“Drink that potion, and you’ll never grow even one day older. Don’t drink it, and continue to watch yourself rot” – Isabella Rossellini, Death Becomes Her (1992)
Death Becomes Her (1992) came into my life unexpectedly. I was on break at work in the summer of 2017 when I saw a post on social media featuring the movie’s poster. Being a lifelong Meryl Streep fan and a lover of campy cult films, I could not believe I had never heard of it before. I quickly got my hands on a copy (thanks, library!), and it soon became one of my favorite films of all time. No matter the time of day, my mood, the position of the planets, whatever, I am always up for rewatching it.
Let’s start with a little synopsis. This turned out pretty long, but the details of the story and the relationships between the characters are very important. We meet the main characters at a musical performance starring Madeline (Meryl Streep). As the audience walks out during a lively, narcissistic number (which I don’t get, because I actually think it’s pretty good), the audience-facing camera lands on Madeline’s long-time frenemy, Helen (Goldie Hawn) and her fiancé, Dr. Ernest Menville (Bruce Willis), the latter of whom appears to enjoy Madeline’s performance. When the couple visits Madeline in her dressing room after the show, Helen cannot help but notice the connection that immediately sparks between them.
Despite Ernest’s assurances that he is not interested in Madeline, the two are soon married. The story flash-forwards seven years; Helen has succumbed to a life of obsession over Madeline and neglected herself in the process. After being forcibly evicted from her cat-filled apartment and admitted into what appears to be a mental hospital, Helen reaches an epiphany as to what she must do about Madeline. Fast-forward seven more years: Madeline is living a life of luxury on Ernest’s dollar, but she is incredibly insecure. Ernest, meanwhile, has left his fulfilling career as a plastic surgeon and is now an undertaker with a drinking problem. You feel the ice between them even when they are not in the same room.
Madeline receives tickets to a party in celebration of Helen publishing a book. She heads to a beauty spa she frequents and demands extreme treatments in preparation for seeing Helen that night. The staff have to refuse her demands due to safety concerns, but the owner gives Madeline a business card for someone who could help her more than their treatments ever could. After witnessing Helen’s unexpected vibrancy and beauty, Madeline’s insecurities get the better of her. She decides to visit the address on the business card that night. She meets Lisle (Isabella Rossellini) within an dark and elaborate mansion. Recognizing Madeline’s fears, she offers to sell her a potion: one that will grant her eternal life and beauty. Meanwhile, Helen goes to the couple’s mansion in Los Angeles to get to Ernest. After making him realize how Madeline has ruined their lives and the relationship they once had, she convinces Ernest that the only way to be free of Madeline is to kill her.
After seeing the immediate effects of the potion, Madeline pays Lisle and takes it. On her way out to enjoy her newfound youth and immortality, she gets into an altercation with Ernest that leaves her broken at the bottom of their towering staircase.
As Ernest calls Helen in a panic, Madeline comes back to life. Later that night, as Ernest becomes more fascinated by Madeline’s condition, Helen arrives to see what has happened for herself. After a series of events following Madeline learning about their murder plot, it is revealed that Helen had taken the same potion a few years previously. She and Madeline now have the same condition of damaged immortality. After fighting and getting decades of bad blood out of their systems, the two women agree: they will need Ernest’s skills to keep them looking young and beautiful forever.
This film satirizes obsession with youth and beauty, particularly for women. It is glamorous and eccentric, and it addresses deep-seated issues with elegance and humor. With the rise of cosmetic technology, procedures, and misleading filters and editing we have now, it would be interesting to see how a present-day remake would be handled. Overall, this film is non-stop entertainment and dry humor. Maybe we do not need to read too much into it, but it’s still fun to exercise those analysis muscles.
In addition to the fun script and engaging characters, I love the artistic choices made for this film. One detail I noticed after watching a few times was the use of mirrors in several scenes. We see this in the opening scene when Madeline sings through a fake mirror, in the dressing room, behind Helen when she tells Ernest how Madeline stole her boyfriends, behind Madeline when she wakes up the morning she receives the tickets, and, of course, throughout the film as Madeline and Helen observe their new looks.
The mirror is a not-so-subtle rhetorical device in this context, considering the fixation on physical appearance and narcissism in this story. The ostentatious production design of the mansions, the energetic string music of the score, warm lighting, and vibrant colors throughout make this an immersive experience to enjoy over and over (and believe me, I have).
Also, really fast: I just love everything about Lisle, even if I do not always see eye-to-eye with her on the matters she addresses. That’s all.
Bottom line, I just really love this movie. The cast, the story, the spooky elements, the art direction…I could go on and on. I have so many great memories associated with this movie and watching it with others. It was our Halloween movie night pick one year in grad school; it was also the first movie I watched after I moved into my own place. I am forever glad I stumbled upon that poster on social media. Siempre viva
Until next time,