Behind-The-Scenes Stories From ‘Death Becomes Her’

Given their prestige in the film industry, it seems improbable that Meryl Streep, Goldie Hawn, and Bruce Willis would all appear in a crass, gory film like Death Becomes Her. Yet here we are, and we’re better for it. 

Straddling the line between horror and comedyDeath Becomes Her is a genre-bending delight. It tells the story of two women, Madeline Ashton and Helen Sharp, as they grapple with jealousy and the illusion of youth. The fallout from their rivalry bears grisly consequences, and the film remains one of Streep and Hawn's most morbid performances to date. It's also taken on a new life in gay media - a RuPaul’s Drag Race runway challenge was based on the film for a reason! 

Industrial Light & Magic’s use of cutting-edge CGI technology in Death Becomes Her won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects in 1992. The company went on to use this same technology to produce Jurassic Park and Forrest Gump, which won the same awards in the two years that followed. 

While it is more of a cult classic than the aforementioned blockbusters, Death Becomes Her more than holds its own among its 1990s comedy contemporaries. It also has a storied production history.

  • Doug Chiang Used Photoshop To Create The Special Effects

    While director Robert Zemeckis may have set out with the modest intention of creating a campy horror-comedy about the cruelty of aging, Death Becomes Her unwittingly invented an entire visual style of computer-generated imagery that changed the trajectory of both Zemeckis's career and the film industry as a whole. 

    Collaborating with visual effects company Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), Zemeckis and the art department were tasked with creating "organic CG," a lifelike distortion of natural, human features by computer graphics. Visual effects art director Doug Chiang used Photoshop - a new tool for the industry at the time - to enhance certain effects.

    To avoid being too graphic or macabre, the ILM artists took a cartoonish "Tex Avery approach" to some of the more disturbing elements, like Madeline’s twisted neck and the gaping hole in Helen’s abdomen. Rather than showing gristle, they emphasized visual comedy instead - while still maintaining a commendable amount of realism. 

  • Meryl Streep Accidentally Struck Goldie Hawn With A Shovel

    While filming the dramatic shovel duel scene, Meryl Streep accidentally sliced Goldie Hawn's face mid-swing.

    While Hawn took the injury in stride, it did leave a small, visible scar

  • Kevin Kline Was The First Choice For Ernest

    Kevin Kline Was The First Choice For Ernest
    Photo: Alan Light / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

    While most agree that he performed the role well, Bruce Willis was not Robert Zemeckis's first choice for the role of Madeline and Helen's dowdy paramour Ernest Menville. 

    The more impish Sophie's Choice actor Kevin Kline was the original top pick for the role. All was well until Kline heard that Streep and Hawn were receiving higher pay for their shared lead roles: $4 million each. He decided to walk away from the film.

  • This Was An Unusual Role For Bruce Willis

    The role of an aging, bespectacled, heavy-drinking plastic surgeon came at a curious time in Bruce Willis’s career. Hot off the heels of two smash-hit Die Hard movies, Willis had integrated himself into the industry as an action star, and he had the chiseled looks to match. 

    One of the many visual marvels of Death Becomes Her was the costume and makeup designers' ability to make Willis look so aged and poorly dressed. This was an ironic and perhaps tongue-in-cheek decision, as the character of Ernest Menville is meant to be the alluring heartthrob that drives Madeline and Helen to abject madness. 

  • They Used Practical And Digital Effects To Make Goldie Hawn Look Larger

    In the film, after Helen's husband leaves her for her rival Madeline, she becomes deeply depressed and nearly doubles in weight.

    Given Goldie Hawn's lithe frame, the transformation would be difficult to pull off convincingly, but a combination of prosthetics, makeup, and digital effects allowed the actress to look authentically much larger than she actually was.

  • Bruce Willis Unsuccessfully Tried To Change The Film’s Name

    While the movie was still in production, Bruce Willis had a couple of ideas for new titles. He campaigned for “It’s Death, Baby” and “My Man Death,” but producers nixed them both. 

    The spirit of death and immortality are distinctly feminine in the universe of Death Becomes Her, and “My Man Death” just wouldn’t have had the same effect. Sorry, Bruce.