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She's 'Mad' as 'Hel' and She's Not Going to Streep It Anymore

If you missed the Best Shot roundup for Death Becomes Her, click here.

For my part this week I've opted to unearth and spruce up an old essay from the vaults about this great 90s comedy. The article is illustrated with my 12 favorite shots from the movies. Yes, I choose a "best" but it was a close call.  If you joined us in the past six years it's new to you. And if you are too young to have lived through Meryl Streep's career transition in the early 90s and Goldie Hawn's status as a hot box office comedy, I think you'll find it particularly interesting.

Let's begin after the jump...

Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn were 43 and 46 respectively when they made the summer promotional rounds in support of Death Becomes Her in 1992. The satirical comedy focuses on the hostile friendship between two desperate aging women, Helen Sharp (Hawn) a writer, and Madeline Ashton (Streep) a famous actress. In the early nineties, the 40s were still considered 'The End' for movie star actresses, so the casting and topic made sense.

To give you a sense of how bad it was, national mainstream magazines were already taking shots at Michelle Pfeiffer (!) who was all of 34 at the time. "She's not getting any younger," one article stated with unnecessary hysteria, whilst discussing Pfeiffer's post-Catwoman career prospects. Things have improved enough in the intervening 24 years that were they ever to remake Death Becomes Her, one imagines they might cast 50-somethings this time around. Not that anyone should remake it!

Meryl's gaudy self reflection & physical comedy turned up to 11 from scene one. Brilliant. And how about all that (too much) color in design: purples, blue, greens, and yellowsThe best shot of Goldie's Hel. For all the horror elements the movie also makes great use of femme fatale noir tropes like the beautiful woman emerging from shadows. But in this case it's super saturated with color without being an eyesore. And it's great comedy when Goldie drops the dramatic pretense "I need to speak to Madeline at once"

Premiere's headline called this Meryl & Goldie's "Golden Age" and a TV profile/joint interview (I wish I could remember which show) suggested that this was a smart pairing. The angle was something along the lines of 'If only Meryl could get some of Goldie's box office and Goldie some of Meryl's respect!' The irony of this was that Goldie was already an Oscar winner but her box office was about to fall off precipitously (she only had one more hit in her, The First Wives Club) and Streep wasn't ever truly box office poison (she had had truly huge hits in both the 70s and 80s and would have them again in the 00s). But the ungenerous perception in many quarters was that Streep's appeal was waning and that her sudden lunge toward comedy was desperation.

This perception was both true and untrue. The way things shook out in the nineties, her 40something years (aka the 1990s) did turn out to be her most fallow and least popular period. The move toward comedy, however, so suspiciously received in the beginning, ended up making her more popular than ever. It just took another decade for audiences to rally around New Meryl.

One of the most endearing things about Death Becomes Her from a retrospective vantage is the way it follows so closely on the heels of Postcards From the Edge (1990), forming a prismatic, self-mocking double feature. The subject is an aging actress in career crisis, one who just happens to have an absurdly amazing singing voice; Postcards ends with a big gorgeous musical performance as career redemption and Death begins with its inversion, a big gawdy one as career killer. So this early 90s double offered audiences two potential futures for fictional "Meryl Streep." Or the same future, if you could predict the coming of Mamma Mia! which would look exactly like a huge gawdy career killer but be a mammoth hit in actuality!

Further pushing this Meryl on "Meryl" dialetic to the forefront is that Death also seems to confirm, revel in, and foretell critical complaints about Streep as Overrated Queen of the Hams. There's nothing within the script or Streep's performance in Postcards to suggest that "Suzanne Vale" is anything other than a mediocre screen talent and Death's "Madeline Ashton" is, quite demonstrably, a bad actress.

PIECES OF MERYL: hands, and tits & ass shots galore in this famous funny sequence. AND NARRATIVELY JUSTIFIED! Meryl s such a good sport sending up actorly vanity

Meryl doesn't go for subtlety this time, which is an absolutely wise choice. Death Becomes Her needs both broads to be broad. Subtlety wouldn't work in a film that spends its first two reels speeding through 14 years (!) of boyfriend-stealing, dated Broadway flops, fatsuit gags, faux movie clips, career changes of fortune, plastic surgery addictions, marital misery and revenge fantasies. But broad doesn't have to equal bad. If anything, Death Becomes Her is pinpoint sharp about how big to go, and I'm not talking about Goldie Hawn's fatsuit.

Goldie clearly relishes her spurned woman gone nutso role, but the biggest and wisest laughs in the early scenes aren't coming from Goldie XXL but from the massive size of Madeline: her ego, her stardom, the space she takes up in Helen's brain. The mere mention of her name sends people into hysterics, which is a super funny subtextual joke about stardom underneath the actual joke about Helen's patience-testing obsession with her frenemy.

And if you're going to be making jokes about an actress taking up way too much mental real estate, isn't Meryl, The Greatest Living Actress™, the ideal butt of that joke?

My single favorite sequence in the film is when Hel sells her plan to off Mad to Ernest. Zemeckis and cinematographer Dean Cundey use a distorted lens, theatrical lighting and the actors amp up their already oversized work for the fantasy. Plus check out the judgement on those coroners faces. LOL

It's easy to imagine half of Hollywood's actresses relating to Helen's envy, and all of them, including Streep herself, howling at Madeline's comeuppance. Streep's supersize talent and endless good fortune in a cruel business that isn't half as kind to her also immensely talented peers would be insufferable if she didn't enjoy a good ribbing now and then.

For such a plotty movie -- there's a ton more to come involving magical age-defying potions, secret societies, violent revenge and living death (hence the title) -- Death is remarkably brisk in pacing and never loses sight of what makes it special: the witty screenplay and the Meryl & Goldie hamming. Not that the supporting cast isn't helping. Isabella Rossellini is a sexy hoot as seductive testy Lisle and Bruce Willis is fun, too, as plastic surgeon turned undertaker Ernest. He matches the heightened style of his co-stars but dorkifies it considerably as the "flaccid" man that both of them want... only because the other does. And one of my favorite bits is Meryl's trip to the hospital where she inadvertently turns the doctor (her Out of Africa director Sydney Pollack) into a patient himself.

One of the all time great screen entrances if you ask me: Isabella Rosselini as Lisle. That wink. The costume reveal. The firelit silhouette as she stands poses

Bronze Medal: I'll never forget the first time I saw this shot in the theater. It uses a simple shallow focus to build the WTF comedy. The long lasting shot has the superb punchline "You pushed me down the stairs!"

Death Become Her rarely gets bogged down in attempting to glorify its (Oscar winning) visual effects, which is a common problem in lesser genre efforts. Zemeckis knows that for all the "wow!" appeal of the grotesquely imagined injuries including holes in bodies, protruding bones and heads facing in the entirely wrong direction -- "I can see my ass!" -- nothing is as super as watching talented funny actors having a laugh. He even finds great use of Meryl's twitchy hands, a common and sometimes distracting Streepism, which considerably add to the laughs when Madeline can't wrap her head around what's happening to her suddenly backward body. Zemeckis gives Hawn and Streep plenty of closeup attention for their well delivered zingers but he smartly uses a variety of shots for comic effect. The use of focus-pulling and of long shots in particular really add to the visual panache of the film.

If Death Becomes Her overstays its welcome a tiny bit with those final frantic chase antics in Lisle's castle, it saves itself with great visual choices such as framing Mad & Hel like leaning gargoyles atop Lisle's magical castle, there to tempt and torment Ernest one last time. And the punchline is deliciously dark, with Mad & Hel's laughter preceding their "uh oh" realization of an eternity in each other's company. Misery loves company. Cut to: "37 Years Later", an epilogue to drive this punchline home.

Silver Medal: I absolutely love all of the shots which make such great use of blocking, lighting, and pops of color. But especiallyt the last one: It's suspiciously calm after the baroque fight but note the comic throughline of Goldie's shadow and how their shadows dwarf his. Great lighting from Dean Cundey (and special fx team)

While it's possible to view Death Becomes Her's central catfight and 'woman thou art vain!' characterizations as misogynistic actress-bashing from the land of the same (Hollywood!), it's hard to object when the film is this much fun, exhibits such love for its evil women, and the actresses themselves are so gleefully selling the bad behavior.

Now, a warning: 

NOW, a warning?"

You can fight aging through means both natural and un, but the ravages of time will get you in the end. Even if, like Madeline, you're rich enough to buy magic potion or talented enough, like Meryl, to stay vital in the cinema for decades on end.

BEST SHOT (gold medal): Hel & Mad as 'living' gargoyles in the climax: Fairy tale & horror tropes & comedy & starpower & smart color choices all aggressively combined "DRINK IT!"

See, offscreen as well as on, Streep got older. We all do. But you have to hand it to her. What seemed like folly to some at the time -- four consecutive and often silly comedies after her coronation as the world's preeminent dramatic force -- was actually a savvy forward-motion move. She fought an aging career, not by underlining her dominance (Lord knows she probably had plentiful Oscar bait scripts to choose from in that four year period), but by stretching her instrument, experimenting with new genres and poking fun at herself. Laughing may cause crow's feet and smile lines, but it sure keeps you young at heart.

Previously on Hit Me With Your Best Shot
This month on Hit Me With Your Best Shot - join us for the visual fun! 

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Reader Comments (20)

I wish this had been among the roster of Meryl's nominations (in place of Deneuve or...gulp...Pfeiffer I'm sad to say). It's so much of what Meryl is good at, but people don't typically think of when singing her praises--comedy, stylization, exaggerated glamour. A really inspired turn from Streep and definitely among her best of the 90s.

May 4, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterKieran Scarlett

Very nice essay. I almost wonder now if the 90's were transitional for Meryl for at least two reasons: she had been at the top or near it for 10 years, and she turned 40, which ended careers for many women. She also was fighting for better pay, which is why Thelma and Louise fell apart with her and Goldie as leads. Kevin Huvane really helped her to mix it up, and all of these 90's films do relate to her later work as you point out. She also did great earlier work with Kurt Russell in Silkwood, so her Goldie connection is strong.

May 4, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterTom Ford

This is a great essay. Your evaluation of the the film's assets (color, cinematography, acting styles, etc.) really help explain why this film works as well as it does. So many could easily dismiss it as a campy trifle (even those who like it) so it's great to see someone take this campy trifle seriously.

May 4, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterDJDeeJay

I love this movie I'd love to see it done with Davis and Crawford.

May 4, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer 1994

Nat,how do you think this film became cult.

May 4, 2016 | Unregistered Commentermark

LOVE this and all of the shot choices.

The Premiere cover is a fun inclusion - I subscribed in its last two(ish) years and was a heartbroken wee cinephile when it shuttered.

May 4, 2016 | Registered CommenterChris Feil

Any thoughts why "Me" never got any traction for Best Song? Was it too crowded that year with "Aladdin" and "The Bodyguard"? It's such a good bad song, and is appropriately thematic to the film.

May 4, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterforever1267

How about remaking it now with Goldie Hawn and Meryl Streep?

May 4, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterArkaan

Does Goldie Hawn look younger than Streep because she's a sex symbol and Streep isn't?

May 4, 2016 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

One of my favorites. Jealousy will kill you Helen Sharp.

May 4, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterEmma Watson

Was that really Meryl's butt? Damn!!!!

May 4, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterSteven

I remember that magazine that said Pfeiffer wasn't getting any younger! It was the "Entertainment Weekly" Power 100 issue. Two gay guys wrote a joint letter to complain the following week, correctly saying that NO ONE on the list was getting any younger and it was an unwarranted cheap shot. I can remember this and nothing I was supposed to be learning in grade school.

May 4, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterjakey

Love this whole article!! Thanks Nathaniel😀

May 4, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterjamie

I loved the movie then ... Plan to watch it again now.

A great and well thought out piece of writing.

May 5, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterrick

Great article. I've always felt like the film is not getting enough love. Very underrated comedy.

Also, does anyone else think that in the Super Trouper scene in Mamma Mia, Streep's character is looking exactly like Madeline Ashton, only older? Obviously I am aware that they're the same actress but the make up is almost identical.

May 5, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMarek

I. See. ME! andilikewhatisee!

Isabella should have gotten a supporting nom. :(

Bruce Willis was so unrecognizable in this.

May 5, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterSanty C.

I watched part of this on tv on time and thought it was stupid

May 5, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterAnonny

It's brilliant. I love how it NOW becomes the cult movie it simply deserves to be.
Critics can suck it. (44% at RT... CAN YOU BELIEVE IT????)
Wasn't there an awesome photo shoot of Meryl&Goldie in the magazine? Somewhere there was. Amazing pictures. (I'd love to see them together in a movie asap)
Great visual designs as well. I could gush about this movie... forever. *lol*
I love to play "Me" at least once every day. Definitely Oscar-worthy imo. Like pretty much everything about DBH.

May 5, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterSonja

Great article - it gives me a lot of satisfaction that this has become a cult classic, especially among younger Streep fans (post Devil wears Prada).
Streep was so respected doing drama that it took awhile to be accepted doing comedies. But I have always noticed that in each comic part that Meryl sends up her own image.

The film does belong to those two Jersey Girls but I still love Isabella Rossellini in this part. It's delicious irony that she was a spokeswoman for Lacombe at that time.
I loved this film back then and it has aged every bit as gracefully as Meryl herself.

May 5, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

Such a fantastic read, Nathaniel! Very informative and wonderfully written. Love your choice of shots here, this film really has such clever and gorgeous cinematography. I'm so happy you featured it in HMYBS!

May 6, 2016 | Unregistered Commentersati

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