The 90s On Netflix: Death Becomes Her (1992)
James R | On 29, Oct 2021
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Cast: Meryl Streep, Goldie Hawn, Bruce Willis, Isabella Rossellini
Where to watch Death Becomes Her online in the UK: Netflix UK / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Rakuten TV / Google Play / Sky Store
Do you remember the 1990s? Mark does. On Fridays, he flashes back to the golden decade of our childhood. From family-friendly films to blockbusters we shouldn’t have been watching, get ready for a monthly dose of nostalgia, as we put down our VHS tapes and find out whether the 90s on Netflix are still Live & Kicking.
Halloween is imminent, which always gets us thinking of the lost art of the PG-certificate horror movie that we used to get so many of in the 90s. Changing guidelines might explain the disappearance of this type of not-quite-kid-friendly genre movie, as is the case with Death Becomes Her, which was lifted from a PG to a 12 by the BBFC in 2017 for “moderate fantasy violence, language, and nudity”. Age really does come for everything in the end.
In this black comedy, the friendship between glamorous Broadway star Madeline Ashton (Meryl Streep) and dowdy writer Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn) sours because the former steals the latter’s boyfriend, up-and-coming plastic surgeon Dr Ernest Menville (Bruce Willis). Following a mysterious absence, Helen reappears many years later in the best shape of her life, while Madeline fumes over her own fading looks.
Desperate to one-up her old friend, Madeline is directed to the home of 71-year-old socialite Lisle Von Rhuman (Isabella Rossellini), whose unique approach to rejuvenation has her looking like… well, Isabella Rossellini. However, her decision to chug down Lisle’s magic potion comes with dire side effects as her rivalry with Helen escalates.
When writers Martin Donovan and David Koepp came up with the idea of an original farce in the style of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, it was designed as a movie that could be produced on a low budget. This being the early 90s, it became a much bigger project when director Robert Zemeckis took an interest.
Fresh off the Back to the Future trilogy and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Zemeckis finds umpteen ways to advance the art of computer-generated effects in the course of the film’s supernatural comedy. Digital skin texture was a major development, and it allows for various gorgeous-looking grotesqueries to befall the characters throughout the film. 1990s-era CGI doesn’t always stand up, but this one truly looks as good as it ever did.
Whether it had this problem on the page or it came from the ever-growing level of spectacle and slapstick set pieces that came with an inflated budget, there’s a question of whether the effects mask the structural shortcomings of the script – it’s composed more of skits that sit there rather than pile up over the runtime and, while quotable, the dialogue isn’t as witty as it is well played.
Sticking to the theatrical tradition, it’s a relatively small ensemble, but it’s cast superbly, right down to Rossellini’s iconic extended cameo. Streep is hilarious in a then-rare comedy role, landing many of the movie’s best lines, but Hawn matches her beat for beat. Also playing against type, Willis is great as the milquetoast surgeon-turned-“reconstructive mortician” and, as in every non-tough-guy role he’s played since, you come to miss this version of the star.
But the film is more about the anti-chemistry between Madeline and Helen than it ever was about Ernest. That’s something of a blessing, partly because their bitchy repartee is where all the fun is, but also because the film doesn’t really seem to know what to do with Willis’ character by the end. If anything, he’s let off easy in the scheme of an otherwise cautionary tale, but that was true in the discarded alternate ending featuring Tracey Ullman too.
Despite mixed reviews upon its release in July 1992, Death Becomes Her was a decent-sized hit at the worldwide box office. Serving up effects-driven black comedy magic, it’s also developed a camp cult classic status for LGBTQ+ viewers over the years too. As a horror-comedy, it’s suitably macabre and jolly by turns and it stands up even when its superficial dazzle wears off.
Next Time on The 90s On Netflix
“Not every situation calls for your patented approach of ‘shoot first, shoot later, shoot some more and then when everybody’s dead, try to ask a question or two’.”
Death Becomes Her is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.