Film / Death Becomes Her

Imagine, for a moment, that one drink of a simple elixir could make you immortal. You would never need to worry about aging or dying; the elixir would make you young and beautiful forever, which would put you in some very good company. This only has one catch: After ten years, you must "disappear" to make sure no one figures out you've become immortal.

Now imagine that your biggest romantic rival — the person who stole away the love of your life years ago — has already become immortal. Of course you'd take the elixir yourself!

Oh, and one last thing: Take very good care of your body, because you'll be using it for a very long time...

Death Becomes Her, a 1992 dark comedy directed by Robert Zemeckis for Universal Pictures, stars the trio of Goldie Hawn, Meryl Streep, and Bruce Willis as three people trapped in a love triangle that eventually turns murderous — if the people being murdered could actually die, anyway. The film won an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects.

Death Becomes Her contains examples of the following tropes:

  • Absurdly Sharp Claws: In one scene, Madeline leaves scratch-marks on a marble column.
  • An Aesop: At the end, no one knows who Ernest Menville was before he turned 50. He became famous, achieved success, and found true love after 50. That is the true way to live forever.
  • Aesop Amnesia: After hearing the touching euology about "living forever" (by being remembered by your loved ones), Helen and Madeline... completely miss the point, and deride him for not having achieved "true" immortality like them.
  • The Alcoholic:
    • In the present day, Ernest can no longer use his cosmetic surgery skills on living patients as a result of his drinking. It's implied his bad marriage is to blame.
    • Helen's plan to kill Madeline hinged on making it look like a drunk driving accident.
  • Alpha Bitch: Implied with Madeline, not so much when she's a White-Dwarf Starlet.
  • Amusing Injuries: This film has the most disturbing catalogue of such injuries this side of a Tex Avery cartoon.
  • And Then What?: Ernest wonders this when offered immortality. What's he supposed to do for the rest of eternity? What if he gets bored? And why would he want to be stuck with Madeline and Helen forever?
  • Answers to the Name of God: "My god!" "Thank you."
  • Anything but That!: "I want to talk about... Madeline Ashton." [cries of anguish from Helen's psychotherapy group members]
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking:
    Helen Sharp, regarding Madeline Ashton: She was a home-breaker. She was a man-eater. And she was a bad actress.
  • Artistic License – Biology: There's some Squick if you think about it. Helen no longer has a spine to hold her upright where the hole was blown in her - but she continues to move as if she does. If the writers considered this the way they did Madeline's head, it would throw off the rest of the story, so it's just better to leave it be as presented in the film.
  • Audible Gleam: Of sorts. Madeline's breasts lift and set with audible pops.
  • Beethoven Was an Alien Spy: Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Andy Warhol, James Dean, and Jim Morrison are among several noted "dead" celebrities seen in the gathering of immortals. Greta Garbo is also mentioned as being among their ranks.
  • Berserk Button:
    • For Ernest: "Flaccid!"
    • For Madeline: "Cheap!" Madeline had already had the upper hand on Ernest — had she ignored his "Cheap!" remark, she'd have never fallen down the stairs.
  • Betty and Veronica: Helen (a shy, timid Betty in the beginning of the movie) is desperately afraid her fiance, Ernest, will fall for Madeline (Helen's childhood friend, a flashy actress, and a definite Veronica). Depending on how you define the roles, though, they become less distinct after the first fifteen minutes of the movie. Helen becomes more like Madeline and then Madeline, too, becomes more like Madeline.
  • Black Comedy:
    • Damn straight — and poor Helen gets the worst of it. She loses men to Madeline, becomes so depressed and downtrodden that she is institutionalized and obsessed with revenge on a woman for shit that started during high school, and gets murdered by having a hole blown through most of her body... and for what? So she can spend eternity as a disembodied head. Someone give that girl a time machine so she can erase her own birth from ever happening.
    • The doctor who takes Madeline's vital signs after her tumble down the stairs, who's initially skeptical about her "revival", ends up needing to be revived himself and dies shortly after.
  • Blessed with Suck: Shortly after finding out about each other's immortality, Helen and Madeline try to kill each other. They are stuck in their broken, battered corpses for (it is implied) eternity. They use undertakers' techniques just to keep themselves looking and moving like real people — but their bodies eventually fall apart.
  • Blonde, Brunette, Redhead: See picture. Raven-haired Lisle could also count.
  • Blown Across the Room: Madeline does this to Helen.
  • Body Horror: Many of the Amusing Injuries throughout the movie fall under this. Though mostly it's Played for Laughs, when you think about living with all of those injuries, artificially masked, forever. By the time of the movie's ending, almost 40 years after the climax, both Mad and Hel are reduced to rotting corpses patching themselves up with paint and glue.
  • Bookends:
    • The movie opens on Madeline's head on the cover of a playbill laying on the ground at the entrance to a theater. The movie ends with Madeline's actual head on the ground at the entrance of a church.
    • Whereas Madeline's first downfall was her being pushed down a flight of stairs by Ernest, her final downfall was the result of being pulled down with Helen on her final flight of stairs after refusing to help her as she is about to tumble down said stairs first.
  • Brick Joke: Ernest mentions that since makeup doesn't properly adhere to dead skin, he has to use flesh-coloured spray paint on cadavers. After being physically dead for 37 years, Mad and Hel need to carry some around to cover their decaying flesh. One of them drops some, which Hel trips on and takes Mad with her down a flight of stairs. Falling down a flight of stairs is another brick joke as well, with one party deciding not to help the other from taking a tumble.
  • Came Back Wrong: Type 4. Technically, Helen and Madeline die, as they are clinically dead (no pulse, cold temperature) after being shot with a shotgun and pushed down the stairs, respectively.
  • The Cameo: Sydney Pollack is the first doctor Madeline sees after her stairs accident.
  • Central Theme: Who Wants to Live Forever?
  • Chekhov's Gun:
    • Ernest is seen trying to throw scalpels at a dartboard early in the film. He does poorly, presumably due to the years of alcoholism giving him shaky hands. Later on, after having one of his hands rejuvenated to display the powers of the potion, he throws a knife with perfect accuracy just when he needs to.
    • The gun cabinet in Ernest and Madeline's house is a literal example. We see an occasional shot of it throughout the film. Madeline later takes a shotgun from the cabinet and uses it to blow a hole in Helen.
  • Chewing the Scenery: From three actors you'd least expect to: Streep, Willis and Hawn. Of the three, Streep is not only chewing the scenery, but she's having a scenery banquet.
  • Crazy Cat Lady: Helen.
  • Death by Cameo: The doctor played by Sydney Pollack apparently suffered a heart attack when trying to get a second opinion about Madeline's condition, but then realized Madeline is indeed dead, or undead.
  • Death by Falling Over: To be fair, there was a long flight of marble stairs involved...
  • Death Glare: Madeline and Helen when Ernest deliberately drops the potion.
  • Decoy Protagonist: A rare third-act switch, from Mad and Hel's feud and becoming immortal to Ed trying desperately to get away from them both.
  • Description Cut: Helen's plan to kill Madeline is shown this way.
  • Diamonds in the Buff: Lisle's enormous torso-covering necklace.
  • Did You Get a New Haircut?: Played straight. After Madeline drinks the immortality potion, her husband Ernest asks, "Change your hair?"
  • Dramatic Thunder: "Siempre viva! Live forever!" and "It's a miracle!"
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: After Ernest escaped, he managed to find happiness in the following 37 years and truly atoned for his misdeeds. He found love, had children, and devoted his time to helping people realize that getting older was not the end of the world — and he opened an AA chapter, to boot. When he does die, Madeline and Helen arrive at his funeral dressed all in black and mock most of the eulogy, even though they're pretty much badly-painted, barely-holding-together corpses.
  • Elvis Lives: The King is one of several famous people who took the immortality potion and faked his own death. He makes appearances from time to time to grab a few headlines.
  • Evil Cannot Comprehend Good: Lisle and company are genuinely puzzled when Ernest refuses the potion. They are too self-centered and shallow to care about the reasons he has for not wanting to be immortal.
  • Facial Horror: Madeline and Helen, as well as one of Ernest's celebrity clients and his Cheshire Cat Grin.
  • Fanservice:
    • Lisle. And her boyfriends/bodyguards. "Keep your ass handy."
    • Michelle Johnson in one scene, before her boss shows up to refer Mad to Lisle.
  • Fate Worse Than Death: A major theme of the film.
  • Fat Suit: Hawn donned one for a segment of the film. She never let her children see her wearing it, reportedly because it scared them.
  • Femme Fatale: Both Madeline and Helen, but Helen really plays it up.
    Helen: You're a powerful sexual being, Ernest.
    Ernest: I am?
    Helen: Yes, you are. If I never told you before, it was because I wasn't the sort of girl who could say the word "sexual" without blushing. Well I can now. Sexual... sensual... sexy... sex... sex... sex...
  • Finger Poke of Doom: Maddy go down the hollllle. More like Maddy go down the long flight of stairs.
  • For the Evulz: Mad revels in having (apparently) killed Helen with a point blank shotgun blast.
    Ernest: She's dead!
    Madeline: (mock gasp) She is? (gleeful) Oh. These are the moments that make life worth living.
    Ernest: Life in prison? Know what that means to a person in your condition?
    Madeline: So negative. (eyes glittering) Can't you just let me enjoy the moment?
  • Genre Shift: The first two-thirds are a dark supernatural comedy about Helen and Madeleine's rivalry. Then it switches moods... and protagonists.
  • Ghostly Glide: Creepy nuns float down the hallway past Bruce Willis leading to the morgue.
  • Gilligan Cut: Ernest tells Helen, "I have absolutely no interest in Madeline Ashton!" Cue the wedding of Ernest and Madeline.
  • Giving Them the Strip: Ernest sheds his jacket to get loose when one of Lisle's guard dogs grabs his coattails.
  • Head Turned Backwards: After Madeline falls down the stairs, her head has been twisted 180 degrees.
    "My ass! I can see my ass!"
  • Heartbreak and Ice Cream: Helen Sharp has her cupboards stocked with cake frosting several years after the heartbreak of watching her fiance marry Madeline Ashton.
  • Henpecked Husband: Ernest. So much. He would rather suffer a potentially fatal fall than deal with his bitchy wife for the rest of his life. Although to be fair, if she'd gotten her way it would have been an unbearably long life.
  • He Who Fights Monsters: Helen, after her life falls into the gutter when Madeline takes Ernest from her. She spends a long duration of her life wallowing before getting back on track, motivated by getting murderous revenge. By the end of the film, both her and Madeline are near interchangeable with each other, and ironically the only friends each other have.
  • Hidden Depths: Ernest, beaten down by years of his horrible marriage, at first seems weak-willed and buffoonish. For half the movie there are shades of What Does She See in Him? as both women vie for possession of him. By the end he comes across as the strongest and wisest character in the film.
  • Hollywood Mid-Life Crisis: All three main characters suffer this. Ernest learns to cope and appreciate what he's got at the end, and starts his life anew at 50.
  • Hot Witch: Lisle.
  • Humans Are Bastards: Everybody is pretty much a Jerk Ass, with the sole exception of Ernest.
  • Immortality: Helen and Madeline achieve actual immortality. Ernest achieves a more Aesop-ish form of immortality by the film's end by being remembered after death for his accomplishments in life.
  • Immortality Begins at 20: Played with. The serum makes you look younger. Of course, if you abuse yourself like Mad and Hel, you end up looking like crones from constant repair.
  • Immortality Hurts: Averted. Neither Madeline nor Helen feels her injuries.
  • Immunity Disability: The two women gain immortality just before one suffers a broken neck and the other has a hole blown through her stomach. They're immortal, sure, but their bodies are falling to pieces, literally. The very end of the movie has their bodies breaking into bits after rolling down the stairs and their heads snapping off.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: The doctor is so taken aback by Madeline he asks for a swig of Ernest's flask.
  • Irony: Madeline and Helen, who wish nothing more than seeing the other dead, are stuck having to take care of each other for eternity.
  • Karma Houdini: Not only does Ernest receive no real punishment for technically murdering Madeline, his life actually turns out for the better because of what he does. Granted he goes through a lot of crap to get there first.
  • Lady in Red: Helen, in contrast to Woman in White/True Blue Femininity Madeline. Their color-schemes are switched in Helen's fantasy of killing Madeline (and in the picture), and from Lisle's (who wears both colors; a dark red shawl and a white "bathrobe") party onwards they're both women in black.
  • Lampshaded Double Entendre: Madeline is able to figuratively "see through" Helen. Later on, she's able to do so literally.
  • Large Ham: Both Lisle and Madeline fall under this trope.
  • The Loins Sleep Tonight: Madeline accuses Ernest of this. He doesn't deny it. He does later remarry and have children, so it's probably cured by quitting drinking and getting out of an unhappy marriage.
  • Losing Your Head: Madeline and Helen at the end, after another fall down a flight of stairs causes their already decaying bodies to go straight to pieces.
  • Made of Iron: Ernest takes a horrific multi-story fall during the climax. If the impact with the glass far, FAR below wouldn't outright kill a lesser man, it would surely have stunned him long enough to drown in the pool Ernest lands in, but he gets right back up with little more than a bloody cut on his arm. And he never even drank the potion.
  • Major Injury Underreaction: This is a natural result of the potion removing someone's ability to feel pain after their body has died.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: How Helen wants to kill Madeline - putting her in a car with a dozen empty liquor bottles and having it drive off a cliff.
  • Manipulative Bitch: Lisle, and both Madeline and Helen to a lesser extent, fall under this trope.
  • The Masquerade: No one must know of the potion. The plastic surgeon even turns off his security camera before he tells Madeline about Lisle.
  • Meaningful Background Event: As Ernest speaks on the phone to Helen you can see Madeline, out of focus, getting up off the floor behind him.
  • Meaningful Name. All over the place. For one, Ashton fears growing old. Sharp is what Helen becomes. Both women become Mad as Hel. And, of course, Ernest Menville. Word of God says that the names of the three main characters were deliberately chosen so that their shortened forms read Mad Ern Hel — Madder 'n Hell.
  • Minor Injury Overreaction: This has stretched back to Mad and Hel's mutual girlhood.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Isabella Rossellini as Lisl von Rhoman. Holy crap, that dress.
  • Murdering the Hypotenuse: Helen wants to kill Madeline, concocting an elaborate plan with Ernest's help.
  • The Musical: Songbird! is a Stylistic Suck adaptation of Sweet Bird of Youth.
  • Mutilation Conga: Oh boy.
  • Neck Snap: An understandable result of being pushed down a long flight of marble stairs. Less understandable is the fact that she gets up afterward with her head twisted around backwards.
  • Never My Fault: Neither Madeline nor Helen are willing to accept any responsibility for the bad things that happen in their lives, endlessly blaming each other and any other excuse they can come up with.
  • Not So Different: Mad and Hel.
    Helen: You have no idea what it was like, hating and envying you at the same time!
    Madeline: You envied me? I envied you!
  • Not Using the "Z" Word. No one in the film mentions zombies, but director Robert Zemeckis openly admits in interviews it's a zombie film — albeit with glamorous Hollywood zombies.
  • Now You Tell Me
    Madeline Ashton: Bottoms up! (drinks potion)
    Lisle von Rhoman: Now, a warning...
    Madeline Ashton: NOW a warning?!
  • Nuns Are Spooky: Ernest meets three of them coming out of the morgue. They glide.
  • Older Than They Look: Duh. Lampshaded by Lisle, who has Madeline guess her age (71). Madeline first guesses 38, which earns her a Death Glare from Lisle, and quickly re-guesses 28 and 23.
  • Our Zombies Are Different: Robert Zemeckis' take on said undead.
  • Parting-from-Consciousness Words: Ernest's distracted, irritable "What?" after getting clobbered in the head with a vase.
  • Pragmatic Villainy: Helen desperately wants Madeline dead, but when Ernest calls her and tells her that he pushed Madeline to her (temporary) death rather than going through with Helen's more elaborate plan, she isn't happy about it since Ernest's recklessness has put them in great jeopardy of being blamed for the crime.
  • Rasputinian Death: Madeline and Helen get these by the end, only they don't take due to their immortality.
  • The Reveal: Mad and Hel show up at Ernest's funeral wearing thick black veils. At first it seems like they're just trying to hide the fact that they're still physically 20-somethings despite being in their 70s, but when the veils come off, we see that their faces have been badly painted and look more disturbing than if they'd aged naturally.
  • Riddle for the Ages: Just how much did that potion cost?!
  • Room Full of Crazy: Helen's vanity mirror is covered with altered pictures of Madeline that makes her look like Heath Ledger's Joker.
  • Rule of Pool: Helen is blown into a pond thanks to a shotgun blast in the stomach, and Ernest falls into one.
  • Scary Shiny Glasses: Ernest has them for a moment when Helen finishes outlining her plot to kill Madeline.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here!: Ernest's attitude towards the end. He successfully escapes, taking the aforementioned dartboard with him.
  • The '70s: Painfully so during the opening scene, especially when Songbird! incorporates "Do The Hustle" in its big number.
  • Sexless Marriage: Madeline and Ernest.
  • Shout-Out:
  • Shovel Strike: Helen and Madeline go at it by attacking each other with shovels.
  • Show Within a Show: Songbird!, a musical adaptation of Sweet Bird Of Youth.
  • Sistine Steal: The stained-glass skylight that Ernest destroys when he falls after refusing immortality is broken precisely where God and Adam's fingertips are about to touch.
  • Skewed Priorities: After leaving Ernest's funeral, both Madeline and Helen fall down stairs, which causes their already decaying bodies to break apart.
    Helen's broken-off head: (To Madeline's broken-off head) Did you remember where you parked the car?
  • Slapstick: This film would fall under this category due to the cartoonish nature of the Amusing Injuries Helen and Madeline received.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: Easily Zemeckis' most cynical film.
  • Sliding Scale of Undead Regeneration: Type II.
  • Soft Water: Ernest's swan dive off the top of a huge mansion, through a stained-glass skylight, and into an indoor pool leaves him with only a nasty-looking cut on his arm. He hits the basically-flat skylight on his back (which would minimize immediate cuts) and the window breaking reduced the force of that impact considerably while slowing down his speed enough to keep the water from killing him on second impact. In the first draft, Ernest was supposed to die in the fall, with the movie ending at his funeral.
  • Spiritual Successor: This film shares some thematic elements with the 1960 B-horror movie The Leech Woman: A bitter woman, trapped in a loveless marriage with a selfish and superficial doctor, is given the secret to eternal youth by a mysterious woman named Malla. The final act has her using her newly-acquired good looks to try stealing a pretty young rival's beau. In both films, the secret comes at a price that makes both female leads become desperate. Leech Woman also used make-up effects to make star Coleen Gray seem older than she actually is at the beginning of the movie.
  • Staircase Tumble: Madeline falls down a staircase twice. The first time, Ernest finally snaps when she insults him as he hesitates to stop her from falling, and he gives her the final push; she breaks her neck on the way down. The second time, it is Helen who is teetering at the top of a staircase while Madeline simply smiles maliciously — until Helen drags her down as well. Ernest almost goes down at one point after being hit over the head with a vase.
  • Stalker Shrine: Helen Sharp has one of her nemesis and rival Madeline Ashton.
  • Stealth Insult: The girls' affectionate nicknames for each other, crooned as if delighted to see one another. Which is also a sort of Stealth Pun for when they're in Vitriolic Best Buds mode.
    Helen: Mad!
    Madeline: Hel!
  • Stylistic Suck: Only Meryl Streep, one of the best actresses in the world, could convincingly play one of the worst hams to ever (dis)grace stage and/or screen.
  • This Is for Emphasis, Bitch!: Helen to Madeline before they fight: "En garde, BITCH!"
  • Took a Level in Badass: After Mad becomes acclimated to being dead, she becomes a lot more nasty and clever.
    Madeline: What if the police should receive an anonymous phone call about you and find me on the floor not breathing, no pulse? [Psychotic Smirk] Ain´t nobody can play dead like me, Ernest. What will you tell them? You´re going to be very popular in prison.
  • Torso with a View: Helen gets a huge hole in her stomach after Madeline blows her away with a hunting rifle. It actually comes in handy when Madeline throws the remains of her shovel at Helen and it goes through the hole without touching the rest of Helen’s body.
  • Troll: Seems Elvis enjoys making appearances just to freak people out. He gets teasingly called out for it by the emcee.
  • Unfolding Plan Montage: Helen outlines a plan to kill Madeline, but this is subverted when it turns out to be an Imagine Spot.
  • Unusually Uninteresting Sight: "It's a dislocated neck!" The doctor at the hospital has a kind of No-Sell reaction to this, becoming slightly flustered but dealing with it very well. He then calmly steps outside...and has a heart attack. Very much justified and Truth in Television as doctors are taught to keep focused in certain situations.
  • The Unfair Sex: Very, very much averted. Ernest is depicted as a Nice Guy and Woobie no matter what he does — including dumping his fiance for her friend and trying to murder his bitchy wife — while all the women in the film are thoroughly irredeemable.
  • The Vamp: Lisle and, to a lesser extent, both Madeline and (post-makeover) Helen fall into this trope.
  • Waking Up at the Morgue: Nobody could survive a tumble down a flight of marble stairs and a twisted-around head. And technically, Madeline didn't.
  • Walking Out on the Show: In the film's opening scene, Madeline stars in Songbird!, a musical adaptation of Sweet Bird of Youth with copious amounts of Stylistic Suck. Audience members leave in droves; most of the ones who stay are only doing so because they've fallen asleep. Ernest is the only person who loves the performance — much to Helen's alarm.
  • White-Dwarf Starlet: Madeline
  • Who Wants to Live Forever?: The film presents a surprisingly philosophical discussion of this trope. Of course, when the priest eulogizing Ernest says he'd found the secret to immortality through his children and his good works, Helen and Madeline both mock the eulogy.
  • Wound That Will Not Heal: After Madeline and Helen drink the immortality potion, they suffer injuries that turn them into walking corpses. Had they been more careful, they would have had forever-living bodies, but now they cannot die alongside them. For all intents and purposes, they're zombies; their souls are bound to their bodies forever, but since their bodies are clinically dead, they no longer have the ability to heal.
  • Wrecked Weapon: When Madeline and Helen are hitting at each other with shovels, Madeline’s gets cut through by Helen’s.
  • Your Cheating Heart: Madeline with Ernest.