Death Becomes Her (1992)

PG-13 | 104 mins | Black comedy | 31 July 1992

Director:

Robert Zemeckis

Cinematographer:

Dean Cundey

Editor:

Arthur Schmidt

Production Designer:

Rick Carter

Production Company:

Universal Pictures
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HISTORY

End credits include the following acknowledgements: “Footage courtesy of The Arsenio Hall Show and Paramount Pictures Corporation; ‘The Beaver’ footage licensed from Aims Media.”
       A 6 Aug 1992 HR news item stated that screenwriters Martin Donovan and David Koepp first pitched the idea for Death Becomes Her to Universal Pictures, and the studio signed on to develop the screenplay. Robert Zemeckis then received the screenplay from Universal, and, after he was attached as director, the film was cast. Producer Steve Starkey likened the process to the “classic studio system” and Zemeckis described it as “rare” for the times, stating that screenplays were usually in turnaround or had at least one actor attached by the time they were sent to him.
       Kevin Kline was initially cast as “Dr. Ernest Menville” but fell out of the project, allegedly because Universal refused to pay his requested salary of $3 million. Although Nick Nolte and Jeff Bridges were both considered as replacements, Bruce Willis was eventually hired. Army Archerd’s 7 Apr 1992 DV “Just for Variety” column stated that the three principal actors, Meryl Streep, Goldie Hawn, and Willis, as well as Zemeckis and Steve Starkey, agreed to take lower salaries than usual in exchange for profit participation. The budget for the film was $40 million.
       Shooting began 9 Dec 1991, according to a 10 Dec 1991 HR production charts listing, with a two-week hiatus around Christmas, as stated in a 7 Aug 1992 HR “Hollywood Report” column. The last day of principal photography was 9 Apr 1991, but a new ending was shot over three days in mid-Jun 1992, as reported in ... More Less

End credits include the following acknowledgements: “Footage courtesy of The Arsenio Hall Show and Paramount Pictures Corporation; ‘The Beaver’ footage licensed from Aims Media.”
       A 6 Aug 1992 HR news item stated that screenwriters Martin Donovan and David Koepp first pitched the idea for Death Becomes Her to Universal Pictures, and the studio signed on to develop the screenplay. Robert Zemeckis then received the screenplay from Universal, and, after he was attached as director, the film was cast. Producer Steve Starkey likened the process to the “classic studio system” and Zemeckis described it as “rare” for the times, stating that screenplays were usually in turnaround or had at least one actor attached by the time they were sent to him.
       Kevin Kline was initially cast as “Dr. Ernest Menville” but fell out of the project, allegedly because Universal refused to pay his requested salary of $3 million. Although Nick Nolte and Jeff Bridges were both considered as replacements, Bruce Willis was eventually hired. Army Archerd’s 7 Apr 1992 DV “Just for Variety” column stated that the three principal actors, Meryl Streep, Goldie Hawn, and Willis, as well as Zemeckis and Steve Starkey, agreed to take lower salaries than usual in exchange for profit participation. The budget for the film was $40 million.
       Shooting began 9 Dec 1991, according to a 10 Dec 1991 HR production charts listing, with a two-week hiatus around Christmas, as stated in a 7 Aug 1992 HR “Hollywood Report” column. The last day of principal photography was 9 Apr 1991, but a new ending was shot over three days in mid-Jun 1992, as reported in a 22 Jun 1992 Var brief, after Zemeckis decided that the original ending “was not consistent with the rest of the film.” According to production notes from AMPAS library files, filming locations in the vicinity of Los Angeles, CA, included: the Wilshire Ebell Theatre; a beach house in Malibu; Universal Studios; Bistro Gardens restaurant in Studio City; Rodeo Drive and Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills; and Paramount Studios. The mansion belonging to Ernest and “Madeline Ashton” was built on a soundstage in Culver City, CA, and production designer Rick Carter fashioned the home in a style partly inspired by Hearst Castle. As stated in the 7 Apr 1992 DV, one scene was scheduled to be filmed in Switzerland.
       According to production notes, at least sixteen people worked on the makeup team. Willis spent three hours daily being made up to look older, and, for the portion of the story in which her character, “Helen Sharp,” weighs an extra 200 pounds, Hawn wore a fat suit made of a material -- developed especially for the film by prosthetics designers Lance Anderson and his son, David Anderson -- called “flabbercast,” a substance that resembled “jello.” For the scene depicting Madeline’s physical transformation after she drinks the magic potion, Streep’s makeup artist and hairstylist, Roy Helland, knelt behind the actress and manually pushed up her breasts with his hands to simulate her breasts lifting on their own, as stated in a 17 Aug 1992 People item.
       The film’s extensive special effects required the use of “miniatures, computer graphic techniques, digital technology and blue screen work,” according to production notes. A Nov 1992 issue of Cinefex stated that several animatronic puppets were designed by special body effects designers and creators Tom Woodruff, Jr., and Alec Gillis, including eight puppets made to resemble Madeline in different states of physical distortion. For the mangled version of Madeline that reanimates after Ernest pushes her down a flight of stairs, a “rod puppet” was created that could unfold and re-form itself. To achieve the special effect wherein Madeline moves around while her neck is twisted so that her head faces the wrong way, Streep wore a blue bag over her head and walked around the room backward. Streep’s face was later shot against a bluescreen, while the actress was swiveled in a chair to match the movements of her body. According to Cinefex, Streep’s skin was very sensitive, which limited the amount of prosthetics used and necessitated more bluescreen work. Another effects-heavy sequence in which Helen is shot in the abdomen and, later, walks around with a large hole through her midriff required a headless dummy that was rigged with explosives to simulate the gunshot. To portray Helen’s body being propelled into a fountain after the gunshot, a stuntwoman was filmed “recoiling from the blast” and “being thrown thirty feet in the air.” Hawn’s head was later added to the footage of the dummy using a technique referred to by Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) as “match-move.”
       A 9 Aug 1992 LAT news item reported that the actress Tracey Ullman worked two days on set, playing the role of a bartender and girlfriend to Ernest, but she was later cut out of the picture, along with six or seven other actors with speaking roles, due to changes in the story. In the unused scenes, Ullman’s character ran away to Europe with Ernest in a happy ending, but Zemeckis decided the sequence was “too saccharine” and replaced it with a much darker ending depicting Ernest’s funeral.
       In its opening weekend, the film took in $15.2 million in box-office receipts, as reported in the 6 Aug 1992 HR news item. Overseas, Death Becomes Her set a box-office record in Taipei, earning $269,310 in two days and marking the “biggest opening ever” for overseas distributor United International Pictures, whose previous top-selling releases in Taipei were Ghost (1990, see entry) and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984, see entry). According to a 7 Dec 2012 Var online news item, the film took in $58 million in domestic box-office receipts and earned $149 million worldwide.
       Critical reception was mixed, with praise largely aimed at the film's special effects. The film received an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, by Ken Ralston, Doug Chiang, Doug Smythe, and Tom Woodruff, Jr. In addition, Meryl Streep was nominated for a Golden Globe award for “Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical.”
       The 7 Dec 2012 Var online news item announced that Bravo Television was pairing with Zemeckis to create an hourlong television drama program based on Death Becomes Her, with Zemeckis, Jack Rapke, and Jackie Levine set to executive produce. More Less

BIBLIOGRAPHIC SOURCES
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Cinefex
Nov 1992.
---
Daily Variety
24 Oct 1991.
---
Daily Variety
7 Jan 1992.
---
Daily Variety
7 Apr 1992
p. 2.
Daily Variety
28 Oct 1992.
---
Hollywood Reporter
2 Oct 1991.
---
Hollywood Reporter
10 Dec 1991.
---
Hollywood Reporter
27 Jul 1992
p. 5, 9.
Hollywood Reporter
6 Aug 1992.
---
Hollywood Reporter
7 Aug 1992.
---
Los Angeles Times
31 Jul 1992
p. 1.
Los Angeles Times
9 Aug 1992
Calendar section, p. 25.
New York Times
31 Jul 1992
p. 8.
People
17 Aug 1992.
---
Variety
22 Jun 1992.
---
Variety
27 Jul 1992
p. 59.
CAST
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
+
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION TEXTS
Universal Pictures Presents
A Robert Zemeckis Film
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Unit prod mgr
1st asst dir
2d asst dir
2d 2d asst dir
DGA trainee
2d unit dir
2d unit dir
1st asst dir, 2d unit
2d asst dir, 2d unit
2d 2d asst dir, 2d unit
PRODUCERS
Co-prod
WRITERS
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
1st asst cam
2d asst cam
Cam loader
Still photog
Video eng
Chief lighting tech
Asst chief lighting tech
Lighting tech
Lighting tech
Lighting tech
Lighting tech
Lighting tech
Lighting tech
Lighting tech
Lighting tech
Theatrical lighting consultant
Key grip
Best boy grip
Dolly grip
Rigging gaffer
Best boy
Rigging lighting tech
Rigging lighting tech
Key rigging grip
Best boy
Rigging grip
Underwater dir of photog
Dir of photog, 2d unit
Cam op, 2d unit
1st asst cam, 2d unit
Chief lighting tech, 2d unit
Key grip, 2d unit
ART DIRECTORS
Prod des
Art dir
Asst art dir
Asst art dir
Asst art dir
Asst art dir
Prod illustrator
Prod illustrator
Prod illustrator
Art dept coord
FILM EDITORS
Film ed
1st asst ed
Asst ed
Apprentice ed
Asst film ed
Negative cutting
SET DECORATORS
Set dec
Leadman
Drapery foreman
Set dresser
Set dresser
Set dresser
Set dresser
Set dresser
Set des
Set des
Set des
Set des
Prop master
Asst prop master
Asst prop master
Greensman
Greensman
Greensman
Standby painter
Const coord
Const foreman
Foreman
Foreman
Foreman
Foreman
Foreman
Paint foreman
Labor foreman
Plaster foreman
Prop master, 2d unit
COSTUMES
Cost des by
Asst cost des
Cost supv
Costumer
Costumer
Costumer
Costumer
Costumer
Seamstress
Sketch artist
MUSIC
Mus ed
Asst mus ed
Music rec mixer
Mus programmer
Mus contractor
Featured viloin soloist
Mus services
SOUND
Prod sd mixer
Boom op
Cable person
Supv sd ed
Supv sd ed
Sd ed
Sd ed
Sd ed
Asst sd ed
Asst sd ed
Foley by
Foley artist
Foley artist
Foley mixed by
Foley rec
Foley rec
ADR supv
ADR ed
ADR asst ed
ADR mixer
Re-rec mixer
Re-rec mixer
Re-rec mixer
Sd mixer, 2d unit
VISUAL EFFECTS
Visual eff supv
Spec body eff des and created by
Spec body eff des and created by
Spec eff supv
Spec eff foreman
Spec eff
Spec eff
Spec eff
Spec eff
Spec eff
Spec eff
Process composition by
Main and end titles des and prod by
Opticals by
Spec eff, 2d unit
Spec visual eff by
Visual eff prod, ILM
Visual eff art dir, ILM
Opt photog supv, ILM
Opt photog supv, ILM
Visual eff ed, ILM
Visual eff ed, ILM
Computer graphics supv, ILM
Supv model maker, ILM
Eff cam supv, ILM
Anim supv, ILM
Rotoscope supv, ILM
Exec - Prod, ILM
Exec - Post prod, ILM
Gen mgr, ILM
Visual eff coord, ILM
Visual eff coord, ILM
Cam op, ILM
Cam op, ILM
Cam op, ILM
Cam asst, ILM
Cam asst, ILM
Cam asst, ILM
Opt line up, ILM
Opt line up, ILM
Opt line up, ILM
Opt line up, ILM
Opt line up, ILM
Opt line up, ILM
Opt cam op, ILM
Opt cam op, ILM
Opt cam op, ILM
Opt cam op, ILM
Opt cam op, ILM
Opt cam op, ILM
Opt processing, ILM
Opt processing, ILM
Opt processing, ILM
Prod supv, Computer graphics, ILM
Co-supv, Computer graphics, ILM
Artist, ILM
Artist, ILM
Artist, ILM
Artist, ILM
Artist, ILM
Artist, ILM
Artist, ILM
Artist, ILM
Artist, ILM
Artist, ILM
Artist, ILM
Artist, ILM
Artist, ILM
Artist, ILM
Artist, ILM
Artist, ILM
Artist, ILM
Artist, ILM
Artist, ILM
Artist, ILM
Artist, ILM
Artist, ILM
Artist, ILM
Film scanning supv, ILM
Senior scanning op, ILM
Scanner op, ILM
Asst eff ed, ILM
Asst eff ed, ILM
Eff cam op, ILM
Eff cam op, ILM
Eff cam op, ILM
Anim, ILM
Anim, ILM
Rotoscoper, ILM
Rotoscoper, ILM
Rotoscoper, ILM
Rotoscoper, ILM
Rotoscoper, ILM
Rotoscoper, ILM
Matte painting, ILM
Modelmaker, ILM
Modelmaker, ILM
Modelmaker, ILM
Modelmaker, ILM
Modelmaker, ILM
Modelmaker, ILM
Modelmaker, ILM
Modelmaker, ILM
Miniature electronics des, ILM
Miniature electronics des, ILM
Gaffer, ILM
Stagehand, ILM
Stagehand, ILM
Vistaglide eng, ILM
Plate photog coord, ILM
Post prod coord, ILM
Post prod coord, ILM
Post prod coord, ILM
Negative cutter, ILM
Negative cutter, ILM
Still photog, ILM
Prod asst, ILM
DANCE
Mus seq staged and choreog by
Asst choreog
Asst choreog
MAKEUP
Make-up des
Prosthetics make-up supv
Ms. Hawn's prosthetics by
Assisted by
Mr. Willis' make-up by
Ms. Streep's make-up by/Ms. Streep's hair stylist
Ms. Hawn's make-up by
Addl make-up by
Body make-up
Key hair stylist
Ms. Hawn's hair stylist
Hair stylist
PRODUCTION MISC
Casting
Asst loc mgr
Scr supv
Prod coord
Prod accountant
Asst prod coord
Prod secy
Unit pub
Asst accountant
Asst accountant
Asst accountant
Const accountant
Prod assoc
Prod asst
Prod asst
Prod asst
Prod asst
Prod asst
Prod asst
Prod asst
Prod asst
Asst to Mr. Zemeckis
Asst to Mr. Starkey
Asst to Mr. Donovan
Asst to Mr. Koepp
Asst to Ms. Streep
Asst to Ms. Hawn
Asst to Mr. Willis
Asst to Mr. Willis
Asst to Mr. Willis
Casting assoc
Extras casting
Physical training
Dog trainer
Craft service
First aid
Loc projectionist
Transportation coord
Transportation capt
Co-capt
Scr supv, 2d unit
Puppeteer
Puppeteer
Puppeteer
Puppeteer
Puppeteer
Puppeteer
ADR loop group
ADR loop group
ADR loop group
ADR loop group
ADR loop group
ADR loop group
ADR loop group
ADR loop group
ADR loop group
ADR loop group
ADR loop group
STAND INS
Stunt coord
Meryl Streep's stand-in
Bruce Willis' stand-in
Goldie Hawn's stand-in
Lisle body double
Madeline body double
Bruce Willis' stunt double
Meryl Streep's stunt double/Goldie Hawn's stunt do
Goldie Hawn's stunt double
Goldie Hawn's stunt double
COLOR PERSONNEL
Color timing
SOURCES
SONGS
"ME," written by Geoffrey Aymar, lyrics by Martin Donovan & David Koepp, arranged by William Ross.
DETAILS
Release Date:
31 July 1992
Premiere Information:
Los Angeles opening: 31 July 1992
New York opening: week of 31 July 1992
Production Date:
9 December 1991--9 April 1992 in Los Angeles, CA
and three days of re-shoots in mid June 1992
Copyright Claimant:
Universal City Studios, Inc.
Copyright Date:
20 August 1992
Copyright Number:
PA578846
Physical Properties:
Sound
Dolby Stereo in selected theatres
Color
color by Deluxe
Widescreen/ratio
1.85:1
Lenses
Filmed with Panavision cameras and lenses
Duration(in mins):
104
MPAA Rating:
PG-13
Country:
United States
Language:
English
PCA No:
31947
SYNOPSIS

In 1978, as Madeline Ashton performs in a Broadway musical, her old friend Helen Sharp watches from the audience. Although theatergoers are walking out mid-performance, Helen’s date, Dr. Ernest Menville, is mesmerized. After the show, Helen and Ernest visit Madeline in her dressing room, and Madeline recognizes Ernest as a famous plastic surgeon. Soon after, Madeline surprises Ernest at work and they go to lunch together. When Helen learns of their lunch, she warns Ernest that Madeline will try to seduce him as she has done to Helen’s past boyfriends. Despite Ernest’s promises otherwise, he falls in love with Madeline and marries her. Seven years later, Helen, now obese, is evicted from her cat-ridden apartment and sent to a mental institution. There, in group therapy, Helen talks about Madeline every day for six months, unnerving the other patients around her. When the therapist reprimands Helen, telling her to eliminate any thoughts of Madeline from her life, Helen has an epiphany. Another seven years later, Ernest has become an alcoholic undertaker, and he and Madeline sleep in separate rooms inside their opulent mansion. One day, they are invited to a party celebrating Helen’s new book, Forever Young. In preparation for the party, Madeline goes to a plastic surgery office and demands a plasma separation procedure, but the technician denies her, saying she received her last treatment too recently. A man overhears Madeline telling the technician that money is no object and gives Madeline the address of Lisle Von Rhuman, suggesting that Von Rhuman might be able to help. That night, Ernest and Madeline attend Helen’s book party and are shocked to find ... +


In 1978, as Madeline Ashton performs in a Broadway musical, her old friend Helen Sharp watches from the audience. Although theatergoers are walking out mid-performance, Helen’s date, Dr. Ernest Menville, is mesmerized. After the show, Helen and Ernest visit Madeline in her dressing room, and Madeline recognizes Ernest as a famous plastic surgeon. Soon after, Madeline surprises Ernest at work and they go to lunch together. When Helen learns of their lunch, she warns Ernest that Madeline will try to seduce him as she has done to Helen’s past boyfriends. Despite Ernest’s promises otherwise, he falls in love with Madeline and marries her. Seven years later, Helen, now obese, is evicted from her cat-ridden apartment and sent to a mental institution. There, in group therapy, Helen talks about Madeline every day for six months, unnerving the other patients around her. When the therapist reprimands Helen, telling her to eliminate any thoughts of Madeline from her life, Helen has an epiphany. Another seven years later, Ernest has become an alcoholic undertaker, and he and Madeline sleep in separate rooms inside their opulent mansion. One day, they are invited to a party celebrating Helen’s new book, Forever Young. In preparation for the party, Madeline goes to a plastic surgery office and demands a plasma separation procedure, but the technician denies her, saying she received her last treatment too recently. A man overhears Madeline telling the technician that money is no object and gives Madeline the address of Lisle Von Rhuman, suggesting that Von Rhuman might be able to help. That night, Ernest and Madeline attend Helen’s book party and are shocked to find Helen looking svelte and beautiful. Taking Ernest aside, Helen tells her former boyfriend that she’ll never forgive Madeline for ruining his life. Later, Helen sits before a mirror surrounded with ripped pictures of Madeline and a sign that reads, “Never Again,” and practices greeting Ernest in tears. Meanwhile, Madeline goes to the home of Lisle Von Rhuman, a woman who appears to be young and beautiful, but admits to being seventy-one years old. Von Rhuman provides Madeline with a magic potion that will stop the aging process and allow her to live forever, but Madeline balks after hearing the cost. To prove the potion’s power, Von Rhuman cuts Madeline’s hand and applies some of the potion to it, causing her hand to magically heal. As Madeline quickly writes a check, Von Rhuman announces that there is one stipulation: Madeline must disappear from society after ten years so that nobody becomes suspicious of her agelessness. Von Rhuman also warns Madeline to take care of her body since she will have it forever. Then, Helen shows up at Ernest and Madeline's mansion, seducing Ernest and encouraging him to get rid of Madeline. When Ernest says he will divorce her, Helen insists that Ernest will lose all his money and forbids it; instead, she suggests that he drug Madeline and send her over a cliff in the driver’s seat of her car. Eager to kill his wife, Ernest confronts Madeline that night, strangles her, and pushes her down the stairs. Afterward, Madeline’s lifeless body reanimates as Ernest calls Helen. Madeline, whose neck is twisted so that her face is in line with her backside, walks backward to talk to Ernest. Ernest panics while Madeline twists her neck back around and demands medical attention. At the hospital, the doctor who examines Madeline goes into cardiac arrest after discovering she has no heartbeat. When Ernest leaves the room to find another doctor, Madeline is mistaken for a corpse and sent to the morgue in a body bag. Later, Ernest frees Madeline from the morgue and takes her home, convinced that Madeline’s life after death is a sign that they should stay together. Ernest fixes up Madeline’s wounded body with spray paint and injects her with formaldehyde. Meanwhile, Helen arrives, but when she tries to encourage Ernest to get rid of Madeline once and for all, Madeline shoots Helen in the stomach. Minutes later, however, Helen stands up with a large hole blasted out of her stomach. Madeline determines that Helen must have taken Von Rhuman’s potion as well. Madeline teases Helen about the hole in her stomach, but Helen silences her by hitting her in the head with a shovel. After Madeline snaps her neck back into position once again, she grabs a shovel and duels with Helen. Recalling their early days of friendship, Helen reminds Madeline about all the boyfriends she stole, but Madeline counters, saying that Helen treated Madeline as if she were “cheap” and excluded her from parties. Dropping their shovels, the women apologize to each other. When Ernest announces that he is leaving, they insist that he stay and fix their bodies. Ernest agrees to a final touch-up but tells the women they can never contact him again after he leaves. In turn, Madeline and Helen bash him over the head with vases and take him to Von Rhuman’s, planning to feed him the potion so that he can tend to their bodies forever. However, when Von Rhuman attempts to administer the potion, Ernest rejects it and escapes. Thirty-seven years later, Helen and Madeline attend Ernest’s funeral with veils over their mottled faces. Helen sheds a tear, causing her face makeup to melt, and searches in vain for a can of spray paint. On the way out, Helen declares that she must go to the hardware store for more paint before slipping on a spray paint can and bringing Madeline down with her. The women tumble down stairs and their bodies shatter into pieces on the sidewalk below. Helen’s disembodied head rolls toward Madeline’s as she asks where they parked the car. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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