Let us pose a question, one posed by many of my friends at least once a week: Money not an issue, what would you change about your body?
Answers vary between nose jobs, face lifts and hair transplants, and, especially in the gay community, body modification is increasingly welcomed and utilised. But how many people actually put their money where their woefully thin-lipped mouth is? Given our penchant for sustaining youth and beauty and relying on the services of a professional to do so, it is no surprise that queer audiences have flocked to Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn’s camp masterpiece Death Becomes Her, celebrating its 30th anniversary this month.
It is such a queer staple that it’s remarkable we have not dissected it in detail sooner. But, as our characters Madeline and Helen categorically do not grasp, patience is a virtue, and we owe it to ourselves to indulge and reflect on the camp delight, the technical marvel, that is Death Becomes Her.
Writer Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn, who make-up artists and wig makers tirelessly but unsuccessfully tried to make frumpy. It’s Goldie Hawn) and failing Broadway actress Madeline Ashton have harboured a bitter rivalry – masked as a friendship, which in itself is hilarious – for years as they vie for the affections of Bruce Willis. Who can blame them, really? As their bodies inevitably age and their cultural currency fades, they each drink a miracle cure that prevents ageing and renders them immortal.
Hilarity and camp body horror ensue. Death Becomes Her pushes its audience to reflect on vanity, ageing, sexuality, and death: it just serves them up in glamorous, flamboyant packaging.
Death Becomes Her has naturally cultivated a huge gay following. The movie even inspired a Death Becomes Her runway on season 7 of some programme called RuPaul’s Drag Race, introducing the world to Violet Chachki’s death-defying corsetry. Ask any gay man about the film, and I guarantee they will describe in vivid, scientific detail the opening number in which Madeline performs ‘I See Me’. It’s perhaps the funniest, most stupid, and gayest opening scene in cinema.
Drag Race producer Tom Campbell has articulated our reverence for the film and what the characters represent: ‘We root for the undead divas because they’re trying to win a game that’s rigged against them, and – to borrow an apocryphal quote from Ginger Rogers – they sort of have to do it “backwards and in high heels.”’
Of course, Streep and Hawn are the double act our community deserves. In her role as Madeline Ashton, Streep is the most physical, hyperbolic, and outrageous she has ever been, playing against the serious actor archetype that perhaps negates her excellent comedic acting. You can tell she is having the time of her life hamming it up with Goldie Hawn, and this joy is infectious. Add Isabella Rossellini – who looks phenomenal – into the mix and you have as close to perfection as one can get.
Even at their most grotesque, Madeline and Helen look stunningly beautiful, and the production value in costuming, make up, and prosthetics is exceptional. But the special effects really deserve their own paragraph, frankly.
The film is a technical masterpiece and pioneered CGI technology that’s considered industry standard today: without Death Becomes Her, there would be no Jurassic Park, or at least not one as technically impressive as we consider it today. Bones and necks are broken, then reset; heads are dislocated; Madeline peers through an enormous hole in Helen’s torso; breasts are lifted and augmented in real time! Unsurprisingly, the film took home its only Oscar for Best Visual Effects.
As always, we appreciate a slick script in the NGMC, and Death Becomes Her fires on all cylinders. Crafted by Martin Donovan and the illustrious David Koepp, every line of the script is witty and handled perfectly by the film’s juggernaut cast.
The fact that two straight men wrote this is staggering: with cutting barbs like ‘You’re dressed. Special occasion?’ I am convinced there were drag queens in the writers’ room. And the dialogue marries perfectly with the outrageous special effects and body gags, in the goofiest manner possible: ‘You’re a fraud, Helen! You’re a walking lie, and I can see right… THROUGH YOU!’ Perfection.
Of course, our main characters are largely odious, but the humour of their dialogue certainly masks their vulnerability: Madeline wistfully whispers in the mirror, ‘Wrinkled, wrinkled little star… hope they never see the scars,’ a line hilarious and heart-breaking in equal measure. But that is where the script succeeds: adding levity to a film that is truly dark at its core.
The tragedy of Madeline and Helen is what truly attracts its queer audience. The women are perpetually dissatisfied with their appearance – attached inextricably to their quest for youth – which is a relatable quality, especially within the LGBT community, and both vengeance and validation help fuel their respective transformations. But the value of these women, radiantly beautiful, is conditional: they are only valid as long as they stay young and beautiful.
And there is potentially a link between the experience of Madeline and Helen and the struggles we face daily: for many in our community life can be easier, and often safer, if someone ‘passes’ in their physical identity, however that applies to them. But ultimately, their incessant pursuit of youth and beauty lead to a life (and then some) of misery, distressing physical changes, and perhaps worst of all, co-dependence. Beauty always comes at a price.
So, what does Death Becomes Her teach us? Perhaps it can be read as a commentary on what being a woman meant in our culture in the early 90s, and how those values may or may not have evolved since then. Or maybe it is a parable on the pitfalls of aiming for physical perfection and youth.
Don’t ask me: I’m typing this as I wait for my gradual fake tan to dry and questioning if my arms are really ready for vest exposure this summer. Take the film at face value and you will appreciate it as a camp, technically stunning, and hilarious romp featuring cinema’s finest, most dazzling stars. Cut a little deeper (scalpel optional), and you’ll find a perceptive critique of our society’s obsession with an archaic form of femininity, youth, and beauty, and the pitfalls to which our attempts to sustain them can lead.