When Robert Zemeckis’ high-camp classic Death Becomes Her (1992) debuted in the early 1990s, little could the filmmaker and stars have known how prescient the film’s examination of superficial beauty would become. Fast forward nearly 30-years and the Academy Award-winning feature seems less ahead of its time as it is of our current time, where social media stars can build their entire brand around enhancement packaged as empowerment. It’s partially why the two leads – Madeline Ashton and Helen Sharp (played by Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn respectively) – have shifted from outlandish villains to sympathetic antiheroines in the decades since the quest for immortal beauty has mutated from a punchline to a billion-dollar industry. “They're fighting for beauty,” said Tom Campbell, an executive producer on RuPaul's Drag Race (which dedicated a whole episode challenge to the film) in an interview with Variety. “They're against the system. They're also villains, but we understand their complexity. 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’.”
Although the elixir of life – sometimes referred to as the philosopher’s stone – has been featured extensively in popular culture (Harry Potter, Doctor Who, Fullmetal Alchemist, Indiana Jones) those stories have often leaned towards the male perspective and rarely dealt with the consequences of enduring, immortal life. The vessel for that in Death Becomes Her is Isabella Rossellini’s character Lisle Von Rhuman, a maybe witch, maybe sorceress, maybe immortal being who dispenses the highly sought after potion to both Madeline and Helen… at a cost.
“But you must make me a promise,” she says to a desperate Madeline. “The secret that we share must never become public. You may continue your career for ten years. Ten years of perfect, unchanged beauty. But at the end of that time, before people start to become suspicious, you have to disappear from public view forever. You can retire, you can stage your own phony death… OR… as one of my clients simply said, ‘I want to be alone’.”
In one monologue, the mystical madame manages to convey two things: the reality of immortal life and the expense (both literally and figuratively, as she’s cut a cheque in the next scene). The ”or” and her dramatic delivery of it – which leans into the campy aesthetic of the film that has made it a beloved cult classic – is designed to highlight both the carrot and the stick. The former is beauty, everlasting, and the latter is isolation, also everlasting. You get one, but not without the other and the failure of both Madeline and Helen to understand that infuses much of the film with its drama, comedy, and ground-breaking special effects.
– Maria Lewis