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.
  • The Alcoholic: In the present day, Ernest can no longer use his cosmetic surgery skills on living patients as a result. 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: 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.
  • 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/Artistic License – Engineering: 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 the 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, and James Dean are among several noted "dead" celebrities seen in the gathering of immortals. Greta Garbo is also mentioned as being among their ranks.
  • 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 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.
  • 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...
  • 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.
  • The Cameo: Sydney Pollack is the first doctor Madeline sees after her 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 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 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 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.
  • 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.
    (later...)
    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.
  • 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.
  • 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 Seein 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 copes at the end and starts his life anew at 50.
  • Hot Witch: Lisle.
  • 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 heads rolling down the stairs.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: The doctor is so taken aback by Madeline he asks for a swig of Earnest'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.
  • Lady in Red: Helen, in contrast to 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 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.
  • Major Injury Underreaction: This is a natural result of the potion removing someone's ability to feel pain after their body has died.
  • 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 Earnest 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.
  • 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 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 Zemickis' take on said undead.
  • Rasputinian Death: Madeline and Helen get these by the end, only they don't take due to their immortality.
  • 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, and Ernest falls into one.
  • Scary Shiny Glasses: Ernest has them for a moment when Helen finishes outlining her plot to kill Madeline.
  • 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:
  • 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: (To Madeline whom both heads are both unattached from their bodies and are upside down) Did you remember where you parked the car?
  • 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 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.
  • 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 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.
    "Mad!"
    "Hel!"
  • Stylistic Suck: Only Meryl Streep, one of the best actresses in the world, could convincingly play one of the worst hams to ever grace stage and/or screen.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Your Cheating Heart: Madeline with Ernest.