Take one of the biggest blockbuster directors of the 80s, add a trio of A-list stars including one of the most revered dramatic actresses of all time, then throw in some cutting edge special effects, and you’ll find yourself with 1992’s Death Becomes Her. Few, if any major Hollywood productions of the 90s managed to be quite so weird and dark as this one, whilst still remaining more-or-less family-friendly.
Death Becomes Her was an unusually mainstream project for Meryl Streep, and cast Bruce Willis in a surprisingly non-macho role at the height of his Die Hard fame. These are just two of the reasons why audiences at the time didn’t quite know what to make of director Robert Zemeckis’s film. All these years later, Death Becomes Her stands up as a bold, unorthodox film that doesn’t fit into many pre-existing boxes; which is surely something to be respected, considering how risk-averse big budget blockbusters tend to be.
While we’re not able to offer you any life-giving potion, we do have the following fascinating facts about Death Becomes Her…
20. The writers envisaged the film as a small-scale indie
David Koepp has become one of the biggest screenwriters in Hollywood (via such credits as Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible and Spider-Man).
However, before Death Becomes Her was produced, Koepp says he and co-writer Martin Donovan had “nothing but credit card debt to our names,” and envisaged their film as a small-scale indie production.
“In our wildest dreams, the budget was about $5 million,” Koepp explained.
However, director Robert Zemeckis – fresh from making the Back to the Future sequels back-to-back – was excited by the script, seeing the opportunity to do something a bit more mature than he was used to.
Death Becomes Her immediately became something far bigger than anticipated.
19. Kevin Kline and Jeff Bridges were sought to play Dr. Ernest Menville before Willis
Considering how synonymous Bruce Willis has long since become with tough guys, he was very much cast against type as the effete plastic surgeon-turned-alcoholic mortician Dr Ernest Menville.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that Willis was not at the top of the wish list for the part.
The role was originally earmarked for Kevin Kline, who came close to playing the part but withdrew.
Jeff Bridges is also said to have been in contention for the role before Willis was cast.
Willis clearly defied his ‘tough man’ exterior, and pulled the role off to a T.
18. Meryl Streep thought she was supposed to play the part of Helen
Although frequently referred to as a ‘chameleon’ in that she can adapt to suit any role, Streep is often cast as more reserved, wholesome characters.
That’s probably why, when Streep was offered a part in Death Becomes Her, she initially thought she would be playing the part of Helen.
Streep felt that the character was ‘meant for her’, and felt an infinity with Helen, the calmer of the two main characters.
Considering this, Streep was surprised to discover that she would be playing Madeline, a role which involved more ‘song and dance’.
Despite Streep’s initial reservations, it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing the part of vivacious, vain Madeline.
17. A crew member had to physically hold Meryl Streep’s breasts in place for one scene
Being an actress isn’t always quite as glamorous as it might seem, as Meryl Streep soon found out during the filming of Death Becomes Her.
After Streep’s character, Madeline, drinks the potion, in the script her breasts were supposed to lift and become more ‘youthful’.
To achieve this effect, the production team built a special pneumatic bra. Unfortunately, the bra didn’t work out, so the crew had to look for alternative ways of ‘perking up’ Meryl’s Streeps.
The team finally decided they needed a more ‘hands-on’ approach, and employed the help of Streep’s dresser.
To achieve the effect, the dresser stood behind Streep and physically held up her breasts, all the while trying her best to keep out of the camera’s gaze.
16. Isabella Rossellini used a body double for her nude shots
Death Becomes Her may have been deemed suitable viewing for all the family, but it definitely pushes the envelope in places.
This is not least in the scenes featuring Isabella Rossellini as Lisle von Rhuman, the enigmatic, ageless beauty who holds the mysterious potion that grants eternal life, and has a tendency to dress in next to nothing.
While Rossellini had performed nudity in the past, a body double was used for certain shots in Death Becomes Her.
This is somewhat surprising considering Rossellini had performed a nude scene just a couple of years prior in Blue Velvet.
The Rossellini double in question was, coincidentally, someone who has since become a successful actress and producer in her own right.
15. Isabella Rossellini’s body double in the film is now famous in her own right
The body double who performs Isabella Rossellini’s nude scenes in Death Becomes Her is none other than actress Catherine Bell.
Bell’s part in Death Becomes Her was actually one of her first acting experiences, and clearly inspired her to pursue a career in the film industry.
Bell, now 51, has since gone on to forge a successful acting career, leaving her days of being a body double far behind her.
Bell first made a name for herself playing the role of Sarah “Mac” MacKenzie in JAG, a role which she would later reprise for a multi-episode arc of NCIS: Los Angeles.
Landing the lead role of Cassandra “Cassie” Nightingale in The Good Witch further thrust Bell into the limelight.
14. Meryl Streep scarred Goldie Hawn’s face filming the spade fight
One of the most memorable moments in Death Becomes Her sees Meryl Streep’s Madeline and Goldie Hawn’s Helen attack one another with spades.
This is despite the fact that both women have been rendered invulnerable by the life-giving potion.
Alas, Goldie Hawn is not so invulnerable in reality, as discovered when Streep accidentally struck her co-star in the face, leaving Hawn with a small scar.
However, it seems this incident didn’t hinder the pair’s relationship, and Hawn thankfully decided not to hold a grudge.
At Streep’s 2004 AFI Lifetime Achievement ceremony, Hawn was effusive in her praise, telling Streep that she herself was a special effect.
13. Meryl Streep declared the film her “first, last & only” time working with special effects
Death Becomes Her was a significant film in advancing the use of CGI, utilising new techniques that much of the same crew would develop further in Jurassic Park the following year.
It was the first film where computer-generated skin texture was used, specifically in the shot where Madeline resets her neck after her head is smashed with a shovel by Helen.
Meryl Streep had never made a film so FX-heavy before, and has since said it was “my first, my last, my only” time to do so.
“You stand there like a piece of machinery… it was like being at the dentist,” she explained.
Even so, Streep says she “loved how [the film] turned out,” and has remarked she found the project too original and exciting to pass up on.
12. The original ending, including Tracey Ullman’s entire role, was completely removed
The original ending filmed for Death Becomes Her was radically different than the one we know and love today.
At the end of Zemeckis’ first cut, Bruce Willis’s Ernest met and fell in love with a bartender played by Tracey Ullman, who helped him fake his own death and escape the immortal cult to live happily ever after.
When test audiences disliked this upbeat conclusion, it was cut out, taking the entirety of Ullman’s performance with it.
In a strange twist, Ullman does however still appear in the movie’s trailers and other promotional materials for the film.
Subsequently, the darker ending we now have (the crumbling Madeline and Helen at Ernest’s funeral decades later) was shot in its place.
11. It’s become a cult classic with LGBT audiences
While the general multiplex crowd might not have quite got it on release, over time Death Becomes Her found resonance with an audience the filmmakers didn’t necessarily anticipate: the LGBTQ community.
Members of the LGTBQ scene have since warmly embraced Death Becomes Her and today venerate it as a camp masterpiece.
Notably, Death Becomes Her is a huge influence on the makers of TV series RuPaul’s Drag Race, which has staged challenges inspired by the film.
In a 2017 Vanity Fair article celebrating the 25th anniversary, the film was described as being a “gay cult classic” and a “touchstone of the queer community”.
The movie is often screened in bars during Pride Month, with drag acts performing as the iconic duo themselves, Madeline and Helen.
10. A stage musical adaptation is in the works
Given that Death Becomes Her is beloved by gay audiences, and that Broadway can’t get enough of rehashing films of yesteryear as musicals, it should come as little surprise that an all-singing, all-dancing stage adaptation of the 1992 film is in the works.
The adaptation was announced in December 2017, with Tony-winner Kristin Chenoweth set to star.
It was announced that Chenoweth will play Streep’s character Madeline, though other characters – including Hawn’s Helen – have yet to be cast.
Otherwise, news has been thin on the ground since 2017, with a composer, book writer and director yet to be announced.
Still, fingers crossed the production kicks back into gear soon – we have a feeling this one could be fabulous.
9. ‘James Dean’ and ‘Elvis’ make cameos in the movie
In several scenes throughout Death Becomes Her, eagle-eyed viewers might just have spotted references to deceased famous musicians.
One example of this is when Dr. Ernest Menville falls through the glass roof, subsequently landing in the pool.
If you look carefully, you can see ‘Jim Morrison’ by the side of the pool with a girl.
Later on in the film, you can also see an extra dressed up as James Dean, with signature hair ‘do and all.
There is also a reference to Elvis Presley’s alleged faked death, with ‘The King’ being told off for making random public appearances.
8. It predicts today’s ageing-obsessed society
At the time of the film’s release, women in Hollywood had a hard time getting their voices heard if they weren’t slim, young and attractive.
Today, this has only escalated and shows no signs of stopping, with the anti-aging industry currently blooming.
A prescient film, Death Becomes Her opened long before the days of reality TV shows which glorify plastic surgery and fad elixirs of youth.
In today’s society, self obsession is a key theme, with many women (and men) dangerously on the edge of becoming the Madeline of our time.
One of the hardest parts of modern life is confronting – or not – our own mortality. In its own amusing way, Death Becomes Us predicted an age-obsessed society.
7. Lisle was originally going to be over 100-years-old
In an early draft of the film, Lisle (Isabella Rossellini) was over 100-years-old, instead of 71 as she is in the final film.
There’s also an implication that Lisle has doled out her potion to various historical figures over the years.
This included the likes of Abraham Lincoln, William Shakespeare and Max Factor, all of whom refused and subsequently died.
Another early draft implied that Lisle was actually Cleopatra, which is actually quite fitting for the raven-haired Rossellini.
This explains the box which contains the potion being decorated with an ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic symbolising life.
6. The shovel scene took a lot of work to orchestrate
Death Becomes Her was groundbreaking in its use of special effects, but this took a lot of work to achieve.
Just before the shovel fight, Helen knocks Madeline’s head and neck backward to the point where the head is hanging from the collarbone.
This effect was achieved by Streep wearing a blue screen hood over her head.
Later, in post-production, the hood was digitally removed and replaced with an animatronic head.
In the film, the animatronic head can be heard saying a line recorded in advance by Streep.
5. Many shots in the trailer were not included in the film
Many scenes featured in the Death Becomes Her trailer didn’t actually make the final cut, although the reason for this is unknown.
We can only assume there was a last minute edit after the results of the test screening were revealed.
One shot in the trailer shows Madeline driving down a sunny street in her convertible, as well as Ernest dragging a frozen Madeline up the stairs.
There is also a sequence which shows Madeline’s agent discussing her client with a young woman at a book party.
Of course, more noticeably, Tracey Ullman appears in the trailer but was subsequently cut out after the test audience disliked the original ending.
4. It beat Buffy the Vampire Slayer at the box office
Death Becomes Her was released in July 1992, coincidentally on the same weekend that Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the film version) was released.
Industry insiders had high hopes for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and although the film wasn’t a total flop, it was far outshone by Death Becomes Her.
Whilst Death Becomes Her was number one in the box office, Buffy the Vampire reached just number five.
Despite not becoming the hit it was expected to be, Death Becomes Her managed to rake in $12 million, leaving Buffy’s meagre $4.5 million earnings to pale in comparison.
Buffy was not Death Becomes Her’s only competition, however. Bebe’s Kids was also released on the same weekend, yet only managed to rank at number seven in the box office.
3. There’s a sly nod to Back to the Future
Despite having also called the shots on such huge hits as Romancing the Stone, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Forrest Gump, Robert Zemeckis seems destined to always be remembered first and foremost as the director of Back to the Future.
The filmmaker would seem to have no problem with that, given he snuck in a little Easter Egg for fans of his 1985 classic in Death Becomes Her.
Listen closely, and you’ll notice Goldie Hawn’s Helen mention that she took the magic potion on October 26th 1985.
This is, of course, is the same day on which Marty McFly drives Doc Brown’s DeLorean back through time to 1955.
Mary Ellen Trainor, who plays Vivian Adams in Death Becomes Her, had also appeared in Back to the Future Part II, unsurprising seeing as she was married to Zemeckis at the time.
2. It didn’t prove popular with critics or audiences on release
Although Death Becomes Her opened at #1 in the box office charts (beating Buffy the Vampire Slayer, released the same day), it only wound up a modest success.
The film barely recouped its $55 million budget from its domestic takings, and earned just shy of $150 million worldwide.
Her met a similarly lukewarm reaction from critics, who tended to praise the groundbreaking special effects, but weren’t as taken with the story or characters.
The Rotten Tomatoes consensus is scathing, reading “Hawn and Streep are as fabulous as Death Becomes Her‘s innovative special effects; Zemeckis’ satire, on the other hand, is as hollow as the world it mocks.”
On Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an average rating of just 52%, making it one of Robert Zemeckis’ lowest-scoring films on the site.
1. Three of the actresses also starred in Tales from the Crypt
Death Becomes Her was originally meant to be a sequel to the 1972 film Tales From the Crypt.
This was apparently director Robert Zemeckis’ favourite Halloween classic, and he would later go on to develop his own TV series of the same name in 1989.
Three actresses from Death Becomes Her were featured in episodes of the TV series – Isabella Rossellini, Mary Ellen Trainor and Michelle Johnson – with Zemeckis producing the show.
Considering this, it’s hardly surprising that Death Becomes Her is often referred to as being like an ‘extended’ episode of the show.
The trailer for Death Becomes Her even features the theme from Tales From The Crypt (1989).