was less than enchanted by the FX-heavy approach; perhaps she would have moderated her tone somewhat, had the movie had in any way reinvented her as an expression of divine womanhood. Instead you wonder what rocks Ernest must have in his head to idolise her so. Streep admitted she initially thought they wanted her for the Helen part, and while she can do bitchy and carries the comedy reasonably well, no one is buying her for a second as a glamorous movie star (because no one ever buys Meryl as glamorous). Even less so when her ass and tits are tightened. Also, introducing her in a musical of Sweet Bird of Youth is as on the nose as anything here.
But the cast generally score. Ian Ogilvy camps it up something rotten as the owner of a health spa (Chagall), complete with a fake French assistant (Michelle Johnson, her “with the runaway tits” in the same year’s Far and Away). Isabella Rossellini carries a certain witchy abandon (albeit with an ass double); her Lisle Von Rhuman was a witch in the original script and confessed to having killed Shakespeare, Lincoln and Max Factor because they refused to buy the potion. She also has the whiff of Hollywood lineage. A modern equivalent such dark Tinseltown undercurrents might be (another on the deceased list) Maria Abramovitch. You can also see Sydney Pollack as a doctor succumbing to a fatal heart attack after being unnerved by Madeline’s state (Pollack would return for another Elite spectacle in Eyes Wide Shut) and Zemeckis’ then missus (Mary Ellen Trainor).
The picture’s thirtieth anniversary saw various revisits and reappraisals last year, including its increasing association with “gloriously queer” appeal; on the most superficial reading, this appears based on Helen and Madeline as popular choices for drag artists. B Panther attempted a touch more depth in his analysis, acknowledging the hyper/self-performance (while rather nixing suggestions of the overly camp), but stressing the connection between the monsters the women are or have become and “monsters and queers identifying with each other. Both are called ‘unnatural’ because they defy social boundaries said to be found within a divine order”. He extends this to the very concept of immortality itself – expressly identified as unnatural by Lisle von Rhuman (Isabella Rossellini) – and its “innately queer relationship to time” (just for good measure, even the potion “is queerness itself, a lavender ether”). He sees all of this going on “in spite of any sexism or homophobia penned into the script”.
In those terms, then, such embrace of the movie is revelling in the maligned otherness the picture attacks narratively, and one can see why, to the extent that Zemeckis revels throughout in the performative and exaggerated; what Helen and Madeline do to each other and what they want to be are dreadful, but he loves flaunting it with as much opulence and flair as he possibly can (God knows how much the sets cost, but both the mansions are the height of unalloyed decadence and consumption).
Lisle Von Rhuman: And already it ebbs away from you. This is life’s ultimate cruelty. It offers us the taste of youth and vitality… and then makes us witness our own decay.
Madeline: Well, it is the natural law.
Lisle Von Rhuman: Oh, screw the natural law!
The more pervasive subtext, however, is what it is the vanity narrative may be concealing. Sure, this is escalated to the extremes of an inescapable, disembodied hell, and there’s a stark irony regarding Hawn embracing such a satire while succumbing to egregious use of plastic surgery in more recent years (as ironic as Bruce portraying someone who dedicated his life to “make world a better place than he found it”). Meryl, well… probably about right.
Lisle: It stops the aging process dead in its tracks… and forces it into retreat. Drink that potion and you’ll never grow even one day older. Don’t drink it… and continue to watch yourself rot.
Throughout, there is an emphasis on dark secrets with regard to the preservation of youthful looks (“I wonder what her secret is” ponders Madeline. “Can I ask what your secret is?”; “Spray paint” replies Ernest of his embalming technique. Lisle says of the potion, “The secret that we share must never become public”). It is also, as noted above, against the laws of nature: “You’re in violation of every natural law that I know!” yells Pollack’s ER doctor of Madeline before expiring. The secret is maintained among the Elite, many of whom are seen at the behind-closed-doors party – Elvis, Garbo, Marilyn, Warhol, Jimmy Dean, Jim Morrison – and many of whom have a dedicated Miles Mathis essay on how they ARE still alive (or at least, didn’t die when they were officially claimed to have done).
Helen: Will he come back for touch-ups?
Lisle calls it “A touch of magic… in this world obsessed with science”, and the visuals very much depict a magic brew, but one might also take from that the idea that science would reject any actual elixir (irrespective of its supernatural properties). One does wonder a few things, like: why does Lisle think Ernest did a good job patching them up (she’s buttering Ernest up?) And what are the laws of averages for avoiding any fatal incident when you’re expressly avoiding it on pain of eternal consequences (Meryl and Goldie only begin to decay after their bodies have been killed: by stairs, by shotgun).
Ernest knows all this is wrong, even before he’s confronted by dead spouses and the temptation of the potion. He’s gone from saving lives to preserving the dead due to the misery of his shallow marriage. There’s a certain irony to his “I would sell my soul to be able to operate again”, because he finally opts to do the right thing when it comes to the crunch (“This is not a dream. This is a nightmare. You people all have to be stopped”). The result is a man who “always felt that life begins at 50” and makes up for his errors (Zemeckis avoids the saccharine here; he clearly recanted with his next movie, although Forrest Gump makes for a kind of queasy gag reflex in its sickly-acidic rebounds and satirical commentary).
Eulogist: We’ve all heard his tales about the living dead in Beverly Hills.
Is any of this redolent of the actual Hollywood, beyond a fascination with massacring faces that anyone not among their number can see are horrifying? What, a magical potion that preserves the youth (while the insides are desiccated soulless cadavers – see Celine Dion)? Where, if its secret became public, there would be hell to pay? There are even the cloudy forms of a man and woman in the vial, suggestive that it includes some form of life essence. No, this isn’t a nice, clean metaphor, but it doesn’t take much of a stretch to fit it into an adrenochrome-kind-of-scenario either. Zemecks is, it seems, a Hollywood White Hat, one who has worked with a fair few who are no longer in the corporeal realm. Whatever Death Becomes Her’s intended resonance, it’s only going to gain traction in coming years.