Written by Alison Carr


Rated or Dated: Death Becomes Her

Surely the sight of two Oscar winners having a shovel fight could never get old? Alison Carr double checks as she rewatches the 1992 black comedy.


There, in case the suspense of waiting for the ‘rated or dated’ verdict is too much for you.

What and why: In Robert Zemeckis’ CRIMINALLY UNDERRATED 1992 black comedy, Madeline Ashton (Meryl Streep) and Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn) are long-time frenemies who finally fall out for good when Madeline steals Helen’s fiance Ernest (Bruce Willis).

When the trio are reunited 14 years later, Helen has gone from dowdy to diva and Madeline is feeling her age. At a rain-soaked mansion one stormy night, she drinks a potion that offers eternal life. But it turns out there’s more to living forever than smooth skin and perked-up tits. She can’t die, no matter what happens to her. Hilarity ensues.

Rated or dated: The cast are a trifecta of awesomeness. Streep’s faded star Madeline is a monster who is desperate to cling on to her youth and beauty at any cost. It’s great to see her having such fun: she’s funny and vicious, an A-grade bitch, chewing the scenery and loving it.

I’m not a big fan of Goldie’s scatterbrained-blonde shtick, but here she’s playing against type as a frump turned femme fatale via a stint in a psyche ward and a fat suit. She’s unhinged and fabulous, and she and Streep are perfect together.

Then. Then there is Bruce Willis. He’s an unlikely choice for the role with two Die Hard films under his belt at the time, but sad-sack Ernest in his crumpled slacks and brown cardigans is a world away from John McClane. I think this is the last film Bruce tried in, and it shows.

The film is probably most famous for the showdown that sees Madeline’s broken neck twisting all the way around and Helen getting a hole blown through her stomach. It takes far too long to get to this point (the best part of an hour) but it’s worth the wait.

“If we meet and I say ‘NOW a warning?’ or ‘Ernest, I’m in the morgue’ and you get it, you’ve got a friend for life.”

The special effects by Industrial Light & Magic won the film an Oscar and a BAFTA and they still hold up 24 years later. I defy anyone not to be impressed when Helen sits down and that pole sticks straight through her, or when Madeline’s head is whacked down into her chest.

The makeup is great too, as Ernest – star plastic surgeon turned alcoholic embalmer – uses his spray-painting skills to patch up the warring women.

Yes, the characters are broad and the tone and style is cartoonish but I love this film ‘cause it just goes for it. I love a high-concept premise and this delivers, big and bold, but it’s got a sly, subversive side too.

The script is sharp and clever with some endlessly quotable lines. If we meet and I say “NOW a warning?” or “Ernest, I’m in the morgue” and you get it, you’ve got a friend for life.

The comedy is my favourite kind – dark. It’s about vanity, lust, jealousy and revenge. It’s about ageing, faded dreams and disappointment. It’s silly and weird and quite sad when you think about it: living forever might sound great, but really?

Mind you, before I get too philosophical, it’s also got two Oscar winners battling it out with shovels with the cry “On guard, bitch!” and (SPOILER KLAXON) culminates in them both smashing to bits at the bottom of a stone staircase.

Apparently this was not the original ending, but the first tested so badly with audiences that it had to be totally changed. This also meant Tracey Ullman’s role in the film was cut out entirely, although she is still in the trailer.

I like this ending, Madeline and Helen wobbling out of the church, still stuck together, needing each other but love/hating each other. And what better last line, the mundane among the insane as Helen’s disembodied head asks, “Do you remember where you parked the car?”

Iris posterRATED. Always.

Alison Carr’s new play, Iris, premieres at Live Theatre, Newcastle upon Tyne on 6 April and runs until 30 April. For tickets, call 0191 232 1232 or visit www.live.org.uk


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Written by Alison Carr

Alison is a playwright and would-be tap dancer. She lives in Newcastle upon Tyne.