Obviously Meryl Streep is a genius. Within my lifetime I think she may break Katharine Hepburn’s record for most best actress Oscars. The Great Kate has four, her first in 1934 and her last in 1982. Poor Meryl only has three, her first in 1979 and her most recent in 2011 for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher. If only Meryl had been nominated for her consummate portrayal of Madeline Ashton in Death Becomes Her. If only the Academy had realized her true artistic acuity. Then again, they didn’t nominate her for her work in She Devil, so I guess it makes sense they’d overlook Death Becomes Her.
Death Becomes Her is not a great movie. It may not even be a good movie. Still, it’s pretty freakin’ awesome. With only a 43% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it remains one of those strange, one-off films by cinema greats that becomes a cult to its most ardent fans. With material so wacky and a plot line that sort of dissipates half way through, it’s the star power of Meryl, Goldie Hawn, and Bruce Willis, along with some amazing, if not a tad dated, special effects that make this movie a gem.
The premise is simple: a love triangle complicated by a pink potion that reinstates a person’s optimum beauty and renders the drinker immortal. Streep, Hawn, and Willis are the love triangle, and their chemistry throughout the movie is not only believable but hilarious. For some reason you believe Streep and Hawn are former best friends. I can see them right now having lunch in Santa Monica, gossiping while their salads go untouched. And Willis is just attractive enough as a the dorky Dr. Menville to make him worth fighting over. When the elixir of life is thrown into the mix, all hell (and bone density) breaks loose.
This film is most famous for its special effects and one liners. When the tensions of the love triangle reach their crescendo, physical fights break out in absurdly delectable ways. And yet, there they are, happening right before your very eyes. They shoot each other through the stomach (“And I can see right through you!”) They push each other down the stairs (“You’re in the shit house now pal!”) And they bash each other in the bean with shovels (“Will you please put your head on straight so I can talk to you?”) The scene where Streep’s body adjusts back to its former glory is still believable some twenty-odd years later.
Let’s talk about cameos. I’m not sure you could call Isabella Rossellini’s role a cameo, as she’s pretty fundamental to the story. But, I just can’t believe they got her to do it. She’s the forever young Lisle Von Rhuman, living in a Gothic palace somewhere above Sunset Boulevard. She’s wears necklaces as blouses, and yes, that’s Fabio as her body guard. Her acting is so deliciously over the top that every time she appears, you just hope for more. When she reappears in the third act, stepping out of a pool completely nude, you almost cheer. Other notable cameos are Sydney Pollack as the uncredited doctor, who examines Streep’s living dead body, and the late great Alaina Reed-Hall who turns in a great performance as Hawn’s long-suffering psychologist.
Turning in another uncredited performance is Los Angeles itself. Without ever really saying it, the only way any of this seems plausible is the fact that it’s all going down in LA. Only in LA is Greta Garbo still hiding out after drinking Rossellini’s potion. Only in LA are we willing to give up everything to live forever in perfect beauty, always remembered as the stars we once were. LA is the gilded lint trap for the rest of the country, catching all the once-beautifuls and the gorgeous dreamers in its palm fronds. Here, no one notices if your skin needs a touch-up because it’s starting to crack and reveal the dead gray beneath. Everyone is too busy hustling their own dream to notice the dead bodies in the back of the church or the car being pushed over Mulholland Drive. No one will notice you shot your best friend through the stomach, for as Streep confidently declares after Willis is worried about people hearing the gunshot, “Neighbors? In twelve years in Los Angeles, have you ever seen a neighbor?”
Like I said, Death Becomes Her is not a great movie, but it’s indelible kook is irresistible. It still plays on the premium channels all the time, and everyone I know can quote it for hours (“Make some room from for my friend for Christ’s sake. But, keep your ass handy.”) And, did I mention it won an oscar for best special effects? It did, and rightly so. While maybe not a critically acclaimed classic, it’s a comedy cult classic that I, and millions of others (mostly gay men, sure) are proud to call a favorite.