Thunder and lightning crash as a nearly-nude sorceress pounces to her feet. “Screw the natural law!” she roars while an aging starlet cowers at her feet. There’s a twinkle in the sorceress’ eye; she holds an invitation, a promise to experience life differently. I’ve seen queer people talk about Death Becomes Her with similar ferocity while an unsuspecting heterosexual stands frozen. We will tower with superior enjoyment, arms outstretched, mad-eyed, heralding the movie’s excellence, despite all logic. Celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, the film initially received mixed to hostile receptions from critics. But in the years since, Death Becomes Her has gained a considerable and curiously queer following.
The film follows two frenemies, Madeline Ashton (Meryl Streep) and Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn), who take an elixir of immortality. As their feud over the once-successful plastic surgeon Dr. Ernest Menville (Bruce Willis) finally climaxes, the pair find themselves on the other side of life—but not quite dead, either.
The queer canon is full of problematic faves, and Death Becomes Her is no exception. It intentionally does not like its women. During an interview included in the 2016 Blu-ray release, screenwriter David Koepp makes it quite plain that, as someone both “fascinated and revolted by Beverly Hills,” he wanted to write a story that would capture the “alien landscape filled with strange people who did strange things to their bodies.” As such, the film has no interest in redeeming Madeline or Helen.
Madeline, the “it,” remains a monster of pure artifice. Helen, in or out of a horrendous fat suit, remains of pure emotion. Though they seem to reconcile, neither changes for long. Instead, their grotesqueness manifests externally. These once vain creatures are fragile and ugly by the end, destined to continue their spayed cattiness for eternity.
Their wickedness is written directly opposed to Ernest’s innocence and fragility. These women do the worst thing you could do to a man in an early 1990s studio comedy: Emasculate him. Once a celebrated plastic surgeon, he’s reduced to an undertaker with an unsteady drinker’s hand, presumably because Madeline has driven him to the bottle. And it’s his wife’s barbed comment about his “flaaacid” penis that drives him to the literal ledge and commit murder. Well, “attempted” murder.
With all this Freudian castration anxiety lingering about and the way these female characters carry decades of sexist clichés, there seems plenty to laugh at with these characters, but not necessarily laugh about with them. Koepp never wants our laughter to transform into celebration. Just like Ernest at Madeline’s musical, it’s considered weird for us to clap and cheer at these performances because it goes against the grain of the text. For Koepp, it’s like rooting for Frankenstein’s creation. So what is it about Death Becomes Her that allows for queer enjoyment? How can there be anything queer in a film which, according to the screenwriter, has “don’t be unnatural” as its moral center?
There’s a long history of monsters and queers identifying with each other. Both are called “unnatural” because they defy social boundaries said to be found within a divine order. Monsters like the ones made by Victor Frankenstein or painted by Ernest Menville walk the supposedly firm line between living and dead. Queer people similarly skirt hardened sexual and gender lines. It’s a logical link that a queer appreciation of Death Becomes Her begins with a willing identification with its monstrous characters.
What makes this appreciation take hold so easily are the central performances. Everyone is acting their asses off in Death Becomes Her, not just Meryl. Willis sews together character traits that are totally against type. Ernest is frail and flailing; he screeches and wails. Unlike the macho characters Willis built his career on, Ernest is entirely devoid of any “yippee ki-yay.”
Of our leading performers, Goldie Hawn remains the most in her wheelhouse. She delivers exactly what we expect, a sharp and emotional sense of humor that pierces every line reading. So rarely do we get to see Hawn use her talents for evil, but Helen is no airhead blonde. She’s a wicked sniper with self-possessed sexuality, which is how Hawn gets to play against her image.
Streep turns your head around with all the directions she finds for her character. Though she’d dabbled in comedies before, Death Becomes Her allows Streep to go broad. Streep casts off the shackles of naturalism and gives a grand, coarse and fanciful performance, unlike anything we’ve seen from her before or since.
The lover’s triangle works exceedingly well together. Everyone seems to be having a genuine ball being awful people. We could stop here and conclude that the queer enjoyment of Death Becomes Her is found in an identification with the monstrous and hyper/self-performance. But even if these actresses are having fun and showcasing talent despite the script, such enjoyment still allows the sexism and homophobia of the film to remain unchallenged.
Nor does such enjoyment address the specters of queerness that haunt Death Becomes Her. Koepp and co-writer Martin Donovan position anyone lured by the quest for eternal youth as vain, and the film goes out of its way to include queer figures and icons. Hidden amongst Lisle’s immortal party guests, you’ll spot Andy Warhol and James Dean alongside Marilyn Monroe and Elvis. Madeline’s musical is based on Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth, a play about a mature woman in love with a younger man.
And then we have Mr. Chagall. Much more of a twitching character than a winking one, Ian Ogilvy plays him with an affected flamboyant drawl that leaves little doubt to the character’s “orientation.” Mr. Chagall runs an elite, experimental beauty parlor that fully realizes Koepp’s conception of Beverly Hills as populated by “aliens.” It’s a mysterious mauve underworld where beautiful French women separate your plasmas and patients are suspended on turning tables. Madeline’s been a client for some time but has reached the limits of what they, “mere mortals,” can provide. That’s when Mr. Chagall extends a key to immortality, the calling card of reclusive sorceress Lisle Von Rhuman.
By the time Madeline enters Lisle’s foreboding gothic manor, Koepp, Donovan and director Robert Zemeckis have already been hard at work underscoring the theme of “natural laws,” the phrase slipping out a few times surreptitiously. So when Madeline finally gives in, conceding that aging is “the natural law,” we’ve had enough. That’s when Lisle pounces to her feet and makes her proclamation which invokes a new narrative mode that is fundamentally queer.
One of the most naturalized laws humans have developed is linear time. Lives are expected to “progress” on a forward-marching trajectory “from the cradle to the grave.” We’ve developed milestones to mark this “progress” through institutional rituals like baptism, confirmation, graduation and marriage. Queer lives don’t follow many standard social markers of progress and normativity. In many cases, the state forbids queer people from achieving some of those socio-legal markers; in other ways, we intentionally avoid social expectations and celebrate things such as not having to bear the family pressures straight people face.
Immortality functions much the same way, for there is no more significant milestone in life than death. It is the great equalizer. We’re all supposed to die. It is socially, culturally and biologically expected of us. To not die or to un-die puts one into a queer relationship with time.
Yet Lisle is a “creature of the spring” who “hasn’t seen an autumn or winter in years.” She glides through life on her own calendar. Isabella Rossellini’s fiendish performance as the full-bodied immortal is gilded with an accent that sounds distinctly foreign but of no discernable origin. Lisle feels entirely outside of time and space. Her potion “stops the aging process dead in its tracks and forces it into retreat.” It is queerness itself, a lavender ether. Swallowing it means standard time halts, and you’re liberated to live on your own limitless time, freely moving backward then sideways for all eternity. Because of immortality’s innately queer relationship to time, queerness happens in spite of any sexism or homophobia penned into the script. Like when two straight parents get together, sometimes a queer child just happens.
For a film written with the intent to make a comic cautionary tale about being “unnatural,” Death Becomes Her relishes its computer-generated effects. The CGI in Death Becomes Her predates some of the significant milestones of CGI, like Jurassic Park, that would propel Hollywood cinema towards its digital age. The revolutionary effects developed for the film by Zemeckis and Tom Woodruff Jr. work to fully separate the filmmaking from the laws of nature. It proudly displays classic cinematic tricks as old as the medium, like the double exposure when the potion enters a body. But there are some effects, such as the hole in Helen’s stomach and Madeline’s twisted neck, that had never been done before.
Madeline’s backward look is a fabulous example of how the digital effects support the film’s unintended queerness. After falling down the stairs, Madeline has a new perspective on life. She sees life literally in a different direction than ordinary people. Madeline’s shock at looking down at her ass signals to her, Ernest and the audience that a new, queer mode of being has taken over the film.
Death Becomes Her is a queer film, but not necessarily a campy film. That’s because it doesn’t draw any attention to the production of queer labor, which is to say it neither labors queerly nor highlights the labor of queers, either of which first needs to be present before camp can take root. But if a moment gets close to or may even become camp, it’s Streep with her head on backward. To film the scene, Streep had to divorce herself from her natural impulse as an actor. Filmed twice, the sequence required Streep first to perform the scene walking backward, her head covered in a blue balaclava. Then, she had to do the scene facing forward…but not use her body. Such a queer connection between an actress and her body creates a unique and hilarious moment of camp when we’re at once watching narrative, performance and production.
If there’s any doubt that Death Becomes Her is a morality tale, we end on a homily: According to the preacher, the lesson to be learned from Ernest’s life, and the film itself, is that heteronormative life is a virtuous life.
But alas, queerness has entered and is irreversible, as Lisle warned. Despite all attempts to spray paint a lesson over this film, there’s enough queerness in the air that we can see through the peeling paint. An alternative experience of the film is possible. Attend any queer-led screening or drag re-imagining and you’ll see. Queers can choose to celebrate Madeline and Helen, identifying with their queer/alternative life-times, standing up with them in the face of this nauseatingly heavy-handed ending, rolling our eyes and joining their “blah, blah, blah…”
Death Becomes Her is a magical and delightful illustration of queerness without sexuality. Its lesson is that given to Helen and Madeline at the end of the film. If we separate ourselves from the body and look at things upside-down, we might find queerness in all sorts of places. Their lesson may be key to finding our car and figuring out where we, as queers looking for representation, go from here.
B.L. Panther is a culture writer, scholar and Pisces from Northern Illinois. B! writes for outlets such as Honey Literary Journal and The Spool, where they’re also the cohost of The Meh-thod Podcast discussing great actors in less-than-great films. A champion hermit, they enjoy reading, the indoors, afternoon naps and doing nothing at all.