Eternal youth is an age-old fantasy. Written during the second millennium BC, the epic poem Gilgamesh follows a capricious king hellbent on becoming immortal. Storytellers ever since have spun yarns about egomaniacs desperate to live forever. One of the zaniest entries in this genre is Robert Zemeckis’s Death Becomes Her, released in the UK 30 years ago. It’s Gilgamesh in Beverly Hills.
Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn play alpha females on the wane. Streep’s Madeline Ashton is a movie star who has run out of star power. Hawn’s Helen Sharp is a writer who can’t get published. Sworn frenemies, they battle it out for the affections of Dr Ernest Manville, a hapless plastic surgeon portrayed by Bruce Willis.
Madeline and Helen both fret over ageing. They can’t help it: women in LA are considered senior citizens after 40, and wrinkles there induce PTSD. To get the edge over the other, each imbibes an elixir for eternal youth. They’ll live to regret it.
Director Zemeckis is the mastermind behind Back to the Future and Forrest Gump, yet he was a hired gun on Death Becomes Her. The movie is the brainchild of an unlikely duo: scriptwriters David Koepp and Martin Donovan. Donovan, now 72, tells me over Skype that studio execs thought “we gave a weird first impression”. It’s easy to see why. Koepp was a well-mannered twentysomething with a UCLA degree. Donovan was an effusive fortysomething with a life story worthy of its own Hollywood adaptation.
Born Carlos Enrique Varela y Peralta Ramos in Buenos Aires, he grew up in a strict Catholic family, fled home at 15 and ended up in Rome working as an assistant to Luchino Visconti, the renowned filmmaker of The Leopard, until his death in 1976. Donovan then departed for London, where he launched a theatrical troupe, before turning to directing.
Koepp and Donovan teamed up in the late Eighties. Donovan was looking for an American writer to work with. Agents sent him piles of scripts, but he was underwhelmed. “All of a sudden,” he says, “a producer’s rep sends me three scripts…the scripts were not good.” But the coverage – Hollywood lingo for the cover notes analysing the scripts – grabbed him. “The coverage was sensational, funny, compassionate, intelligent,” he remembers. Donovan was told it was the work of “an intern from UCLA.” He asked to meet him: it was Koepp. The two hit it off and wrote Apartment Zero together, which Donovan directed in 1989 with a young Colin Firth in the lead.
Despite Donovan’s flourishing directorial career, Death Becomes Her was conceived from the get-go as a script he and Koepp would sell for another director to make. The elevator pitch, in Koepp’s phrase, was “a cross between Night of the Living Dead and a Noël Coward comedy.” Universal Pictures wanted to produce it.
Zemeckis, fresh off two Back to the Future sequels, took the helm. He was seduced by the script’s dark humour and relished lampooning a culture that villainized the ageing process. As he told The New York Times, “the baby-boom generation,” of which he’s a member, “has started to age and doesn’t want to,” adding “the movie is really a parody” of their angst about getting old.
The cast of Death Becomes Her was to die for. Streep signed on first; she badly needed a hit. Despite her Oscars for Sophie’s Choice and Kramer vs. Kramer, the studios doubted her popularity with audiences. Premiere, a magazine favoured by industry insiders, remarked scathingly: “National treasure or no, Streep still cannot open a film.”
But the grande dame of the silver screen, who was in her early 40s at the time, also made the film for personal reasons. According to biographer Karina Longworth, Death Becomes Her mirrors “the premature midlife crisis Streep was battling behind-the-scenes.” Two years earlier, while Pretty Woman broke box-office records, she had blasted Hollywood for casting actresses as “prostitutes.” If the trend continued, she said: “There’s not going to be a lot of work for women over forty. Like hookers, actresses seem to lose their market appeal around that age.”
Hawn, then in her late 40s and the star of Overboard and Private Benjamin, was typecast as the girl-next-door with a funny streak. Death Becomes Her destroyed her wholesome image and she went all out. In the film’s opener, her character, Helen, becomes morbidly obese after Streep’s Madeline steals her fiancé. Hawn had to don a “fat suit” filled with vibrating rubber, dubbed Flabbercast, so that her breasts and bottom jiggled as she walked. The actress commented with good humour that she was “thrilled” by her new look: “It was exactly how I saw this character…ugly on the outside and ugly on the inside.”
The man responsible for Helen’s ugliness, Ernest, was to be portrayed by Kevin Kline, who had starred alongside Streep in Sophie’s Choice a decade earlier and gone on to win the Oscar for A Fish Called Wanda. Kline felt he should earn as much as Streep and Hawn – somewhere between $3 and $4 million – although his was a supporting role. Zemeckis demurred: “He was asking for what the women were getting, and I didn’t feel I should give him a million-dollar raise just because it’s a big movie and I’m the director.”
But then John McClane saved the day. Bruce Willis, the star of the Die Hard franchise, was cast as Ernest. Donovan confesses he harboured doubts: “I thought ‘Bruce Willis?’ He was, I think, 36 and had to play this washed-out 50-year-old.” During rehearsals, Donovan gave Willis a tape of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and told him to “look at Richard Burton in that movie.” Inspired advice: Willis, like Burton, jettisoned the tough guy persona and played mediocrity to perfection.
The shoot went smoothly but, in keeping with the subject matter, was not without its goofy moments. In one scene, after drinking the potion for eternal youth, Madeline undergoes an instantaneous makeover: her face looks fifteen years younger and her body becomes that of a model. Koepp’s and Donovan’s script gives a vivid description of how it should appear on screen: “Her butt seems to lift and define itself; her breasts do the same, regaining old form and tone.” The latter proved a challenge to film. Prop masters initially crafted an “inflatable bra” but it didn’t look convincing once put on Streep. The solution: an assistant stood off-screen, hid his hands inside Streep’s top, and squeezed her breasts together.
Another highlight of the shoot came during Streep’s and Hawn’s fight scene. In real life, the two actresses were good pals, having almost starred together in Thelma and Louise. But now, in the name of art, they had to bash each other with shovels. Ever the method actress, Streep took things a little too far. She hit Hawn by mistake and sliced her cheek. Hawn got a small scar; if you pay attention to her close-ups after 1992, you’ll notice it.
As for Zemeckis, he had pioneered the use of special effects on Who Framed Roger Rabbit and wanted to do it again. In an iconic scene, an emboldened Ernest pushes Madeline down a staircase in a bid to kill her. Since she’s immortal, she doesn’t die. But her body is deformed from thereon: her head faces backwards, and later it disappears into her shoulders. “All the special effects were a novelty to us,” Donovan explains. “I remember the first time we saw it with David [Koepp], we laughed like crazy.”
But Streep was not amused. She had to shoot her scenes twice, first against a blue screen and again on set while wearing a blue bag over her head. The special effects team at Industrial Light & Magic, a company founded by Star Wars creator George Lucas, subsequently blended the two takes. But Streep, a Yale-trained thespian, hated this dehumanising way of working. “You stand there like a piece of machinery. They should get machinery to do it,” she later quipped.
As it turned out, machinery was the way of the future. ILM won an Oscar for its work on Death Becomes Her. The following year, the company came out with Jurassic Park, creating 3-D dinosaurs entirely with computers. It was the cinematic equivalent of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, a groundbreaking masterwork that launched a new aesthetic. Computer-generated imagery, or CGI, is now ubiquitous in movies, TV shows and adverts.
But none of it would have been possible without Death Becomes Her. Working on the film gave ILM’s tech whizzes the chance to hone their skills before Jurassic Park. For instance, to conjure Madeline’s 180-degree head turns, they had to digitally construct human skin for the first time ever. VFX art director Doug Chiang said: “For me the charm of Death Becomes Her was, it was really one of the films that bridged that technology gap.”
Despite its industry advances, Death Becomes Her barely recouped its $55 million budget at the box-office and was pummelled by high-minded critics. It was cruel, gaudy, daft, they griped. Years later, Zemeckis took the blame for the film’s poor reception, blaming it on his lavish directorial vision. “I imposed a lot of giant sets and style and this huge cast on what should have been a scrappy little story,” he said.
And yet, it’s precisely this over-the-top quality that has ensured the film’s legacy. Case-in-point: Death Becomes Her is now a classic in the queer community, which relishes its sparkly surrealism. The film was referenced on the hit reality series RuPaul’s Drag Race and was even parodied as a drag show titled Drag Becomes Her. As the show’s creator, Peaches Christ, told the AV Club, Death Becomes Her resonates with LGBTQ people because it’s “essentially a mirror for us.” It deals with preoccupations prevalent in the queer community: the celebration of glamour and the challenge of ageing.
Given the film’s cult status, it’s no wonder that actress Jessica Chastain recently expressed the desire to star in a remake with Anne Hathaway. She gushed to Parade that “when it came out… People thought it was garbage! But I think it’s a masterpiece.”
There are other reasons why a remake would be instantly relevant. Consider the cruelty of the film’s main characters, so bemoaned by critics in 1992. In our age of trolling and cyberbullying, it’s disturbingly familiar. Or take Madeline’s and Helen’s pathological self-absorption. They treat other people as disposable, lash out whenever things don’t go their way, and lack self-awareness. Any number of contemporary public figures fit the bill, just take your pick.
The fear that they don’t look “perfect” ultimately leads Madeline and Helen to lose their mind. As it happens, this too has turned true. Experts say Instagram, with its legions of influencers with surgically enhanced bodies, has triggered a mental health epidemic among teen girls.
Even the premise of Death Becomes Her – that the rich and powerful would do anything to become immortal – no longer appears fanciful. Silicon Valley moguls have splashed billions on anti-ageing start-ups which aim to reverse the ageing process and deliver eternal life.
The Palantir chairman Peter Thiel, for instance, has said he intends to “cheat death.” As he explained to the Telegraph a few years ago: “You can accept [death], you can deny it or you can fight it. I think our society is dominated by people who are into denial or acceptance, and I prefer to fight it.” But should Thiel lose his fight against the Grim Reaper and die, he’s got a fallback: be cryogenised until science has cracked eternal life. He knows it sounds “really crazy, it’s disturbing. But my take on it is it’s only disturbing because it challenges our complacency.”
Amazon founder’s Jeff Bezos is also rumoured to be getting in on the act. He reportedly helped finance Altos Labs, a cutting-edge biotech firm with a capital of $3 billion. Its mission statement: “To restore cell health and resilience through cellular rejuvenation.” If Altos’ scientists pull this off, then by implication they’ll be able to turn cells – and people – immortal. That sounds impossible, but Altos has spared no expense in recruiting the world’s brightest minds. The esteemed biochemist Dr Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte is bullish about Altos’ prospects. He said: “Within two decades, we will be able to prevent diseases and ageing.”
This means Silicon Valley VIPs could successfully avoid death. If so, let’s hope they fare better in immortality than the characters of Death Becomes Her. For Madeline and Helen come to regret living forever. They end up disfigured and in pain, solitary and resentful.
Ultimately, Death Becomes Her serves as a cautionary tale against seeking eternal youth. Don’t do it, warns the film – or you’ll be bored, bitter and bitchy for all eternity.