Death Becomes Her: The Best Cult Camp Film of the 1990s

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Death Becomes Her, 1992(Film still)

On the anniversary of its release, we examine one of the the most achingly camp black comedies ever made

It’s not often you see a zombified Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn going head-to-head in immortal combat with the shovels meant to dig their own graves. Unless you are watching Death Becomes Her (1992), that is. Directed by Robert Zemeckis, the achingly camp black comedy chronicles Streep and Hawn as Madeleine Ashton, a fading actress, and Helen Sharp, an aspiring writer, as two frenemies battling over the affections of plastic surgeon Dr. Ernest Menville (played by Bruce Willis, as a nebbish shadow of his former self). When Madeline steals Dr. Menville from Helen, taking him as her husband, Sharp vows to exact vengeance on her rival, and simultaneously gives a whole a new definition to the idiom ‘hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’.

In the midst of all this melodrama, Lisle von Rhoman – acted by Isabella Rossellini on her best Lynchian form – turns up, offering both Ashton and Sharp the elixir of life (which promises to give them ten years of youth and beauty, whilst also reversing their ageing process). Von Rhoman also embodies a second idiom: ‘if it seems to good to be true, it probably is’; for when the two women meet rather slapstick ends under the influence of her potion, they wind up as the walking dead, bound together for all eternity through a mutual love of botulinum toxin and bitchiness. On the anniversary of the film’s release, we look back at some its important life lessons; particularly the need to be incredibly cautious around marble staircases. 

1. Beware of a woman in tap shoes and marabou

When Dr. Menville and Helen – a newly engaged couple – first encounter Madeline, she is performing on stage as part of the cast of musical production Sweet Bird of Youth. Naturally, this involves a chorus line of men dressed as busboys with whom Ashton tapdances, luring Ernest into submission with each click of her heel and flick of her marabou feather boa. Helen, who is “the kind of girl who couldn’t say sexual without blushing”, tests Ernest’s loyalty by introducing him to Madeline in her dressing room. “I have absolutely no interest in Madeline Ashton!” he says to his sweetheart, before the scene cuts to the plastic surgeon and actress getting married, as a livid Helen watches on wringing a handkerchief as though it were Madeline’s neck. 

2. Revenge is a dish best served cold (and eaten with fingers)

Seven years later, we see Helen – overweight, depressed and living alone with 600 cats (relatable) – repeatedly watching films in which Madeline Ashton’s character is murdered, and eating a tub of ice cream with her fingers. She is eventually put into psychiatric care, where her therapist advises that the best way to cure herself would be to “completely eliminate” Ashton from her life. Fast forward another seven years, and a successful Helen appears on the red carpet of her own book launch, looking like Veronica Lake, had she been dressed by Gianni Versace. Naturally, Madeline is overwhelmed with jealousy, proving that when it comes to revenge, biding your time is always the best approach.

3. Avoid strange cocktails presented in Fabergé eggs

To emulate Helen’s newfound preternatural looks, Madeline goes to extreme lengths. On a tip-off from one of her plastic surgeons, she visits the castle of mysterious beautician Lisle von Rhoman, who is dressed in a halter-neck top made from half of Beyond Retro’s jewellery section, and surrounded by three male servants, who collectively could have been Germany’s 1987 Eurovision entry. Von Rhoman presents her magical anti-ageing tonic to Ashton in a Fabergé Egg-like vessel, with the actress then downing the glowing purple liquid in a single gulp. Remember, novelty cocktails can be tempting, but best to stick with a glass of dry white wine if you’re not quite sure what to expect. 

4. Be careful on spiral staircases

Enamored with the effects of Von Rhoman’s elixir, Madeline immediately returns to the Hollywood mansion she shares with Ernest, changing into a skin-tight black bodysuit and pink organza wrap. Undoubtedly, she looks beyond fierce and ready to come for anyone who deigns to cross her path. This obviously happens to be Dr. Menville, who makes the terrible mistake of calling his wife a “cheap, tacky little tramp”. Her retaliation is swift and cutting: “You’re a tragic boozy FLACCID clown – FLAAAAAACCIIIDDDD,” she taunts. This proves to be the last straw for her long-suffering husband, who subsequently throttles Madeline at the top of their spiral staircase, the soles of her brand new Escada pumps slipping on the smooth marble surface and causing her to tumble to her ‘death’. 

5. Friends really are forever

It turns out, as the film’s title suggests, that neither Madeline nor Helen can die, as they have both paid a special visit to the turrets of Isabella Rosselini’s bizarre beauty fortress. (This is revealed when Helen has a rather unfortunate run-in with Madeline and a shotgun, the weapon blowing a hole directly through her taut abdominal muscles, rendering her vital organs null and void.) After a non-beating heart-to-heart, they make friends again, and bond over the fact that they are both now destined to roam the streets of Beverly Hills as the living dead for all of eternity. Aww.