Death Becomes Her (1992) - Plot Summary Poster


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  • When a woman learns of an immortality treatment, she sees it as a way to outdo her long-time rival.

  • 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 her body. Meanwhile Helen seduces Menville and they plot a scheme to kill Madeline. When Madeline comes home, she has an argument Menville and he pushes her from the staircase. She breaks her neck but becomes a living dead. When Helen arrives at Menville's house expecting that Madeline is dead, she is murdered by Madeline. But she also becomes a living dead and they conclude they need Menville to help them to maintain their bodies. But Menville wants to leave them.

  • When a novelist loses her man to a movie star and former friend, she winds up in a psychiatric hospital. Years later, she returns home to confront the now-married couple, looking radiant. Her ex-husband's new wife wants to know her secret, and discovers that she has been taking a mysterious drug which grants eternal life to the person who drinks it. The actress follows suit, but discovers that immortality has a price.

  • Helen, a writer, and Madeline, an actress, have hated each other for years. Madeline is married to Ernest, who was once Helen's fiance. After she recovers from a mental breakdown, Helen vows revenge by stealing back Ernest and plotting to kill Madeline. Both rivals have secretly drunk a miracle cure for aging; they accidentally discover, when each tries to eliminate the other, that they have become immortal and that "life" will never be the same again.

  • 14 years after Madeline steals Helens fiancé Ernest, Helen together with the now alcoholic and downtrodden Ernest plots a plan to kill Madeline. Hovewer, due to Madeline having taken an elixir that gives her eternal life just killing her won't suffice.

  • Death Becomes Her is a story of sabotage and betrayal. Madeline Ashton (Meryl Streep) and Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn) have acted as toxic friends in one another's lives since childhood. Helen Sharp met and married plastic surgeon Ernest Menville (Bruce Willis), thinking her dreams of a happy life had been fulfilled. Madeline's malicious and competitive spirit becomes apparent when she purposefully breaks apart the marriage and subsequently marries Ernest herself. This tragedy sends Helen into a downward spiral, eventually landing her in a mental institution. Meanwhile, the marriage between Ernest and Madeline becomes more and more miserable as it becomes apparent that Madeline has never even liked him and will never love him. Madeline's misery is manifested into an adulterous affair and thousands of dollars spent on cosmetic surgery. She longs to be young and single again, while resentment grows toward her husband. Madeline is tempted into taking a potion, one that will stop the aging process and send it into reverse. She will soon be at her utmost physical perfection, a state she has missed and longed for for years. Her newly regained youth gives her confidence beyond expectation and she decides to pay a visit to her old friend Helen. She assumes that Helen is still overweight, after gaining weight in the mental institution, but finds her to be younger looking and fitter than ever. The old, long dead competition between the two women is reignited. Both want Ernest and will stop at no cost to have him. The competition becomes presumable deadly, until it is apparent that Helen has taken the same potion. This long time rivalry takes them both to very unexpected places.



The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • The film opens with Madeline Ashton (Meryl Streep), performing on Broadway in an elaborate dance number. In the audience are her childhood friend, Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn), and her fiance Ernest Menville (Bruce Willis). Helen shortly after feels that Ernest has fallen for her friend's glamorous charms, and her fears soon prove to be correct, when their engagement falls apart, and Ernest marries Madeline.

    This causes Helen to fall into a depressive spiral, in which she gorges on ready-made cans of frosting and becomes obese, living in an apartment with numerous cats. Her days generally consist of watching a film starring Madeline in which her character is killed, with Helen rewinding this scene over and over again. After she is evicted for failing to pay rent, Helen is put into a mental institution, but even after several months of therapy, she still has not shown any improvement. Her psychologist (Alaina Reed Hall) advises Helen that she needs to completely eliminate Madeline from her mind. In a twisted way (unknown to the psychologist), Helen takes this advice to heart.

    During the this time, Madeline Ashton's career has slowly waned. Now obsessed with holding onto her once youthful looks, and having an affair with a younger man. Ernest meanwhile has become an alcoholic mortician and is miserable in his married life.

    One day, Madeline receives an invitation for her and Ernest to attend a book release party from Helen. Madeline goes, eager to see Helen as an overweight woman... only to find her old friend is now slender and beautiful.

    Helen's 'rejuvenation' causes Madeline to slowly lose her mind. She angrily chews out her spa technician, the owner of the spa gives Madeline a business card to someone he claims can help her. The card he gives Madeline translates to Street of Flowers in French. Madeline scoffs at , and goes to see her young male lover...only to find that he's cheating on her. He tells her that she's gotten too old for him. Now more upset than ever, Madeline then looks at the card she was given, and goes to see Lisle von Rhuman (Isabella Rossellini).

    Lisle resides in a large, Gothic mansion, and reveals to Madeline a potion that will restore her youth and make her live forever - however Lisle isn't too clear on that last point, simply telling Madeline to "Take care of your body since you would be together a long time". Madeline eagerly takes the potion, holding it over her mouth to get every last drop. Before she leaves the mansion, Madeline looks in a mirror, and is amazed to see her wrinkles disappear, and her body become taut and firm again. She remarks to the guard "I'm a girl!" and the guard simply puts his finger to his lips, indicating the level of secrecy Madeline must now adhere to.

    Meanwhile, Ernest has been visited by Helen, who attempts to seduce Ernest into helping her kill Madeline. Her plan is simple: After drugging Madeline, they'll stage a drunk driving accident.

    Helen leaves shortly thereafter, and Madeline returns home, happy to be youthful again. Feeling better than before, but having been tempted by Helen's plans, he ends up pushing Madeline down the stairs instead of saving her after Madeline repeatedly calls Ernest "flaccid." Unsure what to do next, Ernest places a call to Helen, revealing their plans as he thinks Madeline is dead... only to find Madeline revived, with her head twisted backwards. After straightening her head, the two then go to the local hospital.

    While there, the doctor is surprised when his stethoscope picks up no heartbeat, and no pulse, which would technically mean that Madeline is dead. Ernest goes out for a little bit, only to return and find they've taken his wife to the Morgue. After finding her there, Ernest declares that Madeline is some kind of miracle, and decides to take care of her. It seems he totally forgot Helen's plans. But Helen hasn't.

    Returning to the mansion, Ernest notes that Madeline has lost color, and goes to the mortuary where he works to pick up formaldehyde, tubes, paints and other things. He then paints her body and does her makeup. However, this process is interrupted by Helen, who has come in regards to Ernest's panicked call to her reporting Madeline's lethal (he thinks) fall down the stairs.

    As their voices get higher, Madeline overhears Helen's intended death plot for her, and appears before the two, brandishing a shotgun. Madeline ends up blowing Helen into the garden pool with a gaping hole in her abdomen. Ernest is freaked about having a dead body on his hands (again), but gets another shock when Helen emerges from the pool, still alive, save for a giant hole through her abdomen.

    As Ernest watches, the two women then accuse the other of taking Lisle's potion, and then engage in a battle, swinging garden shovels, at which point Ernest goes back upstairs.

    During the fight, the two end up hurting each other physically, but then begin to lay out their own emotional feelings...before finally coming to a reconciliation. Going to Ernest, they say they have made up, and ask him to fix them. Ernest agrees, but on the condition that he is allowed to leave them forever once he has finished. The girls agree immediately to never contacting him again.

    After repairing the girls, they are at first overjoyed, but then realize that their bodies require upkeep now, and only Ernest can provide that. Helen suggests they drug him, and both girls attempt to have Ernest drink an alcoholic drink with a drug in it. However, Ernest then considers that he drinks too much, and refuses. In desperation, the girls hit Ernest over the head, knocking him unconscious.

    Ernest wakes up in the swimming pool chamber of Lisle's mansion, dressed in a tux. Lisle is swimming and steps out of the pool nude save for a long scarf and high heels. Lisle is throwing a party for her clients tonight, but has taken time to meet with Ernest at Madeline and Helen's request. Lisle shows Ernest the effects of the potion, and encourages him to take it as well. However, Ernest is reluctant, seeing a downside to living forever: he'll watch all the people around him get old and die, his body could be injured in accidents, and he'll most likely end up having to cope with Madeline and Helen forever.

    Ernest attempts to escape, but first encounters Lisle's party (at which Greta Garbo, Jim Morrison, Marilyn Monroe, Andy Warhol, Elvis, and James Dean are just some of the attendees). Ernest runs away with Helen and Madeline, as well as the guards Tom, Dick and Harry, in hot pursuit. Ernest ends up dangling precariously above the glass windows over the swimming pool, where Helen and Madeline find him. Ernest still has the potion in his possession, and the two at first plead, but then demand that he take the potion so he'll survive the fall.

    Realizing his 'importance' to them, Ernest drops the potion, and explains to the girls, "You're on your own," before plummeting into the glass and landing safely in the pool below. There he encounters Jim Morrison with a woman who is taking off her clothes prior to swimming. After Ernest falls through the stained glass ceiling and lands safely in the water, Jim Morrison asks him if he's done with the pool yet. Ernest assures him that he is done.

    Ernest escapes the mansion in a vintage Porsche (which belongs to James Dean). Helen and Madeline, acting on Lisle's orders, attempt to track Ernest down, first returning to Madeline's place, only to find Ernest has already packed and headed for the airport. It is then that they realize that they are now stuck with each other and will have to help each other maintain their deteriorating appearances.

    Thirty-seven years later, Ernest finally dies, and a funeral is held for him. The preacher eulogizes about Ernest's accomplishments in those last 37 years. In the time he had left, Ernest made more of his life than he had previously, becoming a mountain climber, remarrying and having 6 children with his 2nd wife, starting clinics for alcoholics, as well as an institution to understand and study women and their behaviors. During the sermon, the preacher claims that Ernest has obtained true immortality through his family, and the lives of those he had touched through his generosity and giving nature. The preacher even mentions "Ernest the Prankster's" long time "jokes" about the living dead in Beverly Hills.

    In the back of the church, Helen and Madeline, wearing heavy black veils to cover up their faces, are listening, and upon hearing the priest's final words, Madeline mockingly says, "Blah blah blah blah blah blah," and the girls exit the church.

    Outside, the two women (whose faces look far, far worse due to their constant touch-ups), begin to argue, before Helen accidentally slips on a can of spray paint she dropped. Helen is in danger of falling down the chapel steps, with Madeline just smiling smugly. However, Helen isn't going down alone, and grabs her 'friend.' The two of them tumble down the stairs, before their bodies shatter into various pieces at the bottom.

    In their shattered state, Helen's decapitated head asks Madeline's head the one thing that is now on her mind: "Do you remember where you parked the car?"

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