Death Becomes Her is an iconic 1992 film written by Martin Donovan and David Koepp and directed by Robert Zemeckis. It’s a satire about Hollywood’s outdated and restrictive obsession with youth and aging. The film features some of the biggest names in Hollywood, including Meryl Streep, Bruce Willis, and Goldie Hawn.
It’s a critically acclaimed film not only for its pointed message but for its use of CGI (computer-generated imagery). This was the first film of its time to use special effects in the way it did. This film is a cult classic and a must-watch.
The Writers Wrote It as an Indie Film
David Koepp, one of the film’s writers, has made a name for himself as one of the biggest screenwriters in Hollywood. He wrote Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible, and Spider-Man, but before Death Becomes Her, he and co-writer Martin Donovan had nothing but a negative bank balance to their names.
They suspected it would be a small-scale indie (independent) film. The budget was about $5 million, and after director Robert Zemeckis (director for Back to the Future) read the script, he was completely on board. And then it became something far bigger.
Bruce Willis Wasn’t Always Destined for the Role
Bruce Willis had always been cast as a macho tough guy. He was seemingly ill-fit for the role of Dr. Ernest Menville, a plastic surgeon who suffers from alcoholism and becomes a mortician. But now we know he was perfect for the role.
Kevin Kline and Jeff Bridges were two of the first contenders for the role of Dr. Ernest Menville. Kevin Kline came close to playing the part, but he withdrew from the film, and it fell through with Jeff Bridges as well. Willis, however, was determined to play the role and ended up doing a phenomenal job.
Meryl Streep Thought She was Auditioning for Helen
Although Meryl Streep seems to be fit for any role, she typically gets cast as the good, sensible character. So, when Streep was offered a part in the film, she just assumed it would be for the role of Helen. She felt as though Helen was a character made perfectly for her.
Streep was drawn to Helen’s calm and gentle demeanor, and she felt suited for the role. When she found out she was cast as Madeline, Streep was in shock. Madeline was the more outspoken of the two female main characters, and her part included singing and dancing.
Being an Actress Isn’t Always So Glamorous
Meryl Streep soon experienced some of the more invasive and drab parts of acting during her role as Madeline. There is a part in the film where Madeline drinks a potion that is meant to lift her breasts and make them appear more youthful.
She was given a special pneumatic bra custom made by the production team to achieve that effect, but when it didn’t work, the cast and crew came up with more creative ways to accomplish this feat. In the end, they recruited Streep’s dresser and asked her to physically hold up Meryl’s breasts while staying out of the shot.
Isabella Rossellini Had a Body Double
Yes, Death Becomes Her is a film suitable for family viewing, but sometimes it really pushes the boundaries, especially when it comes to some of the scenes featuring Isabella Rossellini. She stars in the film as Lisle von Rhuman, an ageless and enigmatic beauty who is the keeper of a magic potion that provides eternal life.
Her character tends to wear as little clothing as possible. Rossellini decided to use a body double in some of the shots, which is surprising since she had filmed nude scenes in other films such as Blue Velvet.
The Body Double Is Now a Famous Actress
Isabella Rossellini’s body double in Death Becomes Her has now become a famous Hollywood actress—Catherine Bell. Her role in Death Becomes Her was her first acting role, and it inspired her to continue pursuing a career in film.
Bell now has a formidable acting career, never to play a body double again. She made a name for herself by playing the role of Sarah “Mac” Mackenzie in the television series JAG. She later reprised this role on NCIS: Los Angeles. When she was cast as Cassandra Nightingale in The Good Witch, her career continued to flourish.
Goldie Hawn Was Left with a Physical Scar
Death Becomes Her features an iconic scene where Madeline and Helen get into a fight and attack each other with spades. Both characters drank the magic potion, however, and neither can be harmed. Naturally, in real life they’re not invincible, and Meryl Streep ended up accidentally hitting Goldie Hawn in the face, which left a scar.
The incident didn’t affect their relationship. After all, that’s show biz, baby! The two have remained good friends, and during a speech at the 2004 AFI Life Achievement Ceremony, Hawn praised Streep.
Meryl Would Never Work with Special Effects Again
Death Becomes Her was known for its advanced use of CGI. These were the same special effects that were later used in Jurassic Park. It was the first film to use computer-generated skin texture.
It was used in the scene where Madeline has to reposition her head after Helen smashes it with a shovel. Meryl Streep had never played in a film with so many special effects, and when it was done, she declared she would never star in such a film again. It was her first, last, and only film with CGI.
The Ending Was Completely Changed
The way the film actually ended and the way it was scripted to end are two completely different scenarios. In the first cut, Ernest falls in love with the bartender, played by Tracey Ullman. Together, they fake his death, thus escaping the immortal cult and living happily ever after.
The test audience hated the cheery ending, so it was completely cut and replaced by the ending known and loved by all. Madeline and Helen, now decrepit with age, are at Ernest’s funeral decades later. This was a monumental dark twist that made the film incredible.
The Film Is a Cult Classic with a Queer Audience
With time, Death Becomes Her has reached an audience that the filmmakers never anticipated—the LGBTQ community. It has been wholly embraced by that community and is considered a camp masterpiece. The film has heavily influenced the creators of RuPaul’s Drag Race who created a number of challenges inspired by the film.
In 2017, a Vanity Fair article that celebrated the film’s 25th university called it a “gay cult classic.” The film is often watched during Pride Month, and drag acts are performed as the legendary duo Madeline and Helen.
Is A Musical Adaptation on Its Way?
Due to the iconic nature of the film, a musical version was bound to hit the Broadway stage at some point. The adaptation was first announced in 2017, and Tony Award Winner Kristin Chenoweth planned to star in it as Madeline.
Other characters have not yet been cast, and it seems that not much news has come out since the 2017 announcement. A composer and screenplay writer have yet to be disclosed, but many are still hopeful that the play will kick back up soon. Death Becomes Her as a musical would be extraordinary!
James Dean and Elvis Are in the Film!
Die-hard fans of the film have spotted a few references to dead, famous musicians lurking in the background. When Dr. Ernest Menville falls through the glass roof and lands in the pool, Jim Morrison is sitting by the pool with a girl.
There is also an extra dressed as James Dean later in the film. And then there’s a reference to Elvis Presley’s alleged fake death. There is no real reason why these ghosts of music’s past make several appearances throughout the film, but it does add to its spooky nature.
A Film with Underlying Social Commentary
When the film was released, Hollywood didn’t pay much attention to older female actresses. If an actress wasn’t young, thin, and attractive, it was hard for her to be heard or recognized. In today’s film industry and society at large, this still rings true. The problem has only escalated.
People are obsessed with looks and youth, and many are on the verge of becoming a Madeline of sorts. Part of growing is facing age, and this film managed to touch on this issue in a comedic and graceful way that has remained relevant decades later.
Lisle Was Going to Be a Centenarian
When the film was first written, Lisle was going to be more than 100 years old. In the final draft of the script, her age was changed to 71. It was also implied that Lisle had shared her potion that grants immortality to many famous figures such as Abraham Lincoln, William Shakespeare, and Max Factor.
In another early draft of the script, it was written that Lisle was actually Cleopatra, which befits her look with the cropped, jet-black bob. The box that holds the potion is decorated with Egyptian hieroglyphics, another nod to Cleopatra.
The Shovel Scene Was Hard Work
The use of special effects in Death Becomes Her was no easy task, and the shovel scene took a lot of work. In the scene before it, Helen knocks Madeline’s head, and it rotates so her head is hanging off her collarbone. In order to achieve the backward head, Streep had to wear a blue screen hood over her head.
In post-production, the hood was replaced by an animatronic head that recited the lines prerecorded by Streep. Orchestrating such a scene took a lot of post-production work and preplanning, but it was flawlessly achieved.
Shots from the Trailer Were Not in the Film
There are many parts of the trailer that didn’t actually make it into the final cut of the film. We have no idea why the trailer was never redone to accurately reflect the film.
The only reasonable explanation is that after the negative test screening results, many last-minute changes were made to the film and there was no time to edit the trailer. The most noticeable difference is that Tracey Ullman appears in the trailer but never in the film.
Surpassing Buffy the Vampire Slayer at the Box Office
Death Becomes Her hit the big screen in July 1992, the same weekend the film version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer premiered. There were high hopes for Buffy, but the film was outshone by Death Becomes Her, which hit number one at the box office. Buffy reached number five.
Death Becomes Her made $12 million, while Buffy only managed to earn $4.5 million. Another film in competition with the two was Bebe’s Kids, which hit number seven at the box office. It was a big run for Death Becomes Her, solidifying the film for years to come.
A Nod to Back to the Future
Robert Zemeckis will forever be remembered for directing Back to the Future. He has directed other hits such as Forest Gump, Romancing the Stone, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? But Back to the Future is tied to him forever—and for good reason.
He obviously has no issue with this, and he snuck in a little ode to the film in Death Becomes Her. Helen says she drank the magic potion on October 26, 1985—the same date that Marty McFly goes back in time to 1955.
The Film Was Not as Popular as Expected
Despite hitting number one at the box office, Death Becomes Her didn’t achieve the success its creators were hoping for. It grossed enough nationally to more than cover the $55 million budget and earned almost $150 million worldwide. The public wasn’t too impressed with the film, and critics didn’t rave about it either.
Critics were astounded by the innovative use of special effects, but the story and characters left them indifferent. On Rotten Tomatoes, critics rated the film at 52%, the lowest a Robert Zemeckis film had ever received.
From Film to Television Series
Initially, Death Becomes Her was a sequel to the film Tales from the Crypt released in 1972. It was Robert Zemeckis’ favorite Halloween film, and in 1989 he created a television series with the same name. There are three actresses from Death Becomes Her who also appear in episodes of Tales from the Crypt television series.
Isabella Rossellini, Mary Ellen Trainor, and Michelle Johnson all appeared in both the film and the show. Death Becomes Her is often seen as an extended version of the television show, and the trailer for the film features the theme song for Tales from the Crypt.
An Alternate Ending That Didn’t Make the Cut
There was another ending that was written into one of the many drafts of the script that didn’t make the cut. Initially, the scene was going to involve a shocking end for both of the main female characters, but it was scrapped.
Helen and Madeline were going to steal a car and chase after Ernest. This high-speed chase would result in the two driving off the side of a cliff. The wreckage would then light on fire, and they would emerge from the ashes completely charred but still alive due to the magic potion.
The Film Won an Oscar
Death Becomes Her may not have raked in its projected earnings or received stunning reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, but it did manage to win an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects despite its meager popular acclaim.
The film was up against Alien 2 and Batman Returns for the Best Visual Effects award. As we know, it won. The film also picked up a BAFTA and a Saturn Award in the same category. The film had some major wins that were rightfully deserved.
Meryl Streep as Madeline Ashton
Meryl Streep is one of the best actresses in film history, and her role as Madeline Ashton is unforgettable. In Death Becomes Her, she plays the protagonist, a dramatic actress obsessed with remaining youthful and beautiful.
Her presence on screen and in this role is mesmerizing and powerful. She is funny and witty, and delivers the character magnificently. Streep was older than 40 when she was cast in this film centered on aging in an ageist society. She believes the film has a powerful message and was far before its time.
Where Meryl Streep Is Today
There are probably very few people on this planet who are not familiar with Meryl Streep. She is a powerhouse actress who has starred in one iconic film after another. She is such a versatile actress that she has played a wide range of roles and often with a different accent. She has been marked the best actress of her generation.
She is known for her roles in Mama Mia, The Devil Wears Prada, Little Women, and most recently the Netflix hit Don’t Look Up where she played alongside Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill. Her roles range from loving mother to president.
Bruce Willis as Dr. Ernest Menville
Bruce Willis plays a coveted plastic surgeon turned drunk who Streep’s and Hawn’s characters constantly fight over. He was admittedly not the first choice for the role, but he delivers it perfectly. This low-energy, mellow role is very different from any of his other gun-slinging, macho man films.
His role as Dr. Earnest Menville offered him range and showcased his acting skills and genuine comedic talent. This film shows that Willis had the ability to take his acting career in a number of different ways.
Where Bruce Willis Is Today
Bruce Willis may be a retired actor, but he has a long list of movie credits under his belt. He is known for his strong-headed, manly roles in action movies, but he actually got his start on an off-Broadway stage in the 1970s.
Since then, he has starred in countless movies, most notable, the Die Hard series. He has played in classics such as Pulp Fiction, The Fifth Element, Cop Out, and many more. The films he has starred in are typically action and adventure movies with gunfights, fistfights, and a lot of adrenaline.
Goldie Hawn as Helen Sharp
Goldie Hawn delivers an incredible performance as Helen Sharp in Death Becomes Her. In the first minute of the film, the audience is captivated by her performance. Helen’s husband leaves her for a woman who has always stolen her men in the past, and due to depression, she neglects her mind and body.
She then gets sent to a psychiatric facility and begins plotting her revenge against Madeline. She delivers all this within the first few scenes, and it’s utterly heartbreaking. This has easily become one of the greatest roles in her extensive career.
Where Goldie Hawn Is Today
Goldie Hawn is an icon who starred in hit films for decades. Her career began in the 1960s, but it really took flight in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. Some of her greatest films include The First Wives Club, Private Benjamin, and Housesitter.
She is an actress, singer, dancer, and producer who has won two Academy Awards and many Golden Globe Awards. She is the long-time partner of Kurt Russell, and her daughter is Kate Hudson. She has forever made a name for herself in Hollywood.
Isabella Rossellini as Lisle von Rhuman
In Death Becomes Her, Isabella Rossellini plays the role of the mysterious and stunning Lisle von Rhuman. Lisle is the keeper and distributor of the coveted magical potion that offers immortality. She is vivacious and captivating.
Many believe that her character is meant to be Cleopatra. Her cropped black hair could attest to that theory, although that was never confirmed. Her character also hints that she has tried to distribute the potion to many prominent figures in history, some accepting it and some rejecting her offer.
Where Isabella Rossellini Is Today
Isabella Rossellini is an actress, model, writer, animal behaviorist, and farmer. She grew up in France but moved to America when she was 14. Her career has been illustrious, and it continues to be. She is known for her role as abused nightclub singer Dorothy Vallens in Blue Velvet and bad girl Perdita Durango in Wild at Heart.
Her early performance as Lisle von Rhuman in Death Becomes Her was unknowingly the start of her fight against ageism. For Rossellini, age is really just a number, and she continues to find new ways to expand her career as she gets older.
Ian Ogilvy as Chagall
Ian Ogilvy plays Chagall in Death Becomes Her and is essentially the gateway to the magical potion. He is not the purveyor of it like Lisle von Rhuman, but he decidedly refers Madeline to the woman who can offer her eternal youth. Although not a huge character, he is essential to the plot of the film. He helps push the ageist narrative forward.
He is a doctor who finds it ethically wrong and unsafe to approve Madeline’s next surgery, but he finds it acceptable to refer her to von Rhuman. His performance is unmatched, and this role is quite kooky compared to his usual stuff.
Where Ian Ogilvy Is Today
Ian Ogilvy is a British film actor and stage performer. He was able to land many lead roles both on-screen and on stage. His first films were The Sorcerers in 1967 and Witchfinder General in 1968. Some of his biggest plays were The Spoils of Poynton (1970) and Upstairs, Downstairs (1972).
He then starred in the hit television series The Return of the Saint where he took on the role of Simon Templar after Roger Moore left the show. He also appeared in the 1990–1991 daytime drama Generations as Reginald Hewitt.
Adam Storke as Dakota Williams
Adam Storke plays Dakota Williams, the love interest, in Death Becomes Her. The main female characters, played by Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn, are both madly in love with Dakota, the films’ heartthrob.
He plays the Hollywood boy toy so well, and he captured the hearts of many fans of the film. He is the image of youthful beauty, which is a continuing theme throughout the film. Casting him as Dakota was a perfect fit.
Where Adam Storke Is Today
Adam Storke is an American actor who has been featured in television and film. Some of his best-known roles include Charles Gordon Windsor Jr., Julia Roberts’ love interest in the 1988 film Mystic Pizza, and Larry Underwood in the 1994 miniseries The Stand, based on a Stephen King novel.
He began his career in 1991 with the film Highway to Hell, which helped shed light on his talents. His role in the film was the catalyst for his being cast in The Stand. His performance on the show then propelled his career forward.
Alaina Reed Hall as the Psychologist
Transitioning from television to the big screen, Alaina Reed Hall played the psychologist in Death Becomes Her. In the film, Helen Sharp has a mental breakdown after losing her husband to a woman who historically steals her love interests. She is completely and utterly destroyed mentally and physically.
She is admitted to a psychiatric ward where she meets her psychologist, played by Hall, who encourages Helen to forget this woman and move on as a way to cope with her loss. Hall does a great job and delivers the role with an air of comedy.
Where Alaina Reed Hall Is Today
Alaina Reed Hall was an American actress and singer born in Springfield, Ohio, in 1946. She is best known for her role as Olivia Robinson on the PBS television series Sesame Street. She is also known for her role as Rose Lee Holloway in the NBC sitcom 227.
In December 2009, Hall passed away at the age of 63 at her home in Santa Monica, California. She died after a long, hard battle with cancer.
Michelle Johnson as Anna Jones
Michelle Johnson plays the role of Anna Jones in Death Becomes Her. She was cast in the film after appearing in a few other movies. This was about midway through her career.
She plays a minor role in the film but has received some recognition for her work nonetheless. She was fortunate to have the opportunity to work alongside icons such as Meryl Streep and Bruce Willis.
Where Michelle Johnson Is Today
Michelle Johnson is an American actress who is best known for her role as Jennifer Lyons in the romantic comedy film Blame It on Rio, Jessica Cole in The Glimmer Man, and Kim Carlisle in The Love Boat.
She began her career at the age of 16 doing modeling, and for the next 15 years, she appeared in a number of roles in film and television. Since 2000, she has only starred in one film, Mickey, and has remained out of the public eye.
Mary Ellen Trainor as Vivian Adams
Mary Ellen Trainor plays the role of Vivian Adams in Death Becomes Her. In the film, she has a scene with Dr. Ernest Menville, the plastic surgeon turned mortician. She thanks Dr. Menville for the work he did on her aunt before her burial.
She is so moved by how beautiful her aunt looks that she asks the doctor for his secret, to which he replies spray paint. The scene is funny and light while covering quite a heavy topic, and Mary Ellen Trainor does a great job.
Where Mary Ellen Trainor Is Today
Mary Ellen Trainor was an American actress best known for her role as LAPD psychiatrist Dr. Stephanie Woods in the film Lethal Weapon, news reporter Gail Wallens in the film Die Hard, and hard-working mother Irene Walsh in The Goonies.
Mary Ellen Trainor is no stranger to big films. She is a talented actress who has worked hard to make a name for herself. Unfortunately, she passed away in 2015 from pancreatic cancer at the age of 62 at her home in Montecito, California.
Fabio Lanzoni as Lisle’s Bodyguard
Fabio plays the role of Lisle von Rhuman’s bodyguard in Death Becomes Her. Lisle is a very important figure in the film, and she is the only person in possession of the magical potion that offers immortality and eternal youth.
Fabio’s large muscles and tall build make him the perfect bodyguard. His classic bodyguard look along with his long, flowing, silky smooth hair adds a great touch to the role.
Where Fabio Lanzoni Is Today
Better known under the mononym Fabio, he is an Italian actor and model born in Milan, Italy. He became the spokesperson for the “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” campaign. He is a spokesperson for the American Cancer Society.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Fabio was a well-known romance novel cover model. That led to his landing a campaign for Versace for the fragrance Mediterraneum.