Rating: PG-13 (nudity, suggestive humor)
Length: 104 minutes
Release Date: July 31, 1992
Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
Stars: 3 out of 5
Is living forever really worth the cost? How far would you go to gain eternal youth? “Death Becomes Her” is a movie that asks this question through a mix of comedy and drama. Madeline Ashton (Meryl Streep), an actress, and Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn), a writer, are two high-lifestyle Hollywood types. They are feuding over Ernest Menville (Bruce Willis) and end up taking an immortality potion that has unexpected consequences.
Ernest is currently in a very unhappy marriage with Madeline, who took him away from Helen. Helen descended into seclusion and is eventually committed to a psychiatric hospital. When she leaves the hospital, she contacts Ernest, and they decide to kill Madeline, who has been cheating on Ernest with younger men in an effort to feel young, even though she is starting to show her age.
Madeline manages to hold on to Ernest but, at a book-signing event, she notices that Helen has rejuvenated. Madeline then goes to Lisle von Rhuman (Isabella Rossellini) after a referral from her beauty technician, and discovers the immortality potion. The catch to the immortality potion is that it doesn’t make the body invulnerable; injuries will kill, but consciousness will remain. Lisle tells her to “Take care of your body, you’ll be with it for a long time.”
The rest of the film centers on Madeline and Helen’s attempts to kill each other. Since they cannot die, they need Ernest to keep their bodies looking young after various fatal injuries. The two attempt to kidnap him to keep him close, but he manages to break free and live his own life, leaving Helen and Madeline to live with one another for the rest of eternity or until their bodies completely fall apart. The film ends 37 years after the main events, revealing that Ernest has since died, leaving a loving legacy behind, while Madeline and Helen deteriorate more and more. Their bodies completely disintegrate after leaving the funeral.
The main question of the film is, “What’s the price of immortality?” Several celebrities such as Elvis and James Dean gather at Lisle’s mansion for a party, but have to otherwise live in seclusion; no immortal can be seen associated with mortals for long for fear of revealing the secret of immortality. Besides living in seclusion, immortals have to endure gruesome injuries such as having the torso completely blown open, as happens to Madeline.
Ernest is meant to act as the audience’s surrogate, stating that immortality would completely undermine whatever accomplishments he achieved in life because he would have infinite time to achieve them. He would also get bored, and have to watch friends and family grow old and die. At the funeral, Ernest was said to have achieved a kind of immortality through his works, and looked upon with fondness.
The film could serve as an allegory for the increasingly extreme measures celebrities and famous people go to in order to keep their fame, youth, and looks. It’s possible they lose their humanity in the process. Helen and Madeline end up looking like zombies by the film’s end, and it’s an exercise for the viewer to imagine how the other funeral attendees would have reacted upon seeing two broken, obviously dead bodies at the foot of the church steps.
Despite the serious message of the film, it’s hard not to laugh at the scene near the pool with the two women injuring one another in gruesome ways. Their complete lack of pain is what sells it, like something out of a Looney Tunes short. Throwing a shovel through a gaping hole in the torso and celebrating completely alters the mood of the scene.
This film provides a darkly humorous yet philosophical take on the question of immortality. It’s carried by Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn, two of Hollywood’s most spectacular actresses, as well as Bruce Willis. Robert Zemeckis of “Back to the Future” fame adds his directing skills to the mix to bring these venerable talents to life on screen.
Watch the “Death Becomes Her” trailer here!