Thursday, June 10, 2010

She's "Mad" at "Hel" And She's Not Going to Streep It Anymore!

"Streep @ 60" continues...

Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn were 43 and 46 respectively when they made the summer promotional rounds in support of Death Becomes Her in 1992. The satirical comedy focuses on the hostile friendship between two desperate aging women, Helen (Hawn) a writer, and Madeline Ashton (Streep) a famous actress. In the early nineties, the 40s were still considered 'The End' for actresses, so the casting and topic made sense.

To give you a sense of how bad it was, magazines were already taking shots at Michelle Pfeiffer (!) who was all of 34. "She's not getting any younger," one article stated with unnecessary hysteria, whilst discussing Pfeiffer's post-Catwoman career prospects. Things have improved enough since 1992 that were they ever to remake Death Becomes Her, one imagines they might think of casting 50somethings.

Recurring verbal joke: Their nicknames for each other
"Mad"
& "Hel" betray not-so-friendly true feelings

Premiere's headline called this Meryl & Goldie's "Golden Age" and a TV profile/joint interview (I wish I could remember which show) suggested that this was a smart pairing. The angle was something along the lines of 'If only Meryl could get some of Goldie's box office and Goldie some of Meryl's respect!' The irony of this was that Goldie was already an Oscar winner but her box office was about to fall off precipitously (she only had one more hit in her, The First Wives Club) and Streep wasn't ever truly box office poison (she had had huge hits in the 70s and 80s and would have them again in the 00s). But the ungenerous perception in many quarters was that Streep's appeal was waning and that her sudden lunge toward comedy was desperation.

This perception was both true and untrue. The way things shook out in the nineties, her 40s (aka the 1990s) did turn out to be her most fallow and least popular period. The move toward comedy, however, so suspiciously received in the beginning, ended up making her more popular than ever. It just took another decade for audiences to rally around New Meryl.

What do I see? That's the question I'm most afraid of.
One that asks me what I'm really... made of.


One of the most endearing things about Death Becomes Her from a retrospective vantage is the way it follows so closely on the heels of Postcards From the Edge, forming a prismatic, self-mocking double feature. The subject is an aging actress in career crisis, one who just happens to have an absurdly amazing singing voice; Postcards ends with a big gorgeous musical performance as career redemption and Death begins with its inversion, a big gawdy one as career killer. So this early 90s double offered audiences two potential futures for fictional "Meryl Streep." Or the same future, if you could predict the coming of Mamma Mia! -- it would look exactly like a huge gawdy career killer but be a mammoth hit in actuality!

Further pushing this Meryl on "Meryl" dialetic to the forefront is that Death also seems to confirm, revel in and foretell critical complaints about Streep as Overrated Queen of the Hams. There's nothing within the script or Streep's performance in Postcards to suggest that "Suzanne Vale" is anything other than a mediocre screen talent and Death's "Madeline Ashton" is, quite demonstrably, a bad actress.

Meryl doesn't go for subtlety this time, which is an absolutely wise choice. Death Becomes Her needs both broads to be broad. Subtlety wouldn't work in a film that spends its first two reels speeding through 14 years (!) of boyfriend-stealing, dated Broadway flops, fatsuit gags, faux movie clips, career changes of fortune, plastic surgery addictions, marital misery and revenge fantasies. But broad doesn't have to equal bad. If anything, Death Becomes Her is pinpoint sharp about how big to go, and I'm not talking about Goldie Hawn's fatsuit.


Goldie clearly relishes her spurned woman gone nutso role, but the biggest and wisest laughs in the early scenes aren't coming from Goldie XXL but from the massive size of Madeline: her ego, her stardom, the space she takes up in Helen's brain. The mere mention of her name sends people into hysterics [see photo above], which is a super funny subtextual joke about stardom underneath the actual joke about Helen's patience-testing obsession with her frenemy.

And if you're going to be making jokes about an actress taking up way too much mental real estate, isn't Meryl, The Greatest Living Actress™, the ideal butt of that joke?

"She's a woman, Ernest... a woman from Newark for goddsakes"
(Yes, both Madeline & Meryl are Jersey girls)

It's easy to imagine half of Hollywood's actresses relating to Helen's envy, and all of them, including Streep herself, howling at Madeline's comeuppance. Streep's supersize talent and endless good fortune in a cruel business that isn't half as kind to her talented peers would be insufferable if she didn't enjoy a good ribbing now and then.

For such a plotty movie -- there's a ton more to come involving magical age-defying potions, secret societies, violent revenge and living death (hence the title) -- Death is remarkably brisk in pacing and never loses sight of what makes it special: the witty screenplay and the Meryl & Goldie hamming. Not that the supporting cast isn't helping. Isabella Rossellini is a sexy hoot as seductive testy Lisle and Bruce Willis is fun, too, as plastic surgeon turned undertaker Ernest. He matches the heightened style of his co-stars but dorkifies it considerably as the flaccid man that both of them want... possibly only because the other does. One of my favorite bits is Meryl's trip to the hospital where she inadvertently turns the doctor (her Out of Africa director Sydney Pollack) into a patient himself.

<--- I think she needs to see a doctor.

Death
rarely gets bogged down in attempting to glorify its (Oscar winning) visual effects, which is a common problem in lesser genre efforts. Zemeckis knows that for all the "wow!" appeal of the grotesquely imagined injuries including holes in bodies, protruding bones and heads facing in the entirely wrong direction -- "I can see my ass!" -- nothing is as super as watching talented funny actors having a laugh. He even finds great use of Meryl's twitchy hands, a common and sometimes distracting Streepism, which considerably add to the laughs when Madeline can't wrap her head around what's happening to her suddenly backward body. Zemeckis gives Hawn and Streep plenty of closeup attention for their well delivered zingers but he smartly uses a variety of shots for comedic effect. The use of focus-pulling and of long shots in particular really add to the visual panache of the film.

If Death Becomes Her overstays its welcome a tiny bit with those final frantic chase antics in Lisle's castle, it saves itself with great visual choices such as framing Mad & Hel like leaning gargoyles atop Lisle's magical castle, there to tempt and torment Ernest one last time. And the punchline is deliciously dark, with Mad & Hel's laughter preceding their "uh oh" realization of an eternity in each other's company. Misery loves company. Cut to: "37 Years Later", an epilogue to drive this punchline home.

While it's possible to view Death Becomes Her's central catfight and 'woman thou art vain!' characterizations as misogynistic actress-bashing from the land of the same (Hollywood!), it's hard to object when the film is this much fun, exhibits such love for its evil women, and the actors are so gleefully selling bad behavior.


Now a warning.
................"NOW a warning?"


You can fight aging through means both natural and un, but the ravages of time will get you in the end. Even if, like Madeline, you're rich enough to buy magic potion or talented enough, like Meryl, to stay vital in the cinema for decades on end.

See, offscreen as well as on, Streep got older. We all do. But you have to hand it to her. What seemed like folly to some at the time -- four consecutive and often silly comedies after her coronation as the world's preeminent dramatic force -- was actually a savvy forward motion move. She fought an aging career, not by underlining her dominance (Lord knows she probably had plentiful Oscar bait scripts to choose from in that four year period), but by stretching her instrument, experimenting with new genres and poking fun at herself. Laughing may cause crow's feet and smile lines, but it sure keeps you young at heart.

Streep at 60 thus far
Act 1 "Liberated Lady" Oscar Races: 1978, 1979
Act 2 "Chameleonidae Erotica" Oscar Races: 1981, 1982-1983, 1985, 1987-1988
Act 3 "Funny Lady" Oscar Races: 1990

43 comments:

tim r said...

WONDERFUL piece, Nat. It's always been my favourite full-on comic Streep performance, and I think the film is a mad delight. You've done it proud.

Anonymous said...

Agreed, lovely piece. Meryl is just terrific in this. "Could you just not breathe?" Haha.

- Sean C.

Kimberly said...

Like many Streep fans of a certain age, this is my first real memory of seeing Meryl in a film. It will always remain dear to me. Being about 10 when it was released. Years later I was flabbergasted to realize it was the same woman in Bridges Of Madison County. My favorite scene might be the fight Madeline and Ernest at the top of the stairs (flaaaaaaccid!).

Beautiful article... this is why I am a disciple of The Film Experience. Bravo!

NATHANIEL R said...

Tim -- thank you. she really is great fun here. You can really take any single scene and find abundant laughs right from that breast cupping "what i'm really made of" intro onward. Hee.

I'm kind of horrified that Zemeckis will be forever remembered as Forrest Gump guy because I think it's his worst film... and some of his early work is just delightful (this, Romancing the Stone, Roger Rabbit)

NATHANIEL R said...

Sean C -- HA! Honestly, this article could have been about 3,000 words longer if i start quoting all the great quips.

Kimberly --- awww, thanks.

@jazzt said...

Death becomes her...what a film! what a piece.
I love Meryl in this film. I love this film. I love her comic timing.
Thank you

Clarence said...

LOL I like that movie! My favorite part was when she was with the doctor, and the doctor is surprised that she's alive when she shouldn't be. Ha Ha! Anyway, that last bit at the church where they were arguing about their falling body parts and that last fall down the stairs was pretty funny.

I love Meryl. I'm so glad this series is back! Can't wait for the next installment :)

ShoNuff Lives said...

i do love this movie, and your thoughts on this as a transition for streep into full-on comedy is, as usual, on the money.

i think her 90's are underrated. madison county aside, her performances in marvin's room, dancing at lughnasa, and one true thing are excellent. sure, not big box office, but well done pieces. we won't discuss the river wild.

how about a nice collagen buff?

Anonymous said...

I have to say at least Forrest Gump looks great, even if it's political views are disgusting. (Hippy liberalism obviously screws up lives, so let's show how dumb, milquetoasty, uncaring about your social standing centrism is the way to live. If it had either a smarter, more critical Forrest, or a much more unforgivably dumber one, it'd have at least just as many fans, if not more, right now, but with a lower gross at the time.)

Volvagia said...

I accidentally hit enter. That last one was me.

Carl said...

Loved it!
I just love any time you write about Meryl! lol
And might I add that Meryl really seems to have had some of that potion, the woman just gets better with time.

Anonymous said...

This movie is always on HBO, but I honestly love Isabella in this film. Her lines are great.

Chris Na Taraja said...

I heard that they are remaking DEATH BECOMES HER with Natalie Portman and Kirsten Dunst, cuase they are old now.

Murtada said...

NOW a warning.

That's the line I remember vividly from this movie. Great delivery from the great Meryl.

Love her in comdy mode. Her best was without doubt Prdad

NATHANIEL R said...

Carl -- she has aged very well, true. But she's aged too which works if you're lucky.

Chris -- haha. yeah for all my talk about it getting better the stars also seem to be getting younger (i mean, Chloe Moretz? EW) so maybe it'll revert back to 'you're old at 30' soon enough.

Murtada -- you have no idea how often i quoted that with friends. That and "Mad" and "Hel" which makes no sense out of context but which we dutifully quoted anyway.

My bff TO THIS DAY still says "don't drink and watch yourself slowly rot" or whatever it is that Isabella is saying there.

Walter L. Hollmann said...

Excellently done. I always think of Bruce Willis in this movie, when they break the vase over his head. He just turns around and asks, "What?" before taking the tumble. Brilliantly executed! I wish I could remember the name of the musical she was in...it was an adaptation of Sweet Bird of Youth, as I recall.

NATHANIEL R said...

I think it's called "SONGBIRD"

a musical adaptation of sweet bird of youth. hee.

Speaking of kept boys. Just out of curiousity I looked up Meryl Streep's buff younger lover in this movie "Dakota". He hasn't had a feature credit since. Weird. Some TV work though.

Volvagia said...

Hadn't Spaceballs done that body reversal joke before? And with more of a punchline? ("Why didn't someone tell me my butt was so big!?")

Rick said...

Nat.... your piece on Meryl was so insightful ... I have always loved what Meryl has done ( except House of Spirits) ... both drama and comedy she does with equal ease.

I always enjoy watching Death Becomes Her. I do not understand why it got fair to middling reviews... I agree that it is better movie than the interminable Forrest Gump.

Damian said...

Excellent piece, Nate. As I said over on facebook, I love this movie. It was sort of a seminal film in my development as a cinephile because in viewing it I realized that a movie (even a mainstream Hollywood movie) could really be ABOUT something. That it could contain ideas and symbols and actually require some interactive thinking on the part of the audience.

In spite of the fact that you are literally being preached at in the theatrical ending of the film, I still love it ("Do you remember where you parked the car?"), but the original epilogue, as I first heard it described it in a an interview with Goldie Hawn, is even more intriguing to me.

Presumably instead of decaying into hideous caricatures of themselves, Madeline and Helen still look young and beautiful, but they are miserable and stuck with each other. They are sitting at a table in a ski lodge with the beautiful Swiss alps behind them and they are unimpressed. They've been all over the world and they're bored. Then they look over and see an old couple who are almost on the verge of death, but they're happy because they're still very much in love. The couple is Bruce Willis (of whom you can see a photo in his elderly make-up in the funeral of the new ending) and his wife, an equally made-up Tracey Ullman whom he met in a cut scene just before he speeds away in Jimmy Dean's car (though you can see a brief clip of their meeting in the original trailer). All Madeline and Helen can do is look upon them in disgust saying "Look how old they are." Fade out. The end.

John T said...

I know that this was all about Meryl, but is it bad that it reminded me of how much I miss Goldie. I love that Meryl gets a renaissance, but I'd love to see the return of Glenn, Goldie, Diane, Sissy, and Jessica to starring roles in films. Siggy Weaver last year did her part.

Will said...

I love that film and it's my favorite Streep performance.

The Jaded Armchair Reviewer said...

I don't mind that Goldie passed over the script of "Thelma & Louise" and chose this instead when she was looking for a project that she and Meryl could do together.

proletkult said...

Thanks for the note with MAD and HEL: http://ervehea.blogspot.com/2010/06/mad-hel.html

I didn't recognize it until now. :D

Magicub said...

As Kimberly, this was my first Meryl picture, later i will discover her whole body of work, and looking back, she makes everything seems so easy. Quoting Nora Ephron "If someone crashes you on the parking lot, let Merryl plays you, if the dingos took your baby, let Merryl plays you"

Magicub said...

"I Highly recommend having Meryl Streep play you"
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M4Moh-Sw7xE

par3182 said...

i'm still waiting for someone to stage songbird...

that opening number is the biggest laugh in the movie for me, especially when it turns into a disco tune (whoop whoop)

Seisgrados said...

I'm so pissed I found this entry so late! I adooooore Death becomes her. I couldn't understand the bad reviews it got, and the BO wasn't good either. I enjoyed it inmensely though.
It's so funny what you say about the "now a warning" line because I'm constantly quoting it with my brother to this day. I saw it opening day with him and I almost chocked with laughter. No one else but him would get this line now. No one but you. I feel you are family now LOL.

NATHANIEL R said...

@Seisgrados... though I always love those kinships that spring from moviefandom I can assure you that you two aren't the only ones so you'll have many more new family members than me ;) My friends and I still say 'NOW a warning?' whenever the topic of warning comes up. So I assume there have to be countless others that would also love this reference.

P.S. You did not find this post late. It is not quite 24 hours late. We must all fight the internet demand that everything be deemed "old" the second after it is born. Seriously, the web is bad for us this way.

[trumpeted proclamation] let the conversation continue!

Jaded Armchair wow, i didn't make that connection. Yeah. it's always weird to think of all the different ways that Thelma & Louise coulda gone, still weird to think that people turned it down (!!!) and still hard to imagine anyone but Sarandon & Davis properly nailing it.

John T no. not bad. I actually had to fight the urge to make this about both of them. Goldie is really really funny in this movie and I think she gets my single favorite section of the movie -- that "I need to speak to Madeline at once!" rehearsal with faux tears... but especially that murder fantasy with sadistic smiles "she's had a *little* too much to drink"

Seisgrados said...

-You did not find this post late. It is not quite 24 hours late-

I know, you are right, but since I'm in Spain I always get to see your entries later in the morning (when you are deep into your beauty sleep ;) and I feel I'm always late to comment. Sorry.

NATHANIEL R said...

whenever you get to them :)

so i'm curious. This movie seems to be a favorite to quote for many people. Are there any lines that YOU quote, any of you, that haven't been mentioned yet?

Kimberly said...

I remember (reading/hearing in an interview) that Goldie & Meryl passed on Thelma & Louise because Meryl was pregnant with her youngest. They had wanted to work together for some time. Wish I could remember where :\
I did look up and read the article from Premiere: http://www.simplystreep.com/magazines/199209premiere.php

*I judge people by what movie quotes they distinguish when I'm speaking - it's sad, but true. Beyond "NOW a warning & Could you just not breathe" I've been known to use "At least lie quickly" & (with the sing song voice) "I can see right through you".

billybil said...

I saw this in the theatre when it first came out with my wife and we still - probably more than any other line we've heard in the many, many thousands of films we're watched since - quote "Now a warning" all the time! NOW a warning? Oh my God, it's one for the ages for sure! NOW A WARNING?!?! God I love this woman!

Just finished reading all the comments and realize my wife and I are just two out of many, many people who still - to this day - quote NOW A WARNING! Isn't that cool? A tiny example of how movies and a great actor/line reading can speak to so many people in a permanent, resounding way.

And THANK YOU NATE about giving us all a little more time to read and comment! We do have to stop making ourselves so crazy and hurried!!

James T said...

1) I love this movie

2) Thank you for this beautiful piece

3) YES! I would like to quote all lines from this movie all the time! There was a time when my friend and I would say "Madeline, I need to speak to Madeline at once" for no reason whatsoever :)

Also loved lines:

Aaaaaaah. What are you NUTS?

Blah blah blah (at the memorial or whatever it's called)

Glenn Dunks said...

Ugh, I love that movie SO much!

DavidEhrenstein said...

This is the film that made me fall madly hopelessly in love with Meryl Streep. It's true auteur is not Zemeckis, hut screenwriter Martin Donovan -- whose Apartment Zero would make for a great doubel feature with it.

NATHANIEL R said...

David... hmmm. I've seen Apartment Zero but it's such a residual memory i can't imagine what connects them. Will have to revisit.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Death Becomes Her is gayer than Apartment Zero

Paul Outlaw said...

"I will not speak to you 'til you put your head on straight."

"Do you know that they do to soft, bald, overweight Republicans in prison, Ernest?"

Dude said...

Great piece Nate!

This movie is SO underrated. One of the best dark comedies ever.

The first thing that jumps to mind is Goldie walking around her living room really slowly and kicking ice cream boxes around, while barely stroking one of her 100 cats. Haha

Don Mancini said...

"You can fade from public view...You can stage your own phony death...Or, as one of my clients simply said, 'I vant to be alone."

Honey said...

What a wonderful piece on Death! I really enjoyed reading it! (: Both Meryl and Goldie are just SO good in it!

The movie is ridiculously quotable.
Aside from the already mentioned
ones, my friends & I are often say:

"These are the moments, that make life worth living!"

"I'm a GIRL!"

& "Bottoms up!"

:D:D

Stephen said...

"Don't drink it, and continue to watch yourself rot"... usually after toasting :D

"NOW a warning?" Me and my sister always quote that one too!

Thank you for a great piece!! I've always thought that this is one of the, if not THE, most underrated movies of all time.

I don't get why Universal hasn't yet updated the crappy DVD they released a gazillion years ago... oh well.