Film: Death Becomes Her

Imagine you could become immortal. You would never worry about ageing or death — you would stay young and beautiful forever, and you would be in good company. The only catch is that after ten years, you would have to "disappear" in order to uphold The Masquerade. Now imagine that your biggest romantic rival has already taken this step.

Oh, and a warning: you will need to take very good care of your body, because you will be using it for a very long time...

Death Becomes Her is a 1992 dark comedy directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Goldie Hawn, Meryl Streep and Bruce Willis. It won an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects.

This movie contains examples of:

  • Absurdly Sharp Claws: In one scene Meryl Streep's character leaves scratch-marks on a marble column.
  • Audible Gleam: Of sorts. Madeline's breasts lift and set with audible pops.
  • An Aesop: At the end, no one knows who Ernest Menville was before he turned 50. He became famous, successful and found true love after 50.
  • The Alcoholic: Ernest has become one, and now can no longer use his cosmetic surgery skills on living patients. It's implied his bad marriage is to blame.
  • Alpha Bitch: Implied with Madeline, not so much when she's a White-Dwarf Starlet.
  • Amusing Injuries: The most disturbing catalogue there is this side of a Tex Avery cartoon.
  • And Then What?: Ernest wonders this when offered immortality.
  • Answers to the Name of God: "My god!" "Thank you."
  • Anything But That!: "I want to talk about... Madeline Ashton." (cue 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.
  • Berserk Button: "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 fiancé Ernest will fall for Madeline, her childhood friend, who is a flashy actress and definite Veronica. Depending on how you define the roles, though, they become less distinct after the first fifteen minutes of the movie.
  • Black Comedy: Damn straight. Poor Helen gets the worst of it. 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.
  • 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 eventually their bodies simply 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...
  • Came Back Wrong: Type 4.
  • The Cameo: Sydney Pollack is the first doctor Madeline sees post-stairs accident.
  • 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.
  • Crazy Cat Lady: Helen. Correction: Morbidly Obese Crazy Cat Lady.
  • Death by Falling Over: To be fair, there was a long flight of marble stairs involved...
  • Decoy Protagonist: A rare third-act switch.
  • 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 has drunk a potion giving her eternal youth and beauty, her husband Ernest asks, "Change your hair?"
  • Dramatic Thunder: "Siempre viva! Live forever!" and "It's a miracle!"
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: We find out that 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 opened an AA chapter. When he does die, Madeline and Helen arrive at his funeral dressed all in black and mock most of Ernest's eulogy, even though the time of them are badly painted and put together corpses at this point.
  • Elvis Has Left the Planet / 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. 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.
  • 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.
    • Then:
    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: "I have absolutely no interest in Madeleine Ashton!" Cue the wedding.
  • Head Turned Backwards: "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 fiancé 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.
  • Hidden Depths: Ernest, beaten down by years of horrible marriage, at first seems weak-willed and buffoonish. 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 copes at the end, starting his life anew at 50.
  • Hot Witch: Lisle.
  • Immortality: Ernest also achieves a more Aesop-ish form of immortality in films end by being remembered after death for his accomplishments in life.
  • Immortality Begins at Twenty: 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. Yes, they are immortal but their bodies are falling to pieces, literally. The very end of the movie has their heads rolling down the stairs.
  • Irony as She Is Cast: Meryl Streep, who is probably the greatest living actress today, playing hammy actress Madeline Ashton.
    • In-universe example: Madeline is cast in a musical version of Sweet Bird of Youth, which is about an older woman desperately clinging to her youth and beauty.
    • Also Goldie Hawn as the (initially) mousy Helen and Bruce Willis as the weak-willed Ernest.
  • Karma Houdini: Not only does Ernest receive no real punishment for technically murdering Madeline, his life actually turns for the better because of the events.
  • Lady in Red: Helen.
    • Woman in White / True Blue Femininity: Madeline.
    • Their colorschemes 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 "see through" Helen both figuratively...and literally.
  • Large Ham: Lisle. Madeline, too.
  • 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 being with someone who loves him.
    • It could also have something to do with being trapped in an unhappy marriage.
  • Major Injury Underreaction: A natural result of the potion removing people's ability to feel pain after their bodies have died.
  • Manipulative Bitch: Lisle, also Madeline and Helen to a lesser extent.
  • The Masquerade: No one must know of the potion. Foreshadowed when the plastic surgeon turns off his security camera when telling Madeline about Lisle.
  • Meaningful Background Event
  • 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.
  • Murdering the Hypotenuse: Helen wanted to kill Madeline, concocting an elaborate plan with Ernest's help.
  • The Musical: Songbird! is a Stylistic Suck adaptation of Sweet Bird of Youth.
  • Neck Snap: An understandable result of being pushed down a long flight of marble stairs. Less understandable is the fact that she gets up afterwards with her head twisted around backwards.
  • 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 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 Zemickis' take on said undead.
  • Rasputinian Death: Madeline and Helen get these by the end, only they don't take.
  • Riddle for the Ages: Just how much did that potion cost?
  • Scary Shiny Glasses: Ernest has them for a moment when Helen finishes outlining her plot to kill Madeline.
  • Sexless Marriage: Madeline and Ernest.
  • Shout-Out:
  • 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. Ernest breaks the skylight precisely where God and Adam's fingertips are about to touch.
  • Sliding Scale of Undead Regeneration
  • 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 flat on his back which would minimize immediate cuts and the window breaking would reduce the force of that impact considerably while still 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: Bears some thematic elements with the 1960 B-horror movie The Leech Woman. A bitter woman, also 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. This film also used make-up effects to make star Coleen Gray seem older than she actually is at the beginning of the movie.
  • Springtime for Hitler: Although Madeline's musical performance is mostly hated, it is precisely then that Ernest falls in love with her.
  • 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 as well, 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.
  • Stylistic Suck: Carried off to perfection by Meryl Streep. Only one of the best actresses in the world could convincingly be one of the worst hams.
  • Took a Level in Badass: When 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.
  • Unfolding Plan Montage: Helen outlines a plan to kill Madeline, but 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, getting slightly flustered but dealing with it very well, then calmly stepping outside... to have a heart attack. Very much justified and Truth in Television as doctors are taught to keep focussed in certain situations.
  • The Unfair Sex: Very, very much averted. Ernest is depicted as a Nice Guy and Woobie no matter what he does whether its dumping his fiance for her friend or trying to murder his - admittedly very bitchy - wife while all the women in the film are thoroughly irredeemable.
  • The Vamp: Lisle and, to a lesser extent, Madeline and - post makeover - Helen
  • Vanity Mirror Full of Crazy: Helen's is covered with altered pictures of Madeline that makes her look like Heath Ledger's Joker.
  • Waking Up at the Morgue: Justified here, because nobody could survive a tumble down a flight of marble stairs and a twisted-around head... and technically, she didn't.
  • Walking Out on the Show: In the film's opening scene, Madeline is starring in Songbird!, a musical adaptation of Sweet Bird of Youth with copious amounts of Stylistic Suck. Audience members are leaving in droves, and most of the ones who are staying are only doing so because they have fallen asleep. Ernest is the only person who is enraptured by the performance, to Helen's alarm.
  • White-Dwarf Starlet: Madeline Ashton.
  • Who Wants to Live Forever?: A surprisingly philosophical discussion of this trope. Of course, when the priest eulogizes Ernest that he'd found the secret to immortality through his children and his work, Helen and Madeline both mock; "Blah Blah Blah".
  • Your Cheating Heart: Madeline with Ernest.