90s Hollywood was peculiarly preoccupied with plastic surgery, both as the latest update on the California health fads of the Boomer generation, and as the most visceral litmus test on how rapidly the Boomers were aging into this new decade. While many films explored this phenomenon from a variety of angles, none embraced it quite so wildly and vividly as Death Becomes Her, one of the high watermarks of 90s camp. Starting with the Beverly Hill grotesque familiar from most plastic surgery treatments of the line, and quickly seguing into a full-blown Beverly Hills Gothic, David Koepp and Martin Donovan’s script focuses on a volatile love triangle – Helen Sharp, a famous author played by Goldie Hawn, Dr. Ernest Menvill, her husband, played by Bruce Willis, and actress Madeline Ashton, her best friend and oldest rival, played by Meryl Streep, in one of the most outlandish outings of her career.
True to the Boomer subtext, we first meet these three characters in 1978, when Helen is engaged to Ernest, and brings him backstage to meet Madeline, who is performing in Songbird!, the critically panned musical adaptation of Tenneseee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth. All Helen’s worst fears comes true when Ernest marries Madeline instead, and from there director Robert Zemeckis jumps forward seven years, to 1985, when Helen has become so morbidly obese (at least by Hollywood standards) that she is placed in a psychiatric institute, which is apparently where non-thin women in Hollywood go to live out their days.
We then jump forward another seven years, to 1992, the present tense of the film, where Madeline is growing bored in her relationship with Ernest. If she’s bored, he’s miserable, since their marriage has turned him into an alcoholic, costing him his plastic surgery business, and forcing him to resort to mortuary work instead. Much of the film draws on this transition from celebrity to corpse work, since Madeline resorts to desperate measures when she discovers that Helen has somehow enough lost weight to look twenty years younger in the intervening decade. Taking a tip from a gay man at her botox clinic, Madeline visits the home of Lisle von Rhoman, a mysterious Hollywood resident played by Isabella Rossellini, who provides her with a potion designed to bestow youth for a decade, but technically killing her in the process.
This kicks off the film proper, which follows Madeline in her newfound immortality as she tries to win Ernest back from Helen – a task that grows considerably more complicated when she realises that Helen has also imbibed the elixir of eternal youth. As the two start to spar, contorting their bodies and beauties in ever more extreme directions, plastic surgery feels like a primitive residue of the Hollywood past, as every surface now exides the same plasticity and artificiality, while gender itself is presented as palpably performative. Both Helen and Madeline’s bodies become mannequinised, introducing a new Gothic and camp potential into Zemeckis’ vision of Hollywood, while Ernest seems more shriveled and impotent by contrast.
During the most lavish scenes, Zemeckis thus evokes a generation of Boomers trying to remain on the cusp of sexual liberation, reaching back to classical Hollywood for an exotic sensuality that might infuse re-liberate their present. Although Lisle von Rhoman is 71 years old, she still looks the same ag as during her classical Hollywood heyday, revealing to Madeline that Greta Garbo was one of her clients, and only turned her back on the world – “I want to be alone” – so that her eternal youth wouldn’t seems suspicious or appear strange.
Von Rhoman’s house also sets the scene for a series of hyperbolised Hollywood mansions – and especially Hollywood foyers, which Zemeckis uses as they were originally intended, to usher in the glamour, wealth and sensuality of Hollywood to whoever walks in the door. At least a third of the film is set in and around Ernest’s foyer, which Zemeckis crafts into a series of enormous mise-en-abymes, driven by sweeping marble floors, the curving staircase, extreme deep focus and a hyper-mobile camera which moves between the first and second storeys with ease. This scope expands even more dramatically when Helen outlines her plan to kill Madeline, depicted as as series of gliding pans across increasingly vast spaces, culminating with the camera following a car over the yawning precipice of Mulholland Drive.
Between Von Rhoman’s campy delivery and these hyperbolised spaces, Death Becomes Her thus provides a classical Hollywood drag, compounded by how frankly the female body is treated as an object to be fragmented and rearranged, as reflected in the comically awkward syntax of the film title. Zemeckis is renowned as a director of special effects, which are here used mainly to capture the female body as it fragments and reconfigures. Some of the most iconic moments in the film stem from this process – Madeline’s head on backwards, Helen with a hole through her torso – as death turns into the ultimate plastic surgery. In Hollywood, the screenwriters campily suggest, women are most desirable in the fleeting moments just after death, when aging has finished, but decomposition hasn’t had a chance to really set it.
In other words, Death Becomes Her presents womanhood itself as a special effect – and the special effects look great – refusing to present femininity as anything other than the perception of femininity, at least in Hollywood terms. For all their squabbling over Ernest, Bruce Willis’ milquetoast and memorably forgettable character is ultimately beside the point for Madeline and Helen, who simply treat him as a cipher for the broader Hollywood ratification and approval that he represents. More bluntly, both women are trying to become women, or to remain women, according to the Hollywood standard, growing more desperate as they sense all the conventional tokens of femininity – but especially youth – slipping away.
What we get, then, is a sublime drag femininity – a reminder that drag isn’t merely a matter of men in women’s clothing, but the gesture of embracing gender as pure performance. It’s uncanny how seamlessly Streep and Hawn move from women to drag women, as Zemeckis aligns drag with the intersectional female body, which here amounts to the magical female body, as it did in so many 90s Hollywood films coming to terms with the legacy of third wave feminism. Unlike many of those films, however, Death Becomes Her revels in the thrill of intersectional female bodies, continually emphasizing the intersection between bodies and their surroundings. That’s especially clear in Zemeckis’ main signature behind the camera, apart from the special effects – always just averting, and perfectly choreographing, sharp near-misses between bodies, camera and objects, with the same beautiful dexterity as Used Cars, which Death Becomes Her often recalls in is exquisite sense of space.
Despite being the nominal voice of reason in the film, then, Ernest is ultimately the antagonist, since he chooses death over the drag masculinity that would permit him to engage with both Madeline and Helen in full. In a terrific final scene, he arrives at Von Rhoman’s house, where her gay sidekick is hosting a party of mid-century undead Hollywood stars, and then scales the highest peaks of this Gothic edifice to try and escape from what they represent. Finally, he decides to leap to his doom instead of taking the potion that Madeline and Helen offer on him, vividly enacting the fragility of the straight white male body when its role as arbiter of bodily normality is threatened by the third wave feminist jouissance that the film embodies.
After Ernest chooses death over drag masculinity, Zemeckis cuts to the most irreverent ending of his career – a eulogy, fifty years later, for Ernest, who, we discover, realised that “life begins at 50” after leaving Madeline and Helen for good. As the priest eulogises Ernest’s care for his real and adopted children, commends his “Centre for the Study of Women,” applauds his “Marriage Consultation Clinic” and likens him to a patriarch, we return to normality – but to a parodic, pointed and campily rendered normality, told from the perspective of Madeline and Helen, who are looking a little worse for wear, but still sitting upright, alone, in the back row.
As the priest finally insists that Ernest will “live forever,” Death Becomes Her cements its vision of a world where eternal youth is only guaranteed to straight white male bodies, leaving Madeline and Helen as abject, disavowed and dissociated from public discourse as drag itself was in the early 90s. Yet Helen now cuts across the eulogy with an irreverent “blah blah blah,” as the two women totter outside and tumble down the front stairs, fragmenting into a series of discrete body parts as the film’s mannequinisation of the female body comes to an abrupt end. Even here, however, Zemeckis cuts against pathos with the same sense of camp normality – “Don’t you remember where you parked the car?” – as Madeline and Helen settle even deeper into their rapport, more like a gay couple or drag duo now than real arch rivals.
While many of the earlier scenes in Death Becomes Her anticipate the sprawling semi-supernatural spaces of What Lies Beneath and (even later) Allied, there’s a bluntness and bathos here that resists the lavish deep focus spectacle constructed around these fragmented bodies, as Zemeckis ultimately leaves us with nothing but the artifice of these bodies themselves as our final hit of camp joy. It’s not hard to see, then, why the film became an instant LGBT classic, or inspired a “look” on RuPaul’s Drag Race, since it’s the strongest vision of resilience, from mainstream Hollywood at the time, for those who are deemed irrecovably abject, ridiculous and repulsive – for those who find their redemption and meaning in drag.