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Film / Death Becomes Her

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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. It's a no-brainer.

But imagine that your biggest romantic rival — the person from whom you might have stolen the love of her life, years ago — has already become immortal, and is trying to steal your man back. Neither of you know about the other's immortality, but both of you want to kill each other.

Well, turns out that maybe it's not a good idea to even try that. Because there was actually another catch. If you don't take good care of your body, you'll have to deal with the consequences for a very long time...

Death Becomes Her, a 1992 comedic Gothic Horror story 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 is best known for its special effects, including uses of CGI that were highly ambitious for the early 90's. It 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.
  • Achilles' Heel: Madeline and Helen's potion grants eternal youth, but does absolutely nothing about physical damage to the body. Any critical injury or mutilation stays that way and cannot be fixed. So the both of them are stuck in rotting and decaying bodies until by the end they fall apart and are nothing but bickering heads.
  • 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 hinges on making it look like a drunk driving accident.
  • All Musicals Are Adaptations: The film opens with Madeline appearing in an awful musical version of Sweet Bird of Youth that bombs.
  • Alpha Bitch: Implied with Madeline, not so much when she's a White-Dwarf Starlet. Not so much Alpha, that is, - she's still a Bitch alright.
  • Amusing Injuries: This film has the most disturbing catalogue of such injuries on this side of a Tex Avery cartoon.
  • An Aesop:
    • Two are delivered towards the end. The first lesson: At the end, the priest giving the eulogy remarks that nobody knew who Ernest Menville was before he turned 50. He became famous, achieved success, developed new hobbies and passions, made new close friends, found true love and started a family after 50. This drives home a point that you're never too old to truly start living. The second lesson: Ernest may have passed on, but he also found "eternal life" by carrying on a legacy through his children, grandchildren and through the memories of the lives he touched and made better. That is the true way to live forever.
    • Take responsibility for your actions, and don't let others ride roughshod over you just for an easier life. Ernest is initially just as bad as Madeline and Helen due to his weak will and wallowing in his own misery, but when he realises what they've become he takes the initiative and decides to leave and quit drinking, and is able to build a new and far better life.
  • And Then What?: Ernest wonders this when offered immortality. Even if he doesn't have any 'accidents', 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." Cue cries of anguish from Helen's psychotherapy group members, who start moaning in fear when Helen is asked to talk about something. Even the psychotherapist knows what's coming.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: It doesn't change Lisle's thinking in either the short or the long run, but Ernest still manages to stop her ecstatic rant about the potion dead in its tracks when he asks what's so great about immortality.
    Ernest: Then what?
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking:
  • Artistic License Ė Biology:
    • There's some Squick if you think about itinvoked. 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,note  so it's just better to leave it be as presented in the film.
    • Yeah, there's no way a decapitated head should be able to talk, the lack of lungs and all.
  • Artistic License Ė Physics: The Brick Joke regarding stairs. When Madeline (and then later, Helen) is about to tumble down the steps, she seems to barely keep balance using the bottom of her heels even though the majority of her weight was leaning toward the stairwell. In reality, it wouldn't necessarily take a Mythbusters episode to conclude that someone would automatically fall in that situation. This possibly was just a minor Slapstick gag Played for Laughs given the tone of the story.
  • Ascended Extra: A script example: Helenís role was incredibly minor in the original draft, which differed radically from the finished film. With each rewrite, her part gradually grew larger, ultimately becoming a co-lead and eclipsing other characters, who either had their parts significantly downgraded (like Dakota and the Doctor) or cut entirely.
  • Attractive Zombie: The female leads may not technically be zombies, but they're pretty close: they've taken an immortality potion and then suffered a mortal wound. Their bodies are no longer living (so they can't heal from any damage they take), but the potion won't let them actually die. At least initially they're still reasonably attractive, though by the end of the movie they've had to resort to extensive use of cosmetics and despite having had a long time to practice they're not very good at it.
  • Audible Gleam: Of sorts. When restored to their peak condition, Madeline's breasts lift and set with audible pops.
  • Batman Gambit: Helen's complex plan to murder Madeline also relies on the unlikely event of Madeline inviting her over for dinner. This becomes a moot point thanks to Ernest.
    • On the other hand, the plan would still have probably worked just the same if Ernest had managed to make Madeline drink from one of those glasses under any pretext.
  • Beauty Is Never Tarnished: Totally subverted per the anti-vanity message as the injuries Madeline and Helen sustain after taking the potion kill their bodies and start a process of rotting after their deaths.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: Helen and Madeline would love nothing more than the other being dead. By the end of the film, they're physically dead and rotting while still sentient, presumably for all eternity.
  • Beethoven Was an Alien Spy: Marc Chagall (the spring celebration emcee), 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 fiancé, 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.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Ernest grows old and dies but he leads a very happy and fulfilling life with a loving wife and family, close friends, a thriving career, newfound fame and respect, many enjoyable passions and hobbies, numerous philanthropic achievements and he dies peacefully and with dignity, fondly remembered at his funeral by the many people whose lives he'd enriched and with a legacy that will live on long after him. Helen and Madeline meanwhile are still alive but stuck with each other in deformed, rotting bodies they can barely walk around in, forgotten by everyone, shut away from the world and left with only one another for eternity.
  • 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 sceptical about her "revival", ends up needing to be revived himself and dies shortly after.
  • Blah, Blah, Blah: Madeline's response to the preacher at Ernest Menville's funeral service when he tells the gathered about how Ernest has found eternal life and that he was a man who would live forever.
  • 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. And they have to live with each other, each the person the other hates most.
  • Blonde, Brunette, Redhead: See picture. Raven-haired Lisle could also count as the brunette if the trio is composed of the significant women in the film.
  • 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 with Madeline's head on the cover of a playbill laying on the ground at the entrance to a theatre. 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 Helen 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-colored 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: Inhuman Human. 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. They are also subjected to decay now that they have been killed.
  • The Cameo: Sydney Pollack is the first doctor Madeline sees after her stairs accident.
  • Cassandra Truth: At his funeral, the pastor talks of how one thing everyone loved about Ernest was his jokes such as his "tall tales of the living dead of Beverly Hills."
  • Central Theme: Who Wants to Live Forever? and the toxicity of vanity and competition are explored, showing the dangers of the latter and the drawbacks of the former.
  • Character Tics: Helen tends to wring something between her hands when she's upset.
  • Chekhov's Gun: 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.
  • Chekhov's Skill: 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.
  • 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; this was after she'd done She-Devil, so had embraced the manicness of comedy at that point.
  • Classical Antihero: Ernest is an extremely flawed man, a once-brilliant surgeon plagued by failure, alcoholism, and self-doubt, and very easily led around via his penis by Madeline and Helen. He achieves a more heroic status by being the one to realize the possible horrors involved in taking the potion, and the only one of the three who confronts his problems with ageing, accepts them and emerges a better person. He also is a meek nerd who fears confrontation but ends up saving himself from the undead women's clutches.
  • Comically Missing the Point: More "dark comedy" but the end has Helen and Madeline gloating about how they're still alive when Ernest is dead...ignoring that their "lives" are now as grotesque creatures who no doubt have to hide their true identities while Ernest lived a long and happy life with a family and legacy to remember him. And that's before they end up in pieces at the bottom of the steps.
  • Crazy Cat Lady: Helen in her obese phase has several cats in her messy apartment.
  • Creator In-Joke: Helen says she drank the potion on October 26th 1985. This is the date that Marty McFly travelled back in time to 1955 in Back to the Future, which was of course directed by Robert Zemeckis.
  • Creepy Blue Eyes: Helen's furious eyes after being shotgunned into the pool. Also a case of Monochromatic Eyes since the whites of her eyes appear blue as well.
  • Cue the Rain: Right after Madeleine is called out and dumped by her secret lover, Dakota, rain immediately pours down on her.
  • Death by Cameo: The doctor played by Sydney Pollack apparently suffers a heart attack when trying to get a second opinion about Madeline's condition, but realises that the walking, talking Madeline is truly clinically dead.
  • Death by Falling Over: Madeline. To be fair, there was a long flight of marble stairs involved...
  • Death Glare:
    • Madeline and Helen when Ernest deliberately drops the potion.
    • Lisle gives Madeline one when she guesses her age as 38; Mad quickly guesses 28 and 23 afterwards.note 
  • Deconstruction: The film obviously focuses on the flaws of 'immortality' when you're clinically dead...but immortality that goes to plan isn't that great either; all Lisle's clients have to fake their deaths and go into hiding ten years after taking the potion, and Ernest points out that there's very little recourse if you get bored, lonely or just tired of watching everyone around you grow old and die. Plus you have to be immensely careful of your health or any physical accidents...because you will 'survive'.
  • Decoy Protagonist: A rare third-act switch, from Mad and Hel's feud and becoming immortal to Ernest 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 chest-covering necklace.
  • Did You Get a New Haircut?: Played straight. After Madeline drinks the immortality potion and significantly de-ages, her husband Ernest asks, "Change your hair?"
  • Didn't See That Coming: Lisle's puzzled reaction when Ernest refuses the potion makes it clear that in all the years she's been making this offer, Ernest is the only person to openly consider just how horrible eternal life truly is.
  • Distant Epilogue: The final scene is set 37 years after the rest of the film, placing it in 2029.
  • Double-Meaning Title; The title can mean "death suits her" like "it makes her attractive", or "death suits her" as in "she's better off dead". It can also mean "death manifests in her" or "death takes her shape". All of these can apply to this story of two murderous vanity-corrupted women who cling to their beauty past the point of their own deaths.
  • Double Take: Ernest has a particularly fast (and funny) one when he sees Madeline has taken a shotgun from his gun cabinet.
  • 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, had a thriving career and newfound fame, developed fulfilling hobbies and devoted his time to helping people realize that getting older was not the end of the world — and he opened an AA chapter and two clinics, 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 — Marc Chagall calls him out on this.
    Elvis: (sotto vocce to two women) Hey, I was only having some fun.
  • Evil Cannot Comprehend Good: Lisle and company are genuinely puzzled when Ernest refuses the potion. They are too self-centred and shallow to care about the reasons he has for not wanting to be immortal. They similarly mock the eulogy at his funeral which says that while Ernest has died, his legacy would live on and it was through his family, friends and good deeds that he had achieved immortality.
  • Facial Horror: Madeline and Helen by the end due to peeling and rotting, as well as one of Ernest's celebrity clients and his Cheshire Cat Grin.
  • Face Death with Dignity: While hanging onto dear life with the clear option to take the immortality serum, (but that would mean he'd be stuck serving Madeline and Helen), Ernest drops the vial and accepts his impending death. Subverted when it turns out he survives the fall and goes on to live a much more fulfilling life before dying in his eighties with the implication that this was his philosophy towards the end of his life.
  • Faint in Shock: Both Madeline herself and her doctor faint when he reveals that she has fractures all over her body, has no pulse and is of body room temperature.
  • 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.
      Madeline: You stand there with your 22-year-old skin and your tits like rocks and laugh at me...
  • Fate Worse than Death: A major theme of the film, with the two ladies finding themselves trapped in immortal rotting bodies thanks to their toxic personalities. Ernest realizes that becoming immortal to spend eternity alongside them would be his own fate worse than death, and indeed, chooses death in favour of it. He survives to live a happy life free of them, though only as a result of rejecting them.
  • 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, perhaps beyond eroticism.
    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.
  • Fingore: At some point in the 37 years before the epilogue, Madeline lost one of her fingers due to her apparent knuckle-cracking habit.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • When Mr. Chagall first talks to Madeline, he seems to have trouble focusing and controlling one of his eyes. Since he's later revealed to have taken the potion as well, it could be a sign that the potion restores and retains youth, but not invincibility and healing pre-existing wounds/health conditions.
    • We see from Madeline's meeting with Lisle that clients are given a piece of Lisle's necklace as a pin for their clothing, presumably as a sign of the secret society they have now joined. And in the subsequent scene where Helen visits Ernest to discuss killing Madeline, sharp-eyed viewers will see that she's been wearing a pin in the same place as Madeline, since the book party. It's soon revealed she took the potion as well.
    • Lisle's warning:
      Lisle: Take care of yourself. You and your body are going to be together a long time, be good to it.
  • 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?
  • Freeze-Frame Bonus: Just before Madeline drinks the potion, the bust of a man is visible rising in the bottle. Only distinctly visible in 1080 HD versions as in lower resolution the figure blends into the swirl effect. Visible beginning at 5:09 in this clip.
  • 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 past Ernest down the hallway leading to the morgue.
  • Giftedly Bad: Madeline's acting career never goes anywhere due to this, because while she's pretty, she's just not that good. As a result, when she begins to age and her looks fade, her career fizzles out, as she has no actual talent to fall back on. (In a meta sense, the viewer may find some comedy in this casting, since Streep is one of the most lauded actresses in the industry.)
  • 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.
  • Good Eyes, Evil Eyes: When Helen's body is killed, her irises become a colorless white, giving her gaze a haunting, piercing quality that signifies her physical and moral loss of humanity.
  • Ham-to-Ham Combat: Lots of it, given the three leads and Lisle seem to enjoy one-upping each other. Literal "combat" as Mad and Hel shout insults at each other during a shovel fight.
  • Head Turned Backwards: After Madeline falls down the stairs, her neck is broken, twisting her head 180 degrees. Of course, she's still "alive" due to the potion.
    Madeline: 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.
  • Heel Realization: Ernest is a pretty awful person regardless of how bad Madeline and Helen are, being weak-willed and rather spineless. He callously dumped Helen to marry Madeline and then agreed to Helen's elaborate plan to murder Madeline. His realization comes from seeing what Madeline and Helen have become thanks to the potion and their hatred for each other, and after repairing their bodies he decides to leave. He truly cements it when he turns down the immortality serum, having personally witnessed two cases of its enormous downside, and not wanting to be trapped with Helen and Madeline for eternity.
  • Henpecked Husband: Ernest. So much. He would rather suffer a potentially fatal fall than deal with his horrible 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 she 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.note  By the end he comes across as the strongest and wisest character in the film.
  • Hollywood Mid-Life Crisis: All three main characters suffer from this. Ernest learns to cope and appreciate what he's got at the end, and starts his life anew at 50, ending up much happier and more accomplished than before as a result. Meanwhile, Helen and Madeline are stuck in theirs forever due to being trapped in immortal but decaying bodies and retaining their vitriolic relationship.
  • Hot Witch: Lisle. With added skimpy outfits for audience delight!
  • Humans Are Bastards: Every major character seems to be pretty much a Jerkass, with the sole exception of Ernest - and even then he qualifies only after his Heel Realization.
  • Humiliation Conga: Madeline undergoes one of these the day before she's offered the serum. Not only has Helen resurfaced, she's now somehow far more vibrant and beautiful than she ever was before, while Madeline's looks have faded with age. Depressed, she visits her younger lover, only to find that he's lost interest in her and is dating a girl his own age.
  • Hypocrite: Despite being a married woman herself, Madeline is furious when she finds her toyboy lover Dakota in bed with another woman.
  • Icy Blue Eyes: Helen sports a pair after her corpse spends time submerged in a pool, fading to a blue so pale they're almost white. It makes her look even less human than the gaping hole in her stomach.
  • Idiot Ball: Helen. She manages to go as far as getting engaged to Ernest without Madeline finding out, so what does she do at victory laps? Introduce Ernest to Madeline, knowing full well that Mad will do anything to steal Ernest from her. She justifies this by saying that she needs him to pass the Madeline test (to see if her man is capable of resisting Mad), but wouldn't it have been better to not risk it at all and just marry Ernest first, thus making him completely incapable of leaving her without financial ruin even if he becomes smitten with Mad?
  • Ignored Epiphany: After hearing the touching eulogy about Ernest "living forever" (by being remembered by his loved ones), Helen and Madeline... completely miss the point, and cackle as they walk out of the service, believing he hasn't really achieved "true" immortality, even though their own is a nightmare.
  • Immediate Self-Contradiction: Lisle asks Mad to guess her age, saying she won't be offended — then gives her a nasty Death Glare at her guess of 38 (an in-joke, since this was her actress's real age at the time).
  • 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 Twenty: Played with. The serum restores you to your prime and sets its immortality at that. Of course, if you kill your body like Mad and Hel, you end up looking like rotting crones from constant repair, as the potion does not stop clinical death or decay.
  • Immortality Hurts: Averted. Neither Madeline nor Helen feels their injuries, though it's unclear if this is because their bodies died after their initial injuries or if the serum prevents the immortals from feeling pain at all, as none of the other immortals are shown getting hurt.
  • Immortal Immaturity: The whole movie is a Deconstruction of Living Forever Is Awesome, showing the people who take the immortality serum as shallow and immature, refusing to move past their 20's and actually move on in their lives. The immortal celebrities are all the same as when they "died" years ago, frozen in time like their own ghosts.
  • 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 from then on, 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:
    • At the start of the film, one of the theatre patrons remarks this as he's leaving Madeline's awful show.
    • The doctor is so taken aback by Madeline he asks for a swig of Ernest's flask.
  • Informed Flaw: Songbird! is quite catchy, even with the shoehorned disco bit. Which is probably what's pissed off the audience: the musical deviates so wildly from its source material about a pathetic White-Dwarf Starlet that one gets the impression Madeline altered the original musical's intent to glorify herself. invoked
  • Irony: Madeline and Helen, who wish nothing more than to see the other dead, are stuck having to take care of each other for eternity. Also, Madeline at least was primarily motivated by the desire to stop aging. But now they're trapped in a far worse form of ageing, which they can never escape— decay.
    • This happens to Ernest as well, though in the opposite way. With the tolls of his alcoholism behind him and his skill as a surgeon restored (both implied to be the effect of the small dose of immortality serum he was given), he runs away and ends up an accomplished philanthropist dedicated to fixing the mistakes of his own youth, helping others and starting a family... all after the age of 50.
  • I Take Offense to That Last One: When Helen still believes Madeline to have been murdered, she lectures Ernest, insulting her while the immortal-and-dead Madeline eavesdrops. Helen calls Madeline a "homewrecker, a man-eater, and a bad actress", and this final insult causes Mad to dig her nails into a column with rage.
  • It's All About Me: Madeline's biggest fault. She even sings about it.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: While Helen's doctor could've been more tactful about it, she was absolutely right that Helen needed to forget about Madeline. Case in point; Helen took the potion in 1985 and got to enjoy seven years of youth and beauty, wherein she got her life back together and managed to write a best-selling book. All that immediately went down the drain the moment Madeline and Ernest re-entered her life, and if she hadn't invited them to the premier party for "Forever Young," she'd have continued to have a beautiful body, a career, and at least some semblance of life.
    • Lisle had a point that Ernest, an extremely talented plastic surgeon, wasted away the best years of his life while ensuring that other people stayed looking youthful.
  • Karma Houdini: Ernest does try to murder Madeline in a fit of rage without knowing about her immortality. Even before that, he agrees to go along with Helen's plan to murder her more discreetly. None of that causes him any problem down the line because Madeline doesn't stay dead and needs him later on.
  • Kubrick Stare: In the near-end, when Ernest is trapped on the roof and hanged on a rain gutter by his suspenders, Helen and Madeline encourage Ernest to drink the potion that he kept to survive an impending fall. However, realizing that they only need him for their own selfish reasons, Ernest refuses and drops it to the ground. Then, Helen and Madeleine give him this stare right before he eventually fall. He survives and finally earns his Happily Ever After.
  • Lady in Red: Helen, in contrast to Madeline, who wears white and blue. 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. Helen and Ernest also have their moments.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Helen and Madeline feud and take the immortality potion to one-up each other and also attain eternal youth. Their resentments ultimately end up killing their bodies, consigning them to eternal decay, and they are stuck with each other forever because of their actions.
  • A Lighter Shade of Black: What it boils down to between Ernest and the two women. All three of them have done some horrible stuff, yet Ernest's sins don't seem nearly as bad as Helen and Madeline's. Ernest is eventually the only one of them to have a Heel Realization and after escaping from Helen and Madeline and the whole toxic relationship, goes on to find true happiness while also devoting his time to atoning for his past behavior.
  • Lipstick Mark: A newly thin and young Helen leaves one on Madeline's cheek at the book party, almost certainly as a taunt.
  • 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.
  • Lost in Translation: Whoever wrote the Russian dub, misheard Lisle's impression of Greta Garbo's famous quote "I vont to be alone-ya" as "I vont to be a lawyer."
  • 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.
  • MayĖDecember Romance: The priest delivering the eulogy at Ernest's funeral mentions that he met his (second) wife when he was fifty. Since they had six children together, she must have been considerably younger than him.
  • 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 the twisted body of 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 Godinvoked says that the names of the three main characters were deliberately chosen so that their shortened forms read Mad Ern Hell (Madder Than Hell).
  • Minor Injury Overreaction: This has stretched back to Mad and Hel's mutual girlhood.
  • Motif: Mirrors appear all over the film, highlighting the looming importance of vanity in the story, and possibly inviting the idea of reflections being inaccurate.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Isabella Rossellini as Lisle von Rhoman. Holy crap, that dress.note 
  • Murder 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. It's not technically lethal, however, because the victim has consumed an immortality potion.
  • 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.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Or "Fixing It, Villain" depending on how you view Madeline and Helen. But either way, while dangling over his (seemingly) certain doom, Ernest was clearly on the verge of actually drinking the potion until they revealed that they only wanted him to do so in order for him to keep maintaining them throughout eternity.
  • Nice to the Waiter: Ernest and Madeline's maid Rose only get one scene together, but it's clear they get along better with each other than either of them do with Madeline. Probably due to Madeline's mistreatment of them both.
    Ernest, referring to Madeline: Is 'it' up yet?
    Rose: Yes, 'it's' in the shower.
  • No More for Me: Ernestís exchange after refusing Madeline and Helenís drugged scotch drink. They clobber him with some vases instead.
    Ernest: You know something, I drink too much.
  • "Not So Different" Remark: Madeline and Helen come to the epiphany that they shared something in common:
    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: The downside of immortality is brought up a bit late.
    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 what she thinks is a generous 38, which earns her a Death Glare from Lisle, and quickly re-guesses 28 and 23.
  • Only One Finds It Fun: Ernest is the only one in the audience who loves Madeline's performance, as the rest of the audience leaves. He even gives her an ecstatic standing ovation, calling out "Woo!"
  • Our Zombies Are Different: Robert Zemeckis's take on said undead. These are fully-conscious people, but their bodies are injured and decaying.
  • 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. For one, he called Helen first, rather than the police.
  • Pull The Trigger Provocation: During a tense confrontation at the top of the stairs with a rejuvenated Madeline, Ernest snaps when she insults him and nearly strangles her, before leaving her tottering on the top step. She begs Ernest to pull her up and he begins to... Until she shouts "Hurry up, you wimp!" Ernest responds by poking her shoulder and sending Madeline down the marble stairs in a bone-shattering tumble.
  • Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: Helen after she resurrects from getting a shotgun blast through the stomach, courtesy of Madeline.
  • Rasputinian Death: Madeline and Helen suffer a lot of punishment once their bodies have been killed, but they don't actually die.
  • Resurrected Romance: When Madeline first comes back to life, after she and Ernest realize she's dead, it starts looking like this until Ernest remembers how toxic their relationship was.
  • 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 80s, 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.
  • Rewind, Replay, Repeat: Helen Sharp, during her Heartbreak and Ice Cream point in her life following the marriage of her fiancé to her rival Madeline Ashton, constantly replays a scene in a movie she's watching of Madeline's character being strangled to death, all while the landlord has the police break into her apartment and drag her away.
  • Riddle for the Ages: Just how much did that potion cost?!
  • Room Full of Crazy: Helen's vanity mirror is covered with defaced pictures of Madeline, a few of which make her look like Heath Ledger's Joker.
  • Rule of Funny: The life-ending injuries that Helen and Madeline inflicted on each other are more slapstick than realistic/scary. If there's even any effort to look real, Helen shouldn't even be able to walk upright without a spine and the repeated impacts to Madeline's neck and head would likely look more gory than the rubber-like appearance we get in the actual movie.
  • Rule of Pool: Helen is blown into a pond thanks to a shotgun blast in the stomach, and Ernest falls into a pool at Lisle's manor.
  • Scary Shiny Glasses: Ernest has them for a moment when Helen finishes outlining her plot to kill Madeline.
  • Screams Like a Little Girl: Upon attempting to escape from Lisle's mansion, Ernest is chased by her two Dobermans. And when the dogs rip off his suits, he screams in a high pitch.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here:
    • Ernest's attitude towards the end. He successfully escapes, taking the aforementioned dartboard with him.
    • Madeline upon seeing the newly restored Helen, who's stunning in a sexy red dress.
  • The '70s: Painfully so during the opening scene, especially when Songbird! incorporates "Do The Hustle" in its big number.
  • Sexless Marriage: Madeline and Ernest, because The Loins Sleep Tonight. Madeline calls him out on it, asking when the last time he had sex with her ("a real man") then calls him "flaccid".
  • Sexy Surfacing Shot: One scene has Lisle stepping out of the pool nude save for high heels and a long scarf.
  • Shout-Out:
  • Shovel Strike: Helen and Madeline go at it by attacking each other with shovels- the shovels each wanted Ernest to bury the other with.
  • 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 immortalityinvoked 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 the 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?
  • Skin-Tone Disguise: The walking dead heroines have to paint themselves as their bodies start to decay over time.
  • Slapstick: This film would fall under this category due to the cartoonish nature of the Amusing Injuries Helen and Madeline receive.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: Zemeckis' second-most cynical film after Used Cars.
  • Sliding Scale of Undead Regeneration: Type II.
  • So Bad, It's Good: Played with in-universe. While most viewers of Songbird! hated it, Ernest fell in love with Madeline while watching her perform, effectively triggering the plot.
  • 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: Two examples. The first time, Ernest finally snaps when Madeline 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. From years of immortal decay, they are in such battered and rickety shape they literally smash into pieces when they hit the ground. And they are still alive.
  • Stalker Shrine: Helen Sharp has one of her nemesis and rival Madeline Ashton.
  • Stalling the Sip: Ernest is holding a drink laced with a sedative. However, his angry rant involves many grand gestures, spilling almost all of the drink. At the end of the rant, he goes to take a sip, before deciding he's giving up alcohol, and throws out the rest of the drink. Then the women, thinking quickly, knock him out with a vase.
  • 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!
  • Stripperiffic: Lisle's main outfit, which consists of a long red skirt with a slit up the leg that reaches her waist, and nothing above the waist except for a massive bejewelled necklace.
  • 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.
  • Supernatural Elite: Lisle's clientele is made up of 'dead' celebrities as they're the only ones who would both be able to afford the potion and whom Lisle would deem worthy of living for eternity.
  • "Take That!" Kiss: At the book party, Helen, having lost at least a hundred pounds of weight and looking more beautiful than she had pre-obesity, plants a lipstick kiss on Madeline, whom she knows is feeling bitter about her ageing and fading star, especially after seeing Helen's miraculous youth and beauty and smash new book release.
  • Taking You with Me: At the very end of the film, Helen is about to fall down the stairs in front of the church after slipping on a can of spray paint. Madeline eventually decides to let her fall, so Helen grabs Madeline and they both tumble down the stairs, smashing into pieces on the ground.
  • Tap on the Head: Ernest gets clobbered with two vases and knocked unconscious, but seems to suffer no further ill effects once he revives.
  • This Is for Emphasis, Bitch!: Helen to Madeline before they fight: "En garde, BITCH!"
  • Too Dumb to Live: Seriously Madeline, when you're about to fall down the stairs and the only person who can save you is your embittered husband, you do not insult him. It's telling that Helen lived seven years with her youthful body before she got that hole blown through her torso, while Madeline didn't even last a full day.
  • 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.
    • After spending much of the movie being an Extreme Doormat who can't say no to either Madeline or Helen, Ernest grows a spine and finally rejects both when it becomes clear that they are both supreme narcissists out to use and abuse him.
  • Torso with a View: Helen gets a huge hole in her stomach after Madeline blows her away with a double-barrel shotgun. 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 Helenís body.
  • Trailers Always Spoil: Unsurprisingly, the marketing for the film heavily focused on the special effects set-pieces, which donít really appear until a fair way into the plot. Specifically, the trailer and many TV spots showed Helen with a hole in her stomach, thus giving away the twist that she too has taken the potion.
  • Troll: Seems Elvis enjoys making appearances just to freak people out. He gets teasingly called out for it by the emcee.
  • Two-Timing with the Bestie: The plot kicked off with Madeline stealing her best friend Helen's fiance, Ernest. Years later, Helen returns, somehow rejuvenated, and begins a plot of revenge, seducing Ernest to kill Madeline and have him to herself
  • 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 The Woobieinvoked no matter what he does — including dumping his fiancé for her friend and trying to murder his nasty wife — while the main women in the film are thoroughly irredeemable. Some of it gets subverted on the grounds that Ernest dumping Helen for Madeline bit him hard when his life turned into a joke, going from a respected plastic surgeon to a funeral cosmetologist, becoming an alcoholic, and getting stuck in a loveless relationship. It's not so much that Ernest is a Nice Guy, as the shit he pulls isn't as bad as the vindictive hatred Helen and Madeline have for each other.
  • Unsympathetic Comedy Protagonist: Madeline and Helen, who are both vain and selfish female leads with the former concerned with obtaining her youth and the latter wanting to steal back Ernest and get her revenge on Madeline. Their manipulative and murderous ways make them lean more toward Villain Protagonist.
  • The Vamp: Lisle and, to a lesser extent, both Madeline and (post-makeover) Helen fall into this trope.
  • Vanity Is Feminine: While all of the main cast has their collection of vices, the plot is only able to kick off because the girls feared aging and even to the end desperately try to keep their good looks. Meanwhile, the very much masculine Ernest realizes his life doesn't end when his youth does and spends the rest of his life accepting death.
  • Wacky Sound Effect: Madeline's de-ageing breasts raise themselves and readjust with a cartoonish "pop!"
  • Waking Up at the Morgue: Subverted. Madeline learns that her body has died, and faints at the doctor's. But because they can't tell she's unconscious, not dead, they send her to the morgue, where she wakes again.
    Ernest: The morgue? She'll be furious!
  • 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.
  • We Could Have Avoided All This: Madeline and Helen do reconcile their differences, admitting they were secretly jealous of each other since they were kids. Had they hashed it out before taking the potion, they wouldn't be dead or have completely alienated Ernest, whom they realize they need to maintain their bodies after all the damage they did.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Rose, Madeline's personal maid, disappears without explanation after the opening scenes. A deleted scene explained that Ernest let her and the rest of the staff go the morning following Madeline's fall, so that no one else would discover their secret "miracle."
  • 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.
  • World of Ham: Nearly everyone devours scenery like it's going out of style. Isabella Rossellini, in particular, takes the cake. And eats it too.
  • 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. Mad ignored Lisle's warning during the "NOW a warning?" exchange: "Take care of yourself. You and your body are going to be together a long time, be good to it."
  • Wrecked Weapon: When Madeline and Helen are sparring with each other with shovels, Madelineís shovel gets cut through by Helenís.
  • Yank the Dog's Chain: When faced with a life-or-death situation, Madeline and Helen nearly convince Ernest to take the potion. No doubt he believed for a moment that they were concerned for his well-being for once. ...And then they say out loud that he must take the potion because they need him to maintain their dead bodies. This is reconstructed, as it finally lets Ernest see both girls' true nature and truly sever his ties with them.


Death Becomes Her

On being offered eternal life, Ernest has a rather important question.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (12 votes)

Example of:

Main / AndThenWhat

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