Back in 1979, Madeline Ashton (Meryl Streep) and Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn) had been friends since childhood but Madeline had gone from strength to strength in her acting career while Helen's writing aspirations were noticeably less successful. However, Madeline had been appearing in a flop musical version of Sweet Bird of Youth called Songbird and Helen took her enraptured fiancé Ernest (Bruce Willis) backstage to meet the star (he was the only one who seemed to enjoy the show, after all). On hearing that Ernest was an expert cosmetic surgeon, Madeline grew very interested - interested enough to steal him from Helen...
The satire, like the makeup, may be laid on with a trowel in Death Becomes Her, but it was a slightly better film than the reputation it won when it was initially released to muted response. Director Robert Zemeckis had trouble with test audiences and reshot and re-edited parts of the film, although there was still the sense that nobody could think up a decent ending even with the final version. But here the director's love affair with pioneering special effects was in full swing, to the extent that they swamped a simple story.
And yet there is a measure of fun to be had in the three lead performances, with Madeline and Helen's rivalry at the heart of the comedy. Never quite as witty as it needed to be, Streep and Hawn's steely determination to be one up on the other character nevertheless contributed much of the spark. Streep especially draws on reserves of spite to bring "Mad" to life, a perfect showbiz monster as evinced by her gloriously tacky stage show and the obsession with her fading looks.
Once Madeline marries Ernest (Willis is on uncharacteristically timid form) we trip forward into the eighties, where Helen has really let herself go, overweight and suffering a fixation with the woman who bested her. But then, in a mental hospital, an idea takes root: she will destroy Madeline just as she almost destroyed her. Move forward once more and the writing career has taken off, Helen is slim and glamorous, and Madeline is raging with jealousy, in light of the fact that Ernest is now an alcoholic and makes up corpses in the city morgue.
What's Helen's secret? It's something Madeline finds out when she is given the business card of Lisle von Rhoman (an exotic Isabella Rossellini) who knows the secret to eternal youth, precisely as many celebs have in the past. It's a magic potion and the actress is happy to take it, particularly when she sees the rejuvinating effect it has on her. However, Helen's plotting will be the downfall of them both with the put upon Ern an unwitting pawn in the women's game of oneupmanship.
Death Becomes Her is an obvious sideswipe at the cult of staying young and beautiful in Hollywood, so much so that it comes across as a big industry in-joke, and the result is as bitchy as its two lead females. Martin Donovan and David Koepp's script makes no secret of the contempt it has for Mad and Hel, and for that reason there's a bitter quality to the humour. Those cartoon violence effects, shovels to the head and shotguns through the midriff and whatnot, are what make it noteworthy (and suggest Zemeckis hadn't got Who Framed Roger Rabbit out of his system), but the on-form cast are what make it convincingly sour and meanspirited. Music by Alan Silvestri.
But come the Oscar-winning Forrest Gump, he grew more earnest and consequently less entertaining, although just as successful: Contact, What Lies Beneath, Cast Away and the motion capture animated efforts The Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol. Flight, The Walk and Allied were also big productions, but failed to have the same cultural impact.
With frequent writing collaborator Bob Gale, Zemeckis also scripted 1941 and Trespass. Horror TV series Tales from the Crypt was produced by him, too.