We look back at Robert Zemeckis’s 1992 cult classic, Death Becomes Her, starring Meryl Streep, Goldie Hawn and Bruce Willis.
If I had asked you to name a film from the early 1990s that featured groundbreaking visuals effects that changed the landscape of cinema, you probably answer with Jurassic Park. But what if I told you that instead of dinosaurs, an earlier pioneer in visual effects was a satirical black comedy involving Meryl Streep, Goldie Hawn, and a magic potion? Yep, that’s right. That film does indeed exist and is none other than Death Becomes Her. Directed by the legendary Robert Zemeckis and co-written by David Koepp and Martin Donovan. The idea came to Koepp back when he was working on another film, which featured a story about a man’s attempts to kills his wife, who turns out to be a witch and cannot die. And of course, the witch has an axe to grind now that she knows her husband tried to off her. That idea later developed into Death Becomes Her.
Meryl Streep kills it, as usual, as narcissistic, youth-obsessed actor Madeline Ashton. For real, the opening of this film wants us to believe her Broadway musical Songbird! is terrible, but Streep is simply too good of a performer for that to be true. Bruce Willis is cast against-type as Dr. Ernest Menville, the brilliant but bumbling plastic surgeon turned reconstructive mortician. Before Willis was cast, Kevin Kline was the first choice for the role. However, he exited the project due to a pay dispute with the studio. Actors Jeff Bridges and Nick Nolte were both considered for the part before Willis was ultimately cast. Goldie Hawn stars as Helen Sharp. A great little detail is that the leading ladies’ nicknames for each other are “Mad” and “Hell.” Another darkly hilarious thing to consider is that Helen got to enjoy her eternal youth and beauty for several years before getting a shotgun blast through the stomach. Whereas Madeline enjoyed her eternal youth and beauty for a few hours before she falls down the stairs.
Isabella Rossellini is the enigmatic Lisle von Rhuman, who somehow has a steady supply of the potion. One of her more recent roles was in A24’s Marcel the Shell with Shoes On as the voice of Nana Connie, Marcel’s grandmother. Ian Oglivy as Chagall, the actor was also considered for the role of James Bond back in the early 80s.
Academy Award winner Sydney Pollack has a cameo as the ER doctor examining Madeline after her fall down the stairs. His scene is one of my favorites. The actor was known for directing Out of Africa and Tootsie and appearances in productions like The Sopranos. In the psychiatric clinic scene clearly inspired by One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Debra Jo Rupp plays one of the psychiatric patients. You’ll also recognize her as Kitty Forman from That 70s Show and its reboot That 90s Show. Lastly, Fabio, star of Zoolander, plays one of Lisle’s body guards.
THE ACTUAL SHOOT + DELETED STUFF
Filming commenced on December 9th 1991, lasting until April 7th 1992. The entire film was shot in Los Angeles and featured numerous locations frequently used in film and television, such as the Greystone Mansion (Ernest’s funeral home) and the Ebell of Los Angeles (Helen’s book party). The final shot where Helen and Madeline fall down some stairs outside the chapel was filmed at Mount St. Mary’s University in Brentwood. The exterior of Madeline and Ernest’s mansion is located in San Marino, but the interior was a set built on a soundstage.
There’s definitely some material (other than body parts) left on the cutting room floor. The theatrical version of Death Becomes Her removed or shortened several scenes that existed in the rough cut. Robert Zemeckis decided this was necessary to speed up the pacing of the film and eliminate extraneous jokes. Most drastically, the original ending was entirely reshot after test audience reacted negatively to it. That version followed Ernest, after he fled Lisle’s party, meeting a bartender — played by Tracey Ullman — who helps him fake his death to evade Mad and Hell. The two women encounter Ernest and the bartender 27 years later, happily retired as a couple while Madeline and Helen seem to not be enjoying their eternal existence. Zemeckis thought the ending was too happy and opted for the darker ending seen in the final cut. Ullman was one of a few actors with speaking roles to be removed. Zemeckis made the wise choice to go with the bleaker ending because it’s the perfect capper for the story. Ernest lived a long life while Helen and Madeline are doomed to spend eternity together.
In another unreleased deleted scene, Ernest and Madeline’s housekeeper, Rose goes to the kitchen and finds Madeline in the freezer. Madeline tells her to “close the door” and Rose, horrified, runs away screaming. This is followed by Ernest removing a frozen Madeline from the freezer he stored her in and dragging her upstairs. Other scenes that were eliminated were Madeline talking to her agent played by Jonathan Silverman and another with the doctor mistaking Madeline for a corpse and shutting her eyes after she faints in the ER room. None of these scenes have been released fully to the public, but you can still catch glimpses of these scenes in the original theatrical trailer. I mean, that whole thing pretty much gives the movie away.
For the time, the visual effects were groundbreaking — not to mention bone breaking — and represented a giant leap forward in the application of computer-generated effects. The film marked the first time that the texture of human skin was CGI, with the wizards over at Industrial Light and Magic handling the VFX. As for the sequence where Madeline’s head is dislocated and facing backwards, that involved a combination of blue screen, an animatronic model created by Amalgamated Dynamics, and prosthetic make-up on Streep to create the effect of a twisted neck. For the effect where Meryl Streep’s breasts become higher and firmer after drinking the potion, a pneumatic bra was built, but the results didn’t look realistic enough. In order to get the shot, Streep’s dresser stood behind her, out of sight of the camera, and pushed her breasts into position. So those babies are all practical…
That said, the production had its fair share of mishaps. In the scene where Madeline and Helen are fighting with shovels, Streep accidentally cut Goldie Hawn’s face, leaving a faint scar. Streep also admitted that she disliked working on a project that focused so heavily on special effects and vowed never to work on another film like that again. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, she said “It was like being at the dentist.”
Death Becomes Her was released in the summer on July 31st, 1992. It opened to number one at the box office with $12 million dollars. While receiving mixed reviews from critics, Death Becomes Her was a commercial success, grossing $149 million dollars worldwide against a $55 million dollar budget. While most reviews agree that the performances and innovative special effects are the film’s biggest strengths, some didn’t really appreciate the satirical elements. Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel both gave Death Becomes Her a “thumbs down” noting that while the film had great special effects, it lacked any real substance or character depth. To each their own, I suppose. No one can deny that the special effects were cutting edge at the time and it earned the film the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, beating out Alien 3 and Batman Returns. The digital advancements pioneered on Death Becomes Her would be incorporated into ILM’s next project, Jurassic Park, released by Universal only a year later.
20 years after the film’s release, in 2012, there was talk about a possible spin-off on Bravo. Nothing ever developed further than that though. In December 2017, Kristin Chenoweth was announced to be starring as Madeline Ashton in a Broadway musical adaptation of Death Becomes Her. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to see that. The film also has acquired a significant cult following, especially in the LGBT community.
The movie launched David Koepp’s career as a screenwriter and he went on to write countless hits including Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible, Panic Room, Spider-Man, and Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. The music by Alan Silvestri never fails to impress. He really didn’t have to go this hard for the film. Sure, the fat suit might be a bit broad for this otherwise sharp satire. Also, it’s a neat little costume touch with the pin, but do they have to wear it on every single piece of clothing they own? Like Helen just had it on that dress after all these years?
The film is extremely comical and is almost a live-action cartoon. Robert Zemeckis does love his cartoons. The moral of the movie may be that pining for eternal youth is a crazy idea as it’s more of a curse than a blessing… unless you’re rich like Elvis Presley.
Originally published at https://www.joblo.com/death-becomes-her-1992-revisiting-a-ghoulish-cult-classic/