“It’s not a love of the old as such. It’s simply that the process of aging or deterioration provides the necessary detachment—or arouses a necessary sympathy,” Susan Sontag wrote in “Notes on Camp,” the essay she spent the rest of her life living down. To be clear, the decay-obsessed Death Becomes Her isn’t strictly camp, despite its swelling fascination for the emotionally grotesque and its trio of bold divas breaking all the rules. But to also be clear, it has in the years since its unassuming 1992 theatrical run become one of the great unspoken cult classics for gay (male) audiences. It shares space with that rarified class, including Auntie Mame and Grey Gardens, of films that don’t contain so much as a whiff of explicit homosexuality, but seem within their very DNA to radiate a gay sensibility—true examples of cinematic “nature, not nurture.” One could go so far as to call Death Becomes Her one of the gayest films Hollywood ever released to have been made by almost exclusively straight filmmakers.
Which is where Sontag’s observation that true camp also by default preserves its creator’s sense of naïveté comes into play. No one looking at the filmographies of director Robert Zemeckis (whose next film would be the hopelessly square Forrest Gump) or screenwriters David Koepp and Martin Donovan would expect any of them to produce a film so precise in its aesthetic that RuPaul’s Drag Race’s Jinkx Monsoon (who also memorably embodied Grey Gardens’s Little Edie in the “Snatch Game” challenge) would be moved to name her entire selfie-documentary after it. Of course, any film that gives Meryl Streep carte blanche to unleash her comedic artillery—99 percent brilliant, one percent fulfilling Sontag’s proviso for “failed seriousness”—has a running start at the Camptown races.
But perhaps there’s something to be said for the material transcending the people shepherding it onto the screen. Death Becomes Her is a flashy, femme spin on both The Picture of Dorian Gray and hagsploitation with an unmistakably Tales from the Crypt taste for poetic justice. Maybe you can envision a plausible tongue-nowhere-near-cheek alternate-universe version, but it’s possible any idiot could’ve helmed the film and wound up looking, metaphorically speaking, like Gene Hackman at the end of The Birdcage.
Luckily, they had Zemeckis, whose inability to exercise restraint pushes Streep, Goldie Hawn, and Bruce Willis to all kinds of reckless excess. Hawn plays Helen Sharp, a faintly dowdy, but high society-bred woman who has, in the past, lost more than a few loves of her life to her glitzy former schoolmate, Madeline Ashton (Streep), an actress approximately. The film opens in 1978 as Madeline’s musical version of Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth is setting new records for audience walkouts. (If there’s one thing in Death Becomes Her that “fails,” per Sontag’s guidance, it’s that Streep’s movie-opening performance of “Me” is actually a nutty disco-era knockout. If, as they say, you have to be a great musician to believably play a bad one, clearly Streep and Zemeckis stopped short of properly embodying what John Waters on The Simpsons memorably called “the tragically ludicrous, the ludicrously tragic.” But all in the name of entertainment, so they’re forgiven.)
Madeline predictably lampreys onto Helen’s newest beau, Ernest Menville (Bruce Willis), a noted cosmetic surgeon. Though handkerchief-clutching, cat-collecting spinster-in-waiting Helen warns Ernest that she’ll lose her mind if Madeline pilfers another fiancé, a smash cut delivers the news that, indeed, it’s instant wedding bells for Madeline and Ernest. After seven years spent eating cake frosting out of the can, and another seven in psychiatric therapy, Helen emerges with an exercise book, looking like a million dollars. Meanwhile, Madeline’s Beverly Hills boy toys refuse to be seen in public with her anymore over her drooping, sagging features. Enter Lisle von Rhoman (Isabella Rossellini), milky and voluptuous, somewhere between Dracula and a MAC Cosmetics representative. Her “touch of magic” potion restores Madeline’s plastic vitality, and her breasts to their proper position. And, as if stemming directly from Lisle’s departing warning (inspiring one of Streep’s all-time great line readings: “Now a warning?!”), the macabre ripple effects of Madeline’s Faustian bargain soon start piling up.
That Zemeckis wasn’t hacking here is clear the moment you notice (two or three minutes in) how many scenes are played out in front of or adjacent to mirrors, bluntly reflecting the film’s satire of Los Angeles’s hyper age-consciousness. Or how over the top his vision of Hollywood gothic goes, with roaring Volkswagen-sized fireplaces and trial-sized sports cars. And the cast respond in turn with performances so broad that apparently the film no longer needed the services of card-carrying scene-stealer Tracey Ullman (who shot an entire subplot as the alcoholic Ernest’s bartender confidante, but was excised from the final cut). There’s absolutely no semblance of cinematic tact, happily, and the drag-queen Looney Tunes tone is fearlessly sustained without a single hiccup. “When something is just bad (rather than Camp), it’s often because it is too mediocre in its ambition. The artist hasn’t attempted to do anything really outlandish,” Sontag reasoned. Death Becomes Her is one of the few mainstream comedies that you don’t feel even had to try to be outlandish. It was simply born that way.
"Not a wrinkle, not a pore," Madeline enthuses to Helen when they assess the spray paint-assisted undertaking job Ernest has performed on their now-dead selves late in the film. It’s also a pretty accurate grade for the high-definition transfer on Scream! Factory’s new Blu-ray release. The video master retains the movie’s cold, metallic look without lapsing into harshness. And, as is always the mark of a solid transfer for an effects-heavy catalogue release, you can clearly see some of the seams in the trick shots. The grain seems to go in and out depending on how many visual effects are involved, but in all, it’s the most consistent the film has ever looked on home video. The sound mix is crystal clear, if not overly directional by today’s standards. Look, the important thing is that you hear Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn bellowing insults at each other without much distortion, and this disc’s got that in spades.
It’s pretty rare to see something get dubbed a "Collector’s Edition" with this little meat on its bones. Given the wealth of deleted footage we already know is out there, that none of it shows up on the disc in virtually any form (aside from the theatrical trailer and eight-minute EPK reel, both of which included a shocking amount of removed or alternate footage suggesting how much more there could’ve been) is a slap in the face to Death Becomes Her fans everywhere. And given the movie’s patently obvious appeal to gays and camp aficionados, and almost as obvious lack of appeal to film geeks, to have the only newly produced featurette focus entirely on the technical side of production (no actors participated) at the expense of its reassessment within the cult canon is unforgivable. What could’ve been on the disc is bountiful, and what little there is on the disc is utterly superfluous.
To have Death Becomes Her’s youth restored in a new HD transfer is, like you at the L’Oréal counter, worth it. Now a warning: The lack of bonus features make this disc look cheap.