Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Film review: "Death Becomes Her" (1992)

In the early 90's Meryl and Goldie Hawn were interested in doing a project together.  As I've already covered in one of my early shoulda coulda wouldas, Thelma & Louise was on the radar as a possibility.  For several reasons you've hopefully read in the aforementioned link, it didn't pan out.  A year later the two ended up starring alongside each other in the campy, now cult-classic film Death Becomes Her.

By 1992 we saw four consecutive Hollywood films from Meryl with She-Devil, Postcards from the Edge, Defending Your Life and Death Becomes Her.  This move was likely a combination of choosing more "commercial" roles as she approached 40, and wanting some stability for her family.  In my opinion it's her roughest patch in terms of film quality, but I'll cover that in more depth in a future post.

This film marked the first time Meryl had to contend with extensive green screen work, as she and Goldie's characters go through a series of bodily transformations.  The film tells the quirky story of two "frenemies," Madeline Ashton (Meryl), an aging actress who steals Helen Sharp's (Goldie) plastic surgeon fiancé (Bruce Willis).  Helen becomes morbidly obese, obsesses about the breakup, and develops a homicidal attitude toward Madeline.

Here's where it gets weird(er).  Several years later Helen and Madeline meet again.  While Madeline is looking rather aged despite her extensive and expensive efforts, Helen is miraculously transformed into a svelte beauty.  Turns out the physical transformation came from a potion that Madeline eventually gets her hands on as well.  The two discover each other's secret and after attempts to do away with one another, end up together with nothing but their broken bodies and lonely minds.

Not exactly what we're used to seeing from Meryl.  As always she's brilliant in the role.  I particularly enjoy how well she portrays someone who's image obsessed while making the character seem more physically unattractive than she probably is.  It helps tremendously with the contrast of her post-potion appearance.  While Madeline is a desperate, pathetic person, Meryl manages to portray her more comically tragic than anything.  Initially hating her, we begin to feel sorry for her.

Commercially the film was reasonably sucessful, won the Oscar for its CGI visual effects and garnered a Golden Globe nomination for Meryl.  Not too shabs.  Although I get a kick out of the film for is goofiness and camp, I tend to consider it an unnecessary misstep for someone of Meryl's expertise.  She's been quoted as saying she thought working on a film with such detail on special effects was incredibly tedious and that Death Becomes Her would be her one and only.  No protestations here. 



  1. Replies
    1. A green screen is the backdrop they'll use for layering more than one visual screen. It's done with computer technology, sort of like what they do with the background behind a weather man when he's doing his reports.

  2. I personally love this film. Yes it could have been a bit better but is still a joy to watch and such fun to see Meryl so camp and bitchy! I am also intrigued about all the deleted scenes and subplot cut from the final version.

    I agree this was a hard time in her career but I much prefer this film to both Defending Your Life and The House of the Spirits so I don't really consider it a waste of time.

    That being said, it did take 6 months to make though, I think that's the joint longest Meryl has worked on a picture from what I've gathered (Out of Africa and It's Complicated (!) each took around the same time too).
    I read one reviewer saying that Meryl used this point in her career to attempt to appear to lighten up and express her comedic chops. It would be interested to know in hindsight which films she wishes she had said no to and ifshe turned down any (retrospectively) better roles to make them.

    And she looked stunning in the second part too!

    UTAHPRIME - Green screen is what is used to produce special effects done on computer after the filming is complete. The actor does their acting against it then later the special effects are synthesised behind them. There is some youtube footage of Meryl and the green screen on this film.

    1. I totally agree about The House of the Spirits and Defending Your Life. In the next couple of months I'll be doing a pretty lengthy post about her entire career/filmography from a viewpoint of roles she did not do but were at least on her radar. The early 90's will be a particular area of focus. You're right, she tried to lighten things up a bit for probably a variety of reasons, one of which being commercial appeal.

      I noticed you wrote that It's Complicated took six months as well. I've noticed that also when looking at her past shooting schedules and it always baffled me. I'm wondering if the six months was more the "production time" vs the actual "filming time." With that particular film I just don't get why it would take so long. Yeah it was east coast/west coast, but why would shooting take that long??

    2. I remember in an interview saying it was one of the longest shoots she has done because Nancy Meyers insisted on shooting scenes time and again and was changing the script in line with the performances etc. It is baffling why it took so long. I guess Meryl was having a very chilled time otherwise she would have been ratty! Remember when she said she loved filming with Clint Eastwood because he was very fast and allowed her to "start from the top"?!

    3. Good points re Meyers. Yeah it was a different experience with Eastwood, as Meryl wasn't used to him only doing 1-2 takes which allowed her to not have to build up with each take.