Sempre Viva! Cult Classic Comedy ‘Death Becomes Her’ Turns 30
NOW, a warning?!?
Robert Zemeckis’s pitch-black comedy Death Becomes Her turns 30 this weekend, a milestone that would have the characters in the film dashing over to Lisle’s castle for a taste of that magical pink potion. The 1992 cult comedy classic follows the decades-long frenemy-ship between vain actress Madeline Ashton (Meryl Streep) and mousy writer Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn), who become estranged after Madeline steals and marries Helen’s fiancée Dr. Ernest Menville (Bruce Willis). But years later, as Madeline is dismayed by her aging and her soured relationship with Ernest, she seeks something to restore her youth. After plastic surgery and affairs with younger men fail to satisfy her, she comes across the mysterious Lisle (Isabella Rossellini) who offers her a mystical pink potion that revives her youth. Unfortunately, the potion comes with some unintended side effects, rendering Madeline and anyone who takes it immortal.
While the film received mixed reviews upon its release, it was praised for its use of CGI, going on to win the Oscar for Best Visual Effects. But the film’s curious legacy lives on as both a cult classic, a sharp satire on aging, and a camp masterpiece. Death Becomes Her has also garnered a legion of adoring LGBTQ+ fans, and has become a beloved piece of queer culture. The film has inspired midnight screenings, drag shows, and even a runway challenge on RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Death Becomes Her has always been a favorite of mine, and one I credit as being a major root movie for me. And by “root movie”, I mean a film that I resonated with as a budding queer person who didn’t yet know they were queer. Many queer folks have these type of experience or connection to films, television, or other artifacts of popular culture in which we recognize something within ourselves. Did I relate to any of the characters in the film? No. But did I deeply connect to the biting comedy, the camp, and the go-for-broke performances? Absolutely.
And there is still something quietly revolutionary about a film that centers on two deeply ambitious and vengeful women who are locked in an endless battle. And while said battle appears to be over Ernest, he’s really just a physical manifestation of the womens’ obsession with one another. The film captures the harsh realities of the ways in which women are pitted against one another, decades before phrases like “toxic friendship” and “frenemy” entered the lexicon. Madeline and Helen are women who want – they want adulation, fame, sex, and they won’t apologize for it. In a pop culture landscape still yoked to the idea of the “likeable” female protagonist, Madeline and Helen are fully villains. Villains you root for, for villains nonetheless.
Drag Race winner Jinkx Monsoon described the film’s enduring appeal to Vanity Fair, saying “I think this is a trait that runs throughout the queer community, the obsession with the hyper-feminine female villains, … And we see it in Disney movies and in movies like Death Becomes Her, and in characters like Poison Ivy and Catwoman. Almost all the Disney villain witches are gay icons.” They added, “I don’t know why that is a trait that appeals to queer people so much, but it’s pretty consistent amongst the queer community. I think it has something to do with feeling like outcasts and imagining yourself in this position of power where, even though you’re the outcast, you still have some kind of power and strength within you.”
Drag queen Peaches Christ, who created the drag show spoof Drag Becomes Her with Monsoon, told the A.V. Club, “Robert Zemeckis wasn’t afraid to make a movie about this struggle, to turn vanity among women into a monster movie. Well, they’re monsters, but they’re also likable, lovable—we are rooting for the monsters. He walks the line perfectly between camp and real pathology, real drama. And it’s so queer.”
Here’s to Death Becomes Her turning the big 3-0. As Lisle would say, “Sempre Viva! Live forever!”
(featured image: Universal Pictures)
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