After all these years, Death Becomes Her is still a delightful romp – a broad blend of old Hollywood diva mudslinging, morbid farce, and goddess worship. As much as the film satirizes gratuitous ageism thrust upon women and its impact on the ego, the film adores its actresses. Isabella Rossellini reigns supreme, but Goldie Hawn and Meryl Streep are audience catnip even at their most vicious. With this much talent, wit, and glamour in the frame, its no surprise that director Robert Zemeckis and director of photography Dean Cundey frame them like the queens they are.
No wonder gays and drag queens have kept the film alive with all this operatic idolatry – though where are the drag queens impersonating Rossellini’s sexual septuagenarian Lisle von Rhuman? Perhaps I just missed that one by a decade.
There is also a classic monster movie element to the actresses visual representation in the film. Mad and Hel are frequently scene lurking around a corner, behind a bush, stalking into the foreground to frighten Bruce Willis’s Ernest. Their eyes are lit like Dracula, their sexuality as threatening as it is enticing. What is Lisle if not a vampire empress, pulling you in precisely because she’s a bit spooky?
But the monster of Death Becomes Her isn’t the Wolfman or the Mummy – it’s the ego within Madeline and Helen striving to be younger, thinner, adored. The film holds this satire equally with its farcical violence, giving us villains that ultimately are laughing along with us. The blend of Looney Tunes, Roger Corman, and pre-Real Housewives vapidness is a lot for the film to shoulder, but it sticks the landing smartly by having the combative twosome (mostly) put aside their differences in favor of humor and teamwork.
They aren’t a Frankenstein victimized by their own pursuit, Mad and Hel witches laughing as they go up in flames.
Could you make this exact comedy today without prompting the inevitable “problematic” thinkpieces”? Is it irresponsible to visually present these women as monsters when the real evil is society’s demand that they stay fuckable? But what the high camp masks is two raised middle fingers aimed at anyone still perpetuating such expectations. It helps that Streep and Hawn are clearly having a ball – both from mocking these expectations and from the power of their collective energies. Zemeckis and Cundey visually make them a pair to be reckoned with, stronger women as they begin to decay.
The balance of satire, camp, and actress deification are held in glorious unity throughout the film, its wit as present visually as it is in the actors and script. Sight gags are given almost Austin Powers-level mileage, relying heavily on the film’s Oscar winning visual effects. It’s Robert Zemeckis we’re talking about here, so even the CGI wizardry that seems dated now still lands a strong visual impact or laugh.
So with so many options and flourishes here, what element was most at play in the Best Shot?
The film is first and foremost a complete gas. This shot I had absolutely no recollection of from my childhood obsession, so it took me by surprise to see the fourth wall broken ever so fleetingly, a wink to the audience to say “Isn’t this divine?”. Madeline Ashton catches her own reflection and gives a cheeky little smile, and thanks to framing she’s also looking right at the audience. By sharing that grin with us, we’re staring at ourselves and our own pursuit of youth – if we laugh at Madleine, we’re really just laughing at ourselves. And of course, the frame worships her.
More of Hit Me With Your Best Shot!