For whatever reason, the 90s in film seemed to be not only a time for maudlin fare (see: Scent of a Woman), but also for a cynical and biting assessment of existence, particularly when it came to commentary on Hollywood (see: The Player, L.A. Story). A prime case in point, Robert Zemeckis’ 1992 movie, Death Becomes Her, is one of the pinnacles of satirical commentary on the culture’s obsession with youth and beauty.
Written by David Koepp (a prolific screenwriter also known for Jurassic Park, Carlito’s Way and Panic Room) and Martin Donovan, the snarky tone of the narrative is aided by the presence of Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn in the roles of Madeline Ashton and Helen Sharp. As two cutthroat frenemies, these characters lend all the acerbicness necessary to get the message across: the coveting of juvenescence will drive a woman mad–especially if she already has the propensity for madness to begin with.
Starting in 1978, the longtime rivalry of Helen, an aspiring writer, and Madeline, already a famous star who has been relegated to a Broadway musical based on her age, intensifies when Helen’s fiancé, plastic surgeon Ernest (Bruce Willis), accompanies her to Madeline’s show and becomes immediately enamored of her. Helen, livid over their overt flirtation, becomes even more so when Ernest tells her they had dinner together after Madeline came to see him for a consult. Helen seethes, “She wants you because you’re mine. I’ve lost men to her before–she turns on the flash and glitter and they’re gone. That’s why I wanted you to meet her before we got married. I had to know if you could pass the Madeline Ashton test. Please, please don’t fail.” Ernest responds by insisting he has absolutely no interest in her, followed by an abrupt cut to him getting married to Madeline instead of Helen.
From there, Helen spirals into an enraged state of depression and obesity, holed up in her apartment eating ice cream in the company of numerous cats while watching a scene of Madeline getting strangled in one of her old movies, Dark Windows (faux co-starring Michael Caine). Even as she’s being evicted, she smiles watching the scene on repeat while being escorted off the premises. After being put into a mental institution and driving everyone else crazy with her talk of Madeline, Helen resolves to feign wellness and get out so she can claim her vengeance on her old frenemy.
Madeline, meanwhile, has sunk into a deep melancholy over her visible traces of age and her husband’s ever-increasing state of alcoholism/career digression from plastic surgeon to reconstructive mortician. Upon receiving an invitation to Helen’s book release party for a novel entitled Forever Young, Madeline frantically seeks a means to look younger by going to a beauty spa that refuses to give her the procedure she wants so soon after she just got it. However, the spa owner, seeming to empathize with her beauty obsession, gives her the address of a woman named Lisle Von Rhoman (played to perfection by Isabella Rossellini), who he says can give her the sort of treatment she’s looking for. Madeline writes the owner off and rips the card in half when he leaves. She attends Helen’s party assuming she’ll be just as fat as she ever was, but is horrified to find that she looks better than ever.
This incident is compounded by Madeline being rejected by her much younger lover when she goes to see him and finds that he’s with someone else more age appropriate. He berates her for trying to seem younger by being with him and tells her that everyone thinks they look ridiculous together. His bluntness sends Madeline into a sobbing fit as she drives in the rain and happens to come across Lisle’s card again after dumping her purse out to reapply her makeup.
Desperate for help of any kind, Madeline drives to Lisle’s house. There, she finds a muscular slave boy type who escorts her to the living room of Lisle’s giant mansion. Dressed in a giant beaded necklace that serves as her top, Lisle greets Madeline with open arms, wasting no time in offering her a potion that will provide her with eternal youth–if she’s willing to pay the literal price. At first skeptical, Madeline is entranced by the healing of her hand after Lisle pierces her finger with a knife. The temptation proves too great for Madeline to resist, and she doesn’t seem to mind Lisle’s post-warning that she’ll need to disappear from the public once ten years have passed and she still looks suspiciously young. Rejuvenated in aesthetic and mindset, Madeline is unaware of Helen’s seduction of Ernest back at their house, where she hatches a plan with him to kill Madeline so they can be together.
Although the scheme doesn’t go quite as expected, Ernest does end up pushing her down a flight of stairs, only to promptly call Helen, who chides him for not phoning the police first as it will look suspicious if they check the records. As he’s talking to her, Madeline, her body contorted, comes back to life and walks over to Ernest with her head facing the wrong way. Terrified, Ernest hangs up the phone and tends to Madeline, deciding to take her to the hospital where she is pronounced officially dead by the doctor (Sydney Pollack), who ends up having a heart attack over the medical incongruity of her continued existence.
Ernest’s renewed interest in Madeline and her medical marvel status causes him to forget about Helen until she shows up demanding to see Madeline’s body so that she can help him bury it. As Ernest tries to explain that she’s not really dead, Helen rants about all of her unfavorable qualities, including what a bad actress she was–which Madeline overhears before descending the staircase to reveal herself to Helen. Shocked and endlessly disappointed, Helen has little time to think of a new strategy before Madeline grabs a shotgun and sends a bullet right through Helen’s stomach. Ernest’s panic and disgust mounts in the wake of this incident, but Madeline convinces him to help her via the threat of calling the police and telling them he killed her.
As they’re quibbling, Helen rises from the fountain she fell into with a giant hole in her stomach–her eyes menacingly blue–and screams, “That was totally uncalled for.” Ernest retreats after both women realize they’ve taken the same potion and begin verbally and physically fighting. When they come to the conclusion that they’ll never be able to kill each other as a result of their immortality, they finally relent to becoming allies, assuring Ernest that they’ve made up and that they need his help to touch up their rough patches.
Resolved to pack up and leave, Ernest agrees to do them one last favor by spray painting over their flaws. Pleased with his work, Madeline and Helen fear living an eternal life without Ernest there to touch them up when they need it, thus they hit him over the head with a vase so that they can get Lisle to convince him to drink the potion so he, too, can live forever. Although confused upon waking up, Ernest is initially amenable to listening to Lisle about consuming the liquid, but then pauses long enough to think about how terrible it would be to live well after everyone he once cared about had died–plus, he really can’t stand the notion of being saddled with Madeline and Helen for a life everlasting. Thus, he escapes into the party Lisle is throwing for her clients, Marilyn Monroe, Andy Warhol, James Dean and Elvis Presley among the guests.
As he’s chased to the roof, he puts the potion in his pocket. When Madeline and Helen find him, he’s hanging by a literal thread from his jacket. They urge him to drink the potion so that he can live after the fall. He refuses and then crashes through another glass roof that lands him safely in Lisle’s pool, allowing him to start over and live by the mantra, “Life begins at fifty.”
Thirty-seven years later, Madeline and Helen attend his funeral looking like two ghouls who have been rode hard and put away wet. After all this time, they’re still just as beauty-obsessed as before, even though they don’t quite have Ernest’s gift for spray painting. They despise one another as much as they ever did, yet are imprisoned not only by the desire to look alluring, but also the dependence they have on one another to make sure they appear “at their best,” which ultimately means having a melted face aesthetic.
As they bicker at one another while leaving the funeral, they are briefly stopped in their tracks by the priest’s eulogy, during which he states, “This man, in his own way, had learned the secret of eternal life.” When their ears perk up to see what the priest might reveal, they are disappointed to hear him conclude, “And it’s here among us, in the hearts of his friends, and the secret of eternal youth, right here, in the lives of his children and his grandchildren. And it is my opinion that our beloved Ernest is one man who will indeed live forever.” Madeline chortles, “Blah blah blah blah blah,” at this and exits quickly with Helen, proving that their vacuity long ago diminished their ability to understand what makes a person truly immortal.