In 1978, in Broadway, the decadent and narcissist actress Madeline Ashton is performing Songbird, based on Tennessee Williams' Sweet Bird of Youth. Then she receives her rival Helen Sharp, who is an aspiring writer, and her fiancé Ernest Menville, who is a plastic surgeon, in her dressing-room. Soon Menville calls off his commitment with Helen and marries Madeline. Seven years later, Helen is obese in a psychiatric hospital and obsessed in seeking revenge on Madeline. In 1992, the marriage of Madeline and Menville is finished and he is no longer a surgeon but an alcoholic caretaker. Out of the blue, they are invited to a party where Helen will release her novel Forever Young and Madeline goes to a beauty shop. The owner gives a business card of the specialist in rejuvenation Lisle Von Rhuman to her. When the envious Madeline sees Helen thin in a perfect shape, she decides to seek out Lisle and buys a potion to become young again. Further, she advises that Madeline must take care of ...Written by
Claudio Carvalho, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Even though her character, Madeline Ashton, is portrayed as a 50 or over year old woman throughout most of the film, Meryl Streep was in fact 43 years old when she shot this film. See more »
The pool is illuminated from below, yet no light shines up through the large dark hole in Helen's abdomen. See more »
[leaving the theatre in the rain]
Can you believe that? A musical version of "Sweet Bird of Youth."Who are they kidding?
Thank God you wanted to leave...
Can you believe Madeline Ashton? Talk about waking the dead.
I gotta get a drink...
[zoom in on discarded playbill featuring Madeline Ashton]
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Robert Zemeckis is not my favorite director, "Contact" notwithstanding. There's nothing wrong with his movies; they're just fluffy. "Back to the Future" had an exhilarating two-billion-thread plot, but a disappointing moral climax-Marty's reengineered past creates an alternate present where his family is wealthy and the thing he covets most, a 4x4, is in the garage. (Such was our national mood--blame Reagan.) And "Forrest Gump", a decent and poignant melodrama, tried to be a satire too but instead of knowing commentary it delivered cliches (John Lennon on the Dick Cavett show answers questions using only lyrics from "Imagine"; an anti-war protester at a Washington rally makes his case before the crowd with the argument "Viet F...in' Nam!").
On the other hand, Zemeckis directed this, one of the great black comedies of the '90s. "Death Becomes Her" is a delicious, well-observed satire about makeup, makeup and more makeup. In Hollywood, if you're old you're run out of town on a rail and Meryl Streep's character is horrified that her body is going south. Streep has great comic timing (this role and her role in "Postcards from the Edge" are too-infrequent examples of it) and she makes a believable ogre of Madeline Ashton, a Streisand-esque demon. As the film begins in 1978 Madeline is onstage in a Broadway musical version of "Sweet Bird of Youth", hilariously retooled as an unironic paean to her girlish looks (she sings the unforgettable "I See Me" to her own reflection). Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn) and her fiancee Ernest Menville (Bruce Willis) are in the audience, and after the show Madeline greets old friend Helen backstage, and promptly steals Ernest away from her for marriage. Flash forward seven years; Helen is overweight, living alone with dozens of cats and endlessly rewatching movie star Madeline being murdered in a scene from one of her films. She is evicted and arrested but in jail she hits on an elegant solution for eliminating Madeline from her mind: eliminating her.
Flash forward to 1992 Los Angeles; has-been Madeline is caking on makeup and scheduling multiple face-lifts to fend off the inevitable. Ernest, formerly a plastic surgeon with a promising career, is now a mortician who dresses and retouches the best-looking corpses in the business. (His secret: spraypaint.) No sooner has Madeline rediscovered a drop-dead gorgeous Helen--looking impossibly young and voluptuous at her own 50th birthday party--then she panics and becomes desperate for a quick fix for her fading looks. She ends up in a mysterious Hollywood mansion with a sorceress (Isabella Rossellini) who gives her a magic potion granting eternal youth. Meanwhile Helen seduces Ernest and enlists his help in murdering Madeline. But comes a twist (literally) and suddenly Madeline gets a looks at immortality, and her own rear end, following a nasty fall down a staircase.
All the actors shine here. Goldie Hawn is hilarious. Bruce Willis, an underrated comic actor, is goofier than he's been since "Moonlighting". Sydney Pollack does a virtuoso one-take cameo as a doctor who loses it after examining a dead-but-still-breathing Madeline. There are a lot of twists and surprises, not the least of which is that the FX get some of the biggest laughs. With technology these days being so good FX often slip invisibly into the background, this movie flaunts its CG-manipulated human bodies as something to goggle at.
Zemeckis' usual trademarks are here, including elaborate tracking shots in expositional scenes and the use of mirrors to combine on- and off-screen space (in this movie about vanity there is a surplus of mirrors, one in practically every scene). The movie was written by Martin Donovan and David Koepp (they cowrote "Apartment Zero"; Koepp wrote "Jurassic Park" and its sequel). The mordant, sour-as-kumquats score is by Alan Silvestri ("Back to the Future", "Who Framed Roger Rabbit"). The special effects were produced by Industrial Light and Magic.
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