It seems bizarre that the producers and designers behind Back to the Future, Star Wars, Forrest Gump, and countless other timeless blockbuster films would provide their talents for such a bizarre camp classic. Panned by critics for its "hollow satire" and lack of character depth, Death Becomes Her was not widely appreciated until it developed a cult status, bolstered by horror fans and the LGBTQ+ community. As the film receives more of a sympathetic and nostalgic reputation decades after its release, it's hard to understand why people didn't get into it when it first came out.
Because it was incredibly strange. The unprecedented use of CGI for comical and gory effects, Meryl Steep and Goldie Hawn repeatedly disfiguring one another, and ominous socialite mansion party scenes give this movie an unsettling vibe that may not be everyone's cup of tea. Despite this, many of these attributes are what have made it a loveable classic and a cultural touchstone in the greater landscape of camp.
For a movie about age and immortality, it makes sense that the film would span over 50 years from start to finish. The opening scene in the theatre takes place in 1978, Helen appears in the hospital in 1985, Madeline attends Helen's book release party in 1992, and the final scene depicting Ernest's funeral takes place 37 years later, which would presumably be in 2029-2030.
The shifting appearances of the characters in tandem with the frequent time skips create an intentionally disorienting experience, where the viewer is taken out of time, almost as if it weren’t relevant. In the case of Madeline and Helen, it truly isn’t.
In the opening scene of the film, Madeline Ashton (played by Meryl Streep) is performing a dreadful musical rendition of Tennessee Williams's 1959 play Sweet Bird of Youth.
The plot of Sweet Bird of Youth mirrors the major thematic elements of Death Becomes Her - an aging movie star grappling with desirability, men, and the illusions of youth. The story follows mediocre actor and hustler Chance Wayne through his various foibles and missteps trying to get into "the business" as he attempts to use disgraced film star Alexandra del Lago to make industry contacts.
All the while, he is trying to woo his old lover from his homework, Heavenly Finley, not knowing that he had disfigured her with an STI the last time they met. Needless to say, it all ends tragically.
In this intertextual interpretation, Ashton resembles Alexandra del Lago from the Tennessee Williams play, and it is possible that Ernest Menville (Bruce Willis) is represented by Chance Wayne, with his ex-wife, Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn), standing in for Heavenly Finley.
Rather than being part of the performance, Helen is seated in the audience, fuming about her frenemy’s perceived success.
One of the most head-scratching moments of this already chaotic film is the scene where Helen shows up unannounced to Madeline and Ernest’s mansion after taking the immortal beauty potion.
She embraces Ernest, trying to seduce him to snatch him back from Madeline, but the way she does it is confounding. She holds him close and whispers those alluring words that every man wants to hear: "You're a powerful sexual being, Ernest... Sexual. Sensual. Sexy. Sex. Sex. Sex!"
There is a comical maudlin element to the way that the characters are dressed throughout the film. Every dress shows skin, emphasizes chest, and often utilizes lace and jewels to keep the film PG-13, which is impressive in its own right.
The most borderline-pornographic, however, is the scantily clad Lisle Von Rhuman. The face of immortal beauty herself does not wear a shirt for most of the film, instead opting for a series of carefully placed necklaces. The pants situation is also minimal, as she is typically shown wearing a sheer red sarong that shows quite a bit of leg.