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Oscar Horrors: The Death-Defying Effects of 'Death Becomes Her'

Oscar Horrors continues...

Here lies...the 1992 Oscar for Visual Effects – err, here he would be lying, lamenting his fate as a reward to the f/x folks behind Batman Returns or Alien 3, had he not been bewitched by Isabella Rossellini's youth potion. Now, he stands immortal on a mantle shared by Ken Ralston, Doug Chiang, Tom Woodruff Jr. and Douglas Smythe, who brought you the butt-tightening, head-twisting, belly-blasting cinemagic of Robert Zemeckis's Death Becomes Her.

Kurt here. I LOVE this movie – or should I say, I'm "Mad as Hel" for it. Regardless of what it might say about me, it's a major film of my youth. Prepping for this post, I planned to just skip around and watch the expensive effects scenes, but by the time a grossly overweight and psychotically vengeful Goldie Hawn was twisting her hankie and growling through gritted teeth, "I want to talk about Madeline Ashton," I was hooked yet again and watched the entire thing. Flaws be damned, Death Becomes Her is so funny and so cleanly paced. There's hardly a wasted moment. It's packed with great sequences (such as the tongue-in-cheek imagined plot in which Hawn's Helen Sharp tells Bruce Willis's Ernest Menville how they're going to drug and kill Meryl Streep's Madeline), but what it's most remembered for are its nifty visual tricks, which support the crimes-against-nature moral by serving up the comic mutilation of two A-List actresses' undead bodies.

The film's centerpiece scene is one that sees all secrets revealed. After being pushed down a marble staircase by Ernest, an incident that twists her into a pretzel and makes a periscope of her head and neck, a pulseless Madeline takes her rage out on Helen, whose gut she blows a hole in with a double-barrel shotgun. When Helen stands up, it's clear both women have drunk the neon pink Kool-Aid, which gives eternal life, for better or worse. What follows is a shovel duel that, for me, is quite iconic, beginning with the immortal line, "On guard – bitch!"

In general, I'm no more easily surprised than the next seasoned moviegoer, but when it comes to visual effects, I do tend to be a "how'd they do that?" kind of person. For example, even looking back at a film from nearly 20 years ago (wow), I'm not sure how that Oscar-crowned quartet was able to seamlessly present Hawn with a dinner-plate-sized hole in her mid-section, through which you can clearly see the rest of the scenery. At one point during the duel, Helen sits down on a couch that's been speared with a broken shovel handle, and she lets the handle poke through her new orifice. There's a flash where you can see the handle nudge the edge of the hole. Streep's rubbery neck is one thing, but how'd they do that?

If you ask me, the true visual effects of Death Becomes Her are Hawn and Streep themselves, which sounds like a gooey cliché, but never, ever have these two ladies looked more breathtaking than they do in this movie. Streep was 43, Hawn was 45, and both looked utterly flawless, like they'd never passed age 32. The irony, of course, is that watching this movie now gives you a sting that validates Rossellini's rants about "life's cruel curse," and reminds of how even stunning actresses are slave to the ticking clock. Which is certainly not to say that time hasn't been kind to both ladies (it has), but you can't help but wonder if, when they revisit Death Becomes Her, they wish they had just a couple drops of that pink stuff.

"Do you remember where you parked the car?"

Related Posts
Oscar Horrors - Poltergeist, The Birds, The Exorcist, Rosemary's Baby and more...
She's "Mad" at "Hel" and She's Not Going To Streep It Anymore - Nathaniel on Meryl Streep's sudden swerve towards comedy in the 90s and the many joys of Death Becomes Her.
Great Moments In Screen Bitchery #701 - 'I can see right through you!' 

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Reader Comments (13)

I've never seen this, but when ever I see pictures from it, I always think that it's the most gorgeous I've ever seen Meryl look.

October 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip

"Can't you, just not breath..." love this movie... love this line (Meryl in the limo with Bruce W...)
p.s. I think Meryl should got a nomination for this one & I take the "Music from the hearts" nomination for this one...

October 29, 2011 | Unregistered Commentersjeans

I've always thought this movie was highly underrated. The opening sequence alone, featuring a musical version of "Sweet Bird of Youth" is hilarious. And don't forget how amazing Rossellini looks here, too. Commenting on vanity, Hollywood and the need to be better than everyone else, "Death Becomes Her" is my second favorite Zemeckis film (after "Roger Rabbit").

October 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterProspero

Underrated? I almost feel like I've been hearing about how much people love it for too long!
But I do love it too and I've seen it, like, 10 times?

October 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJames T

"you're a walking fraud helen and i can see right through you"


"now a warning"

the opening musical number - classic

love love love it.

October 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMARK

Shame on me I haven't watched it yet neither but I've got a feeling that I will tonight, right before the first Twilight on tv which I plan to watch for a good laugh.

October 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEva

It tells a lot about the Academy's attitude towards comedies that even their all-time favorite actor couldn't get one of her 16 nominations for such a great comedic performance.

Also, I have seen very little of Goldie Hawn's work, but surely, the fatsuit-scenes are the best things she's ever done? Especially when Helen is dragged out of her apartment while manically watching Madeline being strangled in a film over and over again.

October 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJan

Hawn made the film. Her comic timing was flawless as her skin. Streep was a bit forced and clunky. I think Streep, yes she can be great, can be a bit calculated and text book at times.

October 30, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterken

Great movie! Also Meryl Streep in this movie was one of the first actors I ever awarely recognized in a movie from another movie when I first saw this it how old... 13 I guess. I've seen her shortly before that in "Defending Your Life" which is not such a memorable movie. After that movie she became one of the first actors I started watching movies for.

October 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDominik

I loved this movie and have never understood why it failed at the boxoffice. Streep was terrific in the comedy "Nowww you tell me." and Goldie was at her best ... has never made a good movie since.

October 30, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterrick

This is such an 80s movie--for a film released in the 90s--add the silence of the lambs and don't tell mom the babysitter's dead to that list etc.

October 31, 2011 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtfull

Kurt - I haven't seen "Death" and never had any desire to (I somehow recall it not being well-received at the time?) but this post makes me want to check it out. Well done, sir.

Dominik - I recently saw Defending Your Life Again for the first time since it came out in theaters, where I first saw it, and was entranced by Meryl's warmth. Her perf was relevatory to me at the time - Meryl with no tics, no accents, the sometimes cold and precise technician replaced by a relaxed and very womanly actress. *sigh* Some of the comedy of the film is clunky (the physical comedy montage of Albert Brook's "errors" still killed me) but I was as fond of it the second time around as before.

October 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJanice

I enjoyed this movie and wish there was a better DVD than the "full screen" one I have. It is interesting that this is one of her few films that Streep has had reservations about saying that she spent far too much time doing the special effects which she did not like and found tedious. She would probably not do it again.

October 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPaul D
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