“Wrinkled, wrinkled little star, hope they never see the scars.”
When you first hear it, this twisted nursery rhyme — spoken by middle-aged actress Madeline Ashton (played with vampy vigour by a very game and very glam Meryl Streep) as she pokes and prods at her meticulously made-up face in one of the earliest scenes of 1992 outrageously underrated horror comedy Death Becomes Her — might seem like nothing more than a well-crafted quip destined to be referenced in some future Ryan Murphy property. But when you look at it a little more closely, it really is the perfect encapsulation of the unreal pressures we place on women and femmes to keep up a near-flawless facade as they age.
Directed and written by men (Robert Zemeckis and, Martin Donovan and David Koepp, respectively), Death Becomes Her could easily dismissed as yet another entry in the infamous hagsploitation cannon, which is known for taking a sort of grotesque joy in portraying the more monstrous aspects of life post-menopause (see also: previous Final Girl Fashion subject What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?). I mean, the key conflict of the film is a decades-old tit-measuring contest between the icy Madeline and her hot-headed frenemy Helen Sharp (an expectation-eschewing Goldie Hawn in assorted ginger wigs) that includes problematic portrayals of both fatness and mental illness. And of course there is the fact that the lead actresses were themselves approaching middle age, making the film a sort of meta-commentary on the roles (or lack thereof) for older actresses in Hollywood.
All of this aside, you can’t ignore the fact that, even after 28 years, Death Becomes Her still looks fresh to, well, death. Thanks to its head-turning (and Oscar-winning!) visual effects, highly physical performances, and utterly timeless costumes (the haute handy work of Joanna Johnston of Hellraiser, The Sixth Sense and Zemeckis’ recent re-do of The Witches), Death Becomes Her manages to skirt the fine line between crass comedy and camp classic with inimitable style.
Sure, from a story standpoint Death Becomes Her isn’t much more than skin deep, with Donovan and Koepp’s pithy screenplay recycling the old wives’ tale about the fool’s errand that is seeking the secret to eternal youth. However, when it comes to the leading ladies, there are many layers — some natural and others supernatural — to unpack.
It’s not to say that Madeline and Helen — or as they are cheekily dubbed throughout the film “Mad” and “Hel” — are good people in any way, shape or form. In fact, they are both quite evil at their core, especially to one another. But these devils in little black dresses are a true delight to watch, wearing their battered hearts on their tastefully sheer sleeves … before rolling them up to bury those who cross them alive (at least in their minds).
At the start of the film, Mad and Hel are quite obvious opposites. Mad is this well-coiffed Broadway star whose long, frosty locks match both her personality and personal dress style (see: all the baby blue and silver off-the-shoulder blouses she dons in the first half of the film). Meanwhile, aspiring writer Hel is presented as the less attention-seeking of the two, donning full coverage turtlenecks, cardigans and maxi skirts in the same rusty reds and boring browns that make up her mousy, shoulder-length hair.
The opposition between the two women is further emphasized by the reactions they receive from Dr. Ernest Menville (a bespectacled Bruce Willis, also playing against type). Although the awkward, yet ambitious plastic surgeon comes to Mad‘s failing show as Hel‘s fiance, he quickly falls for (and all over) Mad, eventually leaving a devastated Hel for her former friend. This leads to a cringe-worthy segment in which the famously svelte Hawn dons a fat suit and is dragged off to a mental institution, where she is berated by the staff for refusing to a) lose weight and and b) stop talking about Mad obsessively.
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After disappearing from both their lives for several years, Hel finally reconnects with Mad and Ernest at her book launch. Mad heads to the party in all black, as she’s preparing to attend the funeral of an old friend. When she arrives, she realizes she is equally over and underdressed.
In a dramatic reveal, we see that Hel‘s once-lifeless hair now glows a fiery red, the tight tendrils framing her toned shoulders and drawing your eyes towards the plunging neckline on her figure-hugging, sleeveless gown. Suffice to say, if looks could kill, the new and superficially improved Hel would be wanted for mass murder, with her first victim being — much to Mad‘s dismay — a suddenly reinvested Ernest.
In addition to having a noticeable physical overhaul, Hel also seems to have unlocked a sort of otherworldly confidence, floating around all flirtatious and fabulous like she’s in on a secret no one — not even the exceptionally nosy Mad — does. And of course, there is something deeper, darker going on behind this makeover madness. And her name is Lisle (a brilliantly cast Isabella Rossellini).
No, Hel isn’t in the honeymoon period with Lisle, a seemingly ageless beauty who wears a cascade of necklaces over her breasts in place of a blouse (too bad too, seeing as this film has a subtextual queerness that can’t be denied). Rather, Hel is basking in the afterglow of Lisle‘s purple potion, which offers the secret to everlasting youth … for a hefty price.
Naturally, Mad eventually finds her own way to Lisle‘s, desperate for an emotional and physical lift as she finds her career and marriage weaning. After downing the irresistible elixir, Mad is almost immediately renewed, filling out her icy blue sweatsuit as her fine lines magically disappear before her, and our, eyes.
Seeing as this is a dark comedy, it takes a limb-twisting, shotgun-laden showdown for Mad to realize that Hel has taken the very same death-defying dose she has. And funnily enough, it is their shared commitment to sacrificing traditional humanity for effortless beauty that finally brings these two bitter frenemies together, body and soul.
After years of fighting for Ernest‘s affection, Mad and Hel suddenly become obsessed with sharing the surgeon-turned-mortician, constantly pestering him to maintain their immortal bodies with the help of his own secret weapon for waking the dead: chemical-laden spray paint. Their hope is that one day he too will drink Lisle‘s potion, keeping this tragic threesome tied together forever. But the climax of the film sees a fed-up Ernest leaving Mad and Hel behind to paint each other’s asses, with Lisle quickly following suit.
In a flashforward, we see the girls attend Ernest‘s funeral. Unlike their early days, Mad and Hel are now seen in near-identical skirt suit sets, donning matching black veils to hide their equally flaking faces. Really, the only thing that distinguishes them from each other is their signature hair colours.
After hearing a priest go on and on about Ernest and the seemingly noble life he lived without them, Mad and Hel sneak out the church, guffawing at the suggestion that their idiot ex found the real secret to staying forever young: the love of friends and family. Then, in a pitch perfect ending, the girls fall down a set stairs, their limbs scattered on the ground like oversized puzzle pieces as they playfully argue about where they parked the car.
While Ernest gets to live on in infamy through the fond memories of others, Mad and Hel are Death Becomes Her‘s Forever Final Girls, forced to hide away from society for the rest of their endless existence. It is a harsh reminder reminder that while men are allowed to age “gracefully” (read: naturally) until their inevitable demise, women are rarely given the permission to do the same. What’s more, if women spend “too much time” on her looks, they are deemed vapid and vain and thus, undesirable as both friends and romantic prospects.
I don’t know about you, but I can barely go a day without seeing someone applaud a women (famous or otherwise) for “still lookin’ good” after 30 (you know, as if that’s the witching hour for deciding the fate of a woman’s fuckability). I also have daily insecurity spirals after logging on to Instagram without and getting berated by “tummy teas” and “wrinkle-reducing creams,” our own real-life variants on Lisle‘s cursed concoction. Then I think about the fact that women as truly beautiful as Streep and Hawn are still subject to questions about how they maintain their physical bodies (for the record, they both claim to not have done anything other than routine skincare, regular exercise and balanced dieting) when what’s really more interesting is how they have accumulated such eclectic bodies of work.
“[…] Mad and Hel are Death Becomes Her‘s Forever Final Girls, forced to hide away from society for the rest of their endless existence.”
It’s true that Mad and Hel both chose to purchase and consume that time-turning potion. But the fact is, they might not have ever gotten to the place where they wanted to if they hadn’t been told, again and again, that if you put everything into looking “good,” you’re nothing. Like so many of us, they were not only constantly put a mirror up to themselves, but also to compare their reflections to others.
While Mad and Hel certainly have their inner flaws, I have never viewed them as the villains of Death Becomes Her and I don’t think I ever will. I see them as the products of widely shared trauma, emotionally damaged by the ways they have been both ogled and ignored by not only general society, but also the ones they loved (hello, Ernest!). They might never be able to put their earlier selves back together again, but I get great joy out of seeing them try.
It’s often said that beauty is pain, and as many of us know, sometimes the only way to get through some of life’s more painful moments, is to find something — anything — to laugh about. While Death Becomes Her might trigger some of our more self-critical impulses (hey, I’d love to be as comfortable as 1994 Meryl seems to be black bodysuit and sheer shawl), it also encourages us to not take ourselves, or the absurd entities that are the “beauty” and “wellness” industries, so seriously. Because much like beauty, success and happiness is in the eye of the beholder.
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