Monday, January 9, 2017

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS 2016

Warning: Spoiler Alert. This is a critical essay, not a review. Therefore, many crucial
plot points are revealed and referenced for the purpose of analysis. 


Amy Adams as Susan Morrow
“Do you ever feel like your life has turned into something you never intended?”

Susan Morrow is a successful Los Angeles art gallery owner who lives a life of lacquered, heavily curated wealth in the kind of sterile, fortress-like compound Architectural Digest likes to try to convince us are homes. They’re domiciles, but by no stretch of the imagination are they homes.
Susan, who sports, or, more accurately, hides behind, a severe, vision-concealing hairdo, shares this steel and cement mausoleum with her model-perfect financier husband Hutton—who looks precisely like what you’d imagine a man named Hutton would look like—and several million dollars’ worth of art. Art for which Susan harbors little affection and must occasionally sell in order to keep up appearances while her husband’s business flounders.
Armie Hammer as Hutton Morrow
From the way she occupies space without actually inhabiting it, and from the way her makeup and dress appears designed to conceal and camouflage; we can tell that Susan is at some kind of a crossroads. She exhibits all the traits of the well-upholstered midlife crisis (career and creature comforts secured, the “Am I happy?” dilemma rears its head), but there’s something more. It has to do with her past...and it's tearing Susan apart. 

“What right do I have to not be happy? I have everything. I feel ungrateful not to be happy.”

Jake Gyllenhaal as Edward Sheffield/Tony Hastings
Into this environment of ennui arrives a manuscript which turns out to be the proofs of a soon-to-be-published novel by Susan’s ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), an aspiring writer whom she hasn’t seen or been in contact with for 19-years. In fact, their breakup was so acrimonious and hurtful (she left after secretly aborting their child and cheating on him with the “handsome and dashing” Hutton) Edward never remarried and all attempts by Susan to contact him have been met with his hanging up on her. (Will future generations ever know the ecstasy of slamming down a phone receiver in anger?)
Michael Shannon as Bobby Andes
If the timing and arrival of this parcel weren’t already fraught with portent—delivered, significantly, by a shadowy figure driving a vintage, chocolate brown Mercedes—then certainly Susan suffering a this-can’t-be-a-good-omen paper cut while opening the package provides plenty of additional cause for concern. But the novel’s title “Nocturnal Animals” (a onetime term of endearment Edward had for his chronically insomniatic ex-wife), its dedication (“For Susan”), and uncharacteristically genial note crediting her with inspiring him, hints perhaps at the possibility of one of those timely, estranged couple reconciliations beloved of rom-coms.
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Ray Marcus
But when her husband goes away for a business meetings (monkey business, if you my cruder meaning), Susan settles down to read the novel only to discover it is a disturbing, cruelly savage tale of violence, guilt, loss, and revenge. One which Susan interprets through the valueless absurdity of her current life and the fractured, self-reproachful emotional prism of her past with Edward. Within the novel's sad, heart-wrenching story of a family destroyed by a nighttime confrontation on a barren strip of West Texas Interstate, Susan perceives worrisome life parallels. The more she reads the more she comes to fear that the allusions and thinly-veiled similarities are an allegorical, perhaps threatening, indictment of her relationship with Edward, and her culpability in its dissolution. 
Laura Linney as Anne Sutton


“Susan, enjoy the absurdity of our world. It’s a lot less painful. Believe me, our world is a lot less painful than the real world.”


Nocturnal Animals, written and directed by Tom Ford (only his second film, his first being the sensitive and touching A Single Man) is one of my new modern classics: a contemporary film with the heart and soul of a film made in the '70s.
I don't write about many contemporary movies on this blog, but when I do (Closer, Blue Jasmine, Maps to the Stars, and Carnage), it's because they speak to me in a forceful, intimate voice reminiscent of my favorite films from the '60 and '70s. They tend to be difficult, character-driven scenarios dealing with pain of interpersonal conflict, self-confrontation, and alienation. They're movies that, for me, illuminate the vicissitudes of human experience in ways challenging and poignant. People often write to me, curious as to why I seem to be drawn to films of intense emotional conflict...usually between people not easily recognized as sympathetic.

I like to think it's because I'm essentially a happy person blessed with a modest, good life, and peace of mind. Happiness I attribute 100% to the lessons I've learned from the pain and difficult things I've endured in my life. While I wouldn't recommend wallowing in it, I personally don't think growth is possible without hardship, conflict, and grappling with things like sadness and tragedy. Since this is something I so respect in life, I guess it's a quality I gravitate to and applaud when it's addressed in film.
In the fictional story within the story, the characters in the novel look like Susan, Edward, and Susan's daughter with Hutton. As we're seeing the novel from Susan's perspective, Ford leaves it up to us to decide if the characters are genuinely written as such, or if the guilt-ridden Susan is projecting herself into the narrative.
Isla Fischer as Laura Hastings, Elle Bamber as India Hastings, & Gyllenhaal as Tony Hastings, who just so happens to look like Susan's ex-husband Edward Sheffield 


I was absolutely floored when I saw Nocturnal Animals. No, check that...Nocturnal Animals kicked me in the solar plexus. I was stunned. Like a good thriller should, its plot kept me in a near-constant state of agitation and anxiety; but the tension didn't emanate exclusively from the storyline(s) -
EVERYTHING about the film sparked my emotional antennae. From the costuming, sound design, decor, music (Abel Korzeniowski's score sent chills down my spine)...it's pure bliss. There is just so much going on and so much alert attention required, I was thoroughly worn out by the time the film was over. Yet, I couldn't wait to see it again. Watching it was a rich, exhilarating, equilibrium-losing, roller coaster experience.

As much as it can be said of a director with only two films under his $800 belt (the actual cost of a Tom Ford belt, folks) Nocturnal Animals features these director "trademarks" first seen in  A Single Man (2009)- Top: A brown vintage Mercedes Benz appears throughout Nocturnal Animals. It's first glimpsed delivering the dreaded manuscript. This is the only time the "real" Edward appears in the film. Center: Two characters in the film wear large frame eyeglasses similar to those worn by Colin Firth in Ford's debut film. Bottom: A Single Man featured a protracted, comical scene with a character seated on a toilet. In Nocturnal Animals, Ray's exposed and unorthodox facilities are more unsettling, and stand in perverse contrast to the opulent exposure of Susan's bathroom with the floor to ceiling window overlooking Los Angeles.


As a longtime L.A. resident, Nocturnal Animals gave me a wholly unexpected look at the all-too-familiar. For years I've worked as a personal trainer to many wealthy clients; the world depicted in Nocturnal Animals is familiar to me (from the perspective of an outsider) and I recognize the people. It's a world where people exist almost exclusively in interiors. They live in security-gated homes, are driven to their laminated offices in oversized vehicles, after which they go to their sterile gyms, and later dress to go to not-too-cloistered restaurants. Nocturnal Animal's depiction of Los Angles as a gray and blue landscape is pretty apt, for who sees the sun when you're always wearing dark glasses and looking out at the world through the tinted windows of your limousine?

The world Susan inhabits is a holed-up world that offers many benefits (the illusion of safety, insulation from self-examination); but it brings with it a unique set of problems. Problems many of the wealthy are conflicted about because, when all is said and done, the world sees them as having everything. But they know that they don't (nobody does), and that realization sometimes just eats them alive.
Zawe Ashton as Alex
Jena Malone as Sage
The extreme, high-style, costumes of designer Arianne Phillips play a 
significant role in establishing character and tone


THE SUBJECTIVE GAZE
I have a weakness for films that play with the idea of perception. The subjective gaze and the possibly unreliable narrator fascinate me because when a film leaves it up to the viewer to draw their own conclusions based on the images presented, truly eye-opening things are revealed. Mostly about the viewer.
All three narratives in Nocturnal Animals are seen through Susan's gaze. Hers is the only reality we're exposed to. Whether it be her re-evaluation of her past, her sense of alienation in her current unhappy marriage and unfulfilling job, or her response to Edward's novel; we only see them from Susan's perspective.

The subjectivity angle introduces many interesting points. For example: Just because she feels guilty about her past, doesn't mean she has genuine cause. As a friend tells her, "You're awfully hard on yourself."  In many ways ALL the characters in Edward's novel convey some aspect of Susan's reality and sense of herself. Nocturnal Animals is at its most intriguing when, on repeat viewings, one realizes how many people, objects, and circumstances from her life Susan has projected onto the events in Edward's novel.
The Rich Fear the Poor/ The Poor Resent The Rich
The film's broad depiction of the redneck murderers (Karl Glusman as Lou) can be seen as Susan's amplification of a perceived the lack of safety in the world outside of the insulated, stainless steel gates of her interior decorated bunker 

My own subjective gaze plays significantly into why Nocturnal Animals hit me so hard. My experience of the film was significantly intensified by the fact that a month prior to seeing it, a writer friend who takes my dance class offered me the opportunity to read the pre-publication manuscript of her forthcoming novel. She told me, “I think you’ll like it. You know these people.”
My friend is, independent of our knowing one another, one of my favorite authors, anyway; her books and short story collections never failing to engage me in their exploration of the complexity of human relationships. A compelling novelist of many books on varied topics, she most recently published a series of books for the Young Adult market. It was the expectation of revisiting the lighthearted tone of those novels that stayed foremost in my mind as I settled down with her manuscript.

I read the entire novel in two days, and nothing of what I knew of the woman or her previous work prepared me for this book. It was unexpectedly violent, emotionally powerful, and very sad; I was quite shaken by it and reduced to a crumpled heap of red eyes and runny nose by the time I finished the last chapter. The book left me physically and emotionally drained. And I was so startled that this brutally tense, suspenseful book was the work of this rather sweet, gentle-natured soul I knew. 

Jump ahead to late December and I go to see Nocturnal Animals. Suffice it to say it was something of a wormholing experience. Here I am, a lifetime insomniac, watching a movie about another insomniac left shaken by the unexpected violence of an unpublished manuscript. A manuscript peopled with characters recognizable from her/ life. To make it weirder, my friend is a redhead who would be a ringer for Amy Adams were she to iron out her hair into that same severe hairdo. I was sitting there with my jaw in my lap. Here I was watching a movie about the subjective experience of “reading” (literal, as in reading a book, figurative as in the way self-reflection is a form of “reading” one’s own past), while almost interactively engaged in the very same activity throughout.


“Sometimes maybe it's not such a good idea to change things quite so much.”


THEMES
Susan's remorse over the past, disaffection for the present, and existential disquietude arising from the metaphorical implications of her ex-husband's novel form Nocturnal Animals' threefold narrative structure. The ways in which these stories interrelatemirror, comment upon, and reference one another—makes Nocturnal Animals an aesthetically satisfying, sometimes harrowing, journey into the psyche of a woman on a journey of self-confrontation. Themes emerge and relation dynamics are revealed, all requiring the kind of "active" and alert movie watching I tend to associate exclusively with films from the late-'60s and '70s.

Green and Red/Natural Instincts and Violence
Art director Shane Valentino has said in interviews that the look of Nocturnal Animals was inspired in part by Antonioni's 1964 film Red Desert. In that film, a visual poem on alienation and the modern world, the colors green and red reach out to us from a bleak landscape of industrial gray. Signifying perhaps violent nature and the human impulse, Nocturnal Animals has Ray Marcus' green cowboy boots, his vintage Pontiac GTO, and Susan's "absolution dress" all sharing the same vivid green color.
As a symbol of nature, the color green and those associated with it come to signify the "nocturnal animals" populating the landscape of Susan's reality.
Red hair cascading on a red velvet sofa figure in two scenes of devastation and violence.
One emotional (Susan betrays her lack of faith in Edward), one physical (two vicious murders)
The vivid red of violence is represented by the bright crimson light that floods the scene in which Susan breaks up with Edward (top), the curtain in the shanty room where Tony has his final confrontation with Ray (center), and by the scarlet lipstick worn by Susan (but eventually and tellingly removed) when she heads off for her fateful rendezvous with Edward.


Blinded
The glare from the stainless steel gate of Susan's fortress-like home momentarily blinds her in an image mirrored in Edward's novel when the character of Tony is blinded by an assailant. A bone of contention in Susan and Edward's marriage was Susan's blind spot when it came to her suppressed creativity. Blinded by her desire for what she believed to be a secure and "realistic" life, Susan's background blinded her to recognizing Edward's strengths.

Spiritual Desolation
Nocturnal Animals is a tale of guilt, retribution, hoped-for redemption, and, most foreseeably, damnation. As characters abandon their humanity and as illusions of safety spiral into chaos, images of churches and crosses appear at increasingly regular intervals throughout the film. Top: A church stands alone in a barren landscape. Center: Edward/Tony wears a cross around his neck similar to that which is worn by his daughter in the novel, and by Susan. It's also the item he is clutching at the end of the novel. Bottom: Shaken by Edward's novel, Susan is frequently shown clutching the cross she wears around her neck as she reads. Raised a Catholic, Susan is guilt-ridden over having had an abortion without telling Edward, the violent death of a child in his novel feeling like a veiled indictment.

Caged Animals
Recurring motifs of barred, glass interiors emphasize not only the isolation of the characters, but reinforces the fear of being known or exposed (Susan remarks that her husband finds their declining fortunes "embarrassing." Likewise, she expresses feeling embarrassed after confiding in a friend). The remote interiors, with their bold framing lines and large glass panes, simultaneously resemble prisons, art installations, or cages in a human zoo. (Top: Susan's cold and foreboding home. Center: Texas interrogation room. Bottom: Yamashiro restaurant, Los Angeles.)

“Why did you give up on becoming an artist?”

STYLE
As if we hadn’t already been down this road and learned our lesson with Stanley Kubrick, Michael Powell, & Alfred Hitchcock, a great many critics seemed stalled on the dramatic visual style of Nocturnal Animals. The look chosen for this sparsely-populated, introspective thriller is visually striking to be sure, often breathtakingly so, but some can’t seem to get past the curated gloss to access the story and characters within. The above-listed directors were often taken to task for the stylization of their films, but now that they’re dead (which is the way it goes, I guess) everyone hails the artistic eloquence of their fluency in the visual language of cinema. 
The Los Angeles of Nocturnal Animals is no sunny vision of Paradise.
It's a cold, barely inhabited, slate blue environment of gray skies and incessant rain 
No one is depicted outdoors in Ford's vision of Los Angeles. Like a formaldehyde-encased art installation,
Susan occupies sterile interiors 

The narrative structure of Nocturnal Animals called upon Tom Ford & cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (in collaboration with the invaluable contributions of production designer Shane Valentino, art director Christopher Brown, and set decorator Meg Everist) to create three distinct worlds: 1) Susan’s present, 2) Susan’s past, 3) Susan’s interpretation of the fictional world in Edward’s novel. Three distinct worlds sharing a single common denominator...Susan’s very subjective reaction to each.  
In a story told almost entirely from the internal and external perspective of its main character, one of the more arresting aspects of Nocturnal Animals is not merely that these worlds have to be depicted in different ways, but that they have to be depicted in ways subtly conveying that they are the not-entirely-realistic impressions of a single individual.  
As imagined by Susan, the West Texas desert is a vast, arid, sunbaked wasteland,
nightmarishly beautiful and  ominously desolate

With Susan so often shown in states of isolation within empty, cavernous environments, silently grappling with self-reflection, self-evaluation, and, most painfully, self-recrimination; the visual style takes over the storytelling. And while the images convey details, both significant and small, about Susan and her life, their evocation and content is consistently influenced by the loss of emotional equilibrium she experiences as the film progresses. The impact her ex-husband's novel has on Susan creates a mounting sense of unease in the character, reflected in the film's darker palette, heightened sense of menace, and discomfiting cold images.
Susan's flashbacks are naturalistic and warm in tone. They include the film's rare moments of affectionate human contact. In these sequences, dramatic moments are often punctuated with extreme bursts of color: a red velvet sofa, the bright scarlet of a street light, the stark whiteness of a dress


As these three concurrently running narratives bleed in and out of one another, the strong visual style of the segments guide us (per Susan's perceptions) as the individuals and actions in each story come to mirror and comment upon one another; both literally (clean-shaven Edward, red-headed mother and daughter) and allegorically (Hutton Morrow/Ray Marcus as handsome instruments of emotional violence and destruction).

There will always be those who feel that stylization and technical gloss in a film is emotionally distancing, and that visual grit is somehow closer to truth. I'm not in that camp, however, so I can appreciate that the Architectural Digest sheen of some parts of Nocturnal Animals carry as much dramatic weight as those cinema vérité, too-close-for-comfort close-ups in the fictional Texas narrative. How a film is shot is part of a film's vocabulary, and as can happen with any language, the vocabulary a film chooses can be misunderstood.


ART
Susan Morrow owns a successful art gallery and serves on the board of a major museum. As an art dealer/curator/collector, Susan is haunted by her ex-husband's admonition that she studies art because she lacks the courage to be an artist herself. Though art plays a significant part in her life, over the years that seed of doubt planted by her husband's words (and her own sense of uncertainty about the path of life she's chosen) has given root to a cynical (healthy?) disdain for what passes for art in her world. Certainly her gallery's multimedia installation combining images of nude obese women and kitsch Americana.
Carlos
"I thought the work was incredibly strong. So perfect with this junk culture we live in."
Susan
"It is junk. Total junk."

Nocturnal Animals, a work of art itself, makes inspired use of artwork throughout; informing character and providing silent commentary on the film's themes.
Exquisite Pain
Artist Damien Hirst depicts the death of Saint Sebastian as a steer pierced by arrows. My partner reminded me that Saint Sebastian is the patron saint of those who desire a holy death. Something Susan, as a Catholic, might fear is lost to her
Jeff Koons' Balloon Dog sculpture graces the backyard of Susan & Hutton's grotesquely ginormous home. As indicated by the crane, the sculpture, along with several crated art items within the house, are slated to be sold by the financially beleaguered couple.
A jarring photograph by Richard Misrach (Desert Fire #153) appearing to depict a ritual killing in the desert is located in the entryway of Susan's home. Perhaps the source of the vision of Texas Susan imagines while reading Edward's manuscript?
Mooning
The blood-red wall of Susan's austere and decorously spartan office is adorned
 by John Currin's "Nude in a Convex Mirror."

“Nobody gets away with what you did. Nobody.”

THE ENDING
I feel it’s important to stress that this essay is my personal, subjective analysis of Nocturnal Animals, representative of how the film spoke to me. I intend neither an unequivocal “explanation” of the film and its themes, nor a wholesale endorsement encouraging the reader to run out and buy tickets, guaranteed of having the same experience. The mere fact that I have absolutely no complaints with the film stands as evidence of my lack of objectivity. I loved everything about this movie. From the brilliance of the performances to Ford's deft direction and stylistic touches, Nocturnal Animals is just my kind of cinema.
Because my experience was so rewarding,  I've enjoyed reading about how problematic so many people found the film's conclusion to be. It's an astonishingly powerful ending as far as I'm concerned, and the fact that I didn't anticipate it in the least—in spite of its thematic consistency—is what I loved about it. It's one of those endings that thirty people can watch and no two of them will be in exact accord as to what it all means. Some find it frustratingly vague; me, it takes me back to the heyday of '70s cinema when filmmakers were fine with making movies open to multiple interpretations, then leaving them to draw their own conclusions. 

I won't be offering an explanation to the ending here. But I will suggest that it is neither as devastating nor as positive as one might initially presume. Merely consider what I mentioned earlier, that, at least as far as what I've discovered to be true in my own life, growth and happiness is sometimes only possible through the lessons one learns through pain and loss. In which case, what may appear at first glance to be hopeless and devastating about the conclusion of Nocturnal Animals might in reality be the key to ultimately free a nocturnal animal from its cage.  

“You just can't walk from things all the time." 

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Saturday, December 31, 2016

DEATH BECOMES HER 1992

In today’s digitized, high-definition world—in which real-life, flesh and blood humans from the most mundane walks of life, willingly subject themselves to near-medieval levels of torture in an effort to achieve the burnished, robo-mannequin sheen of Photoshopped magazine covers—I don’t think it’s possible to lampoon our culture’s extreme youth-addiction and obsession with physical perfection. 
Happily, in1992 (ten years before Botox, and back when Cher and Michael Jackson were the reigning poster kids for plastic surgery excess) director Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forest Gump) made this demented and dark comedy which broadly burlesques contemporary society’s two most dominant religions: the worship of beauty and the fear of aging.
"Wrinkled, wrinkled little star...hope they never see the scars."
In the original screenplay the line was "Wrinkle, wrinkle, go away, come again on Doris Day"
a lament uttered by Elizabeth Taylor in 1980's The Mirror Crack'd

In this self-professed nod to Tales from the Crypt (the comic-book-based HBO anthology series for which Zemeckis co-produced and occasionally directed) Death Becomes Her is a comedy-of-the-grotesque cartoon that posits the dream of eternal youth as a upscale zombie nightmare. Set in a baroque,  just-barely exaggerated vision of Beverly Hills where the thunderclaps and lightning flashes all hit their marks and know their cues; Death Becomes Her spans 51-years (1978 to 2029) in chronicling the ceaseless competition between two college frenemies. A bitter rivalry every bit as combative and twice as deadly as Batman vs Superman…only with better dialogue and smaller busts.
Meryl Streep as Madeline Ashton
Bruce Willis as Dr. Ernest Menville
Goldie Hawn as Helen Sharp
Isabella Rossellini as Lisle Von Rhuman
Former Radcliffe classmates Madeline Ashton (Mad for short) and Helen Sharp (Hel for keeps) are the kind of friends that only a shared alma mater could produce. Though we ultimately come to learn that they are but two antagonistic sides of the same counterfeit coin, but when first glimpsed, the artificial Madeline and the apprehensive Helen couldn’t be more dissimilar, and are clearly friends in name only. 
Plain-Jane Helen, an aspiring author of a soft-spoken, diffident character and unconcerned with appearance, has a history of having her boyfriends stolen by the ostentatiously glamorous Madeline. Madeline, an obscenely shallow, superhumanly self-enchanted actress of questionable talent, is all surface charm and charisma, but otherwise appears totally devoid of a single redeeming character trait. She concerns herself with looks and appearances to the exclusion of all else. 
"Tell me, doctor...do you think I'm starting to NEED you?"
The women's heated rivalry temporarily assumes the guise of a romantic triangle when beginning-to-show-her-age Madeline sets her sights upon (and effortlessly steals) Helen’s fiancé, the bland-but-gifted Beverly Hills plastic surgeon Ernest Menville. Of course, there’s no romance to this romantic triangle at all, what with Madeline’s interest in the colorless dolt being solely of the self-serving variety (she gets to assert her desirability superiority over Helen while simultaneously securing a lifetime of free nip/tuck services), but the last-straw betrayal by both fiancé and friend proves enough to send poor milquetoast Helen right over the edge. 
What's The Matter With Helen?
Cue the passage of fourteen years. Everybody is miserable and nobody winds up with what they thought they wanted. Madeline, career and looks in decline, is blatantly unfaithful to husband Ernest and goes to Norma Desmond extremes to stay young. Meanwhile, emasculated Ernest has succumbed to alcoholism and is reduced to plying his surgical skills on corpses. 
But it's Helen who rises like an Avenging Angel from the doughnut crumbed, canned-frosting ruins of her nervous breakdown. Magnificently svelte, newly glamorized, channeling her inner Madeline, and, after several years of therapy, imbued with a Dolly Levi-esque sense of purpose (“For I’ve got a goal again! I’ve got a drive again! I’m gonna feel my heart coming alive again!”). Naturally, Helen's goals aren't anywhere near as lofty or honorable as those of that musical matchmaker's; Helen's newfound purpose is to reclaim her life through the eradication of Madeline’s.
Hel Goes Mad and Dedicates Her Life To Making Mad's Life Hell
Alas, Helen’s strength of resolve is all well and good, but homicidally speaking , the best laid plans of mice and men are doomed to failure when the man in question (Ernest) is a mouse. By the same token, it's perhaps not the best idea to wage a to-the-death battle when both combatants, thanks to the supernatural intervention of a raven-haired sorceress and her immortality potion, can’t really die.
I saw Death Becomes Her for the first time on cable TV in the mid-‘90s, and I immediately regretted never having seen it in a theater. I thought it was outrageously funny and I imagined seeing it with an audience would have been an experience similar to my first time seeing What’s Up, Doc?: the laughter being so loud and continuous, you have to see the film twice in order to pick up all the lost dialogue. I’ve no idea if public response to Death Becomes Her was anywhere near as vociferous (it’s a weird little film), but I found it to be one of the most consistently funny comedies I’d seen since the ‘70s heyday of Mel Brooks, Gene Wilder, & Madeline Kahn.

Incorporating a comic book sensibility and B-horror movie tropes into a dark satire of those frozen-in-time animatronic waxworks endemic to the environs of Beverly Hills, Death Becomes Her provides director Robert Zemeckis an ideal vehicle to indulge his fondness for absurdist special effects. The screenplay, a best-of-both-worlds/ Frankenstein collaboration between TV sitcom writer Martin Donovan (That Girl, The MTM Show) and action/adventure writer Martin Koepp- (Jurassic Park, Mission impossible), deftly maintains a balance of broad action (think Tex Avery cartoons or Bugs vs Daffy Looney Tunes) and oversized characterizations.  
Late-director Sydney Pollack (They Shoot Horses, Don't They?)
contributes a hilarious unbilled cameo 

Which brings me to Death Becomes Her’s strongest attribute: its cast. Streep, Hawn, and Willis—talented professionals all—had, at this stage in their careers, fallen into that movie star rut of delivering exactly what was expected of them, nothing more. Recent releases had shown each actor delivering reliable-but-unexceptional performances in so-so films. Professional, journeyman-like performances devoid of either spark or surprise.
But Death Becomes Her—in casting against type—taps into something fresh in each of them. With abandon they lose themselves in the outlandish, outsized characters they’re called upon to play, blowing away the cobwebs of predictability from their individual screen personas. Together they form an unholy trinity of bad behavior and treat us to give the liveliest, most unexpected, enjoyably over-the-top emoting of their careers.
Madder 'n Hell
(Mad, Ern, & Hel)

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
When television broadcasts changed from analog to digital, and I purchased my first HDTV, one of my strongest recollections is of how dazzlingly crisp and clear it was, and simultaneously how clinically unforgiving it was to human beings.
TV shows I had grown up watching in their natural fuzzy state were so clear! Images were so sharp I could make out the weave knit twill fibers in Fred Mertz’s jacket.
But my lord, the havoc it played with people’s faces. It was like you were looking at everyone through a dermatologist’s magnifying glass—bringing to mind that line from Cukor’s The Women “Good grief! I hate to tell you dear, but your skin makes the Rocky Mountains look like chiffon velvet!” 
Goldie Hawn and Meryl Streep- two longtime favorites of mine,
really come alive as zombies
I don’t know what it was like elsewhere, but the cumulative effect HDTV had on local Los Angeles newscasters and even minor TV personalities was to have men and women scrambling to the plastic surgeons in a mad rush reminiscent of the final reel to The Day of the Locust
Over the last decade or so, the already youth and looks-obsessed entertainment industry has seen a normalization of the kind of rampant surgical restructuring that once caused Mickey Rourke and Meg Ryan so much grief. The artificially enhanced appearance has now grown so common; it has become the new aesthetic.
What Price Beauty?
And while everybody seems fine with health-related elective surgeries like dental and Lasik, people still harbor strong opposing opinions about those who turn to medical science in order to turn back the clock, retard the aging process, or sculpt and reconfigure themselves to fit a particular beauty standard.
Death Becomes Her is no serious treatise on our culture’s preoccupation with youth and slavish devotion to beauty, but by addressing these hotpoint issues in a comical, bigger-than-life framework—it manages to be one of the sharpest and to-the-point.

PERFORMANCES
Broad, farcical comedy of the sort employed in Death Becomes Her is awfully hard to pull off (1991’s Soapdish comes to mind…unfavorably). In fact, the main reason I didn’t see Death Becomes Her when it was released was because the trailer so turned me off. Not only did it look far too exaggerated and silly (it recalled Streep’s She-Devil, a film I absolutely hated), but  in addition: I never much cared for Bruce Willis; Goldie Hawn’s post-Private Benjamin output had grown increasingly derivative, and the continued forays into comedy by Streep-the-Serious (Postcards from the Edge, Defending Your Life) had the effect of subduing her talent, not showcasing it. 
It surprises me a bit to glance over Bruce Willis' long list of credits on IMDB and come to the conclusion that Death Becomes Her is the only film of his I like. He's so good here. Funny and touching, and providing the grounded emotional contrast to his co-stars' magnificent maliciousness

But what always brings me back to rewatching Death Becomes Her is how all the elements gel so smoothly. Everyone from composer Alan Silvestri to the film’s vast army of FX wizards are all on the same comic book page. Best of all, the actors and their pitch-perfect performances are never dwarfed by the dated but still-impressive special effects.
The comedy is too dark to be everyone’s taste, likewise the tone of exaggerated non-reality; but for me, all these disparate elements coalesce to create a howlingly funny film that feels like a major studio version of those reveling-in-bad-taste underground/counterculture comedies like Andy Warhol’s BAD or John Waters’ Female Trouble (which could serve as Death Becomes Her’s subtitle).
The arresting Isabella Rossellini is a special effect all unto herself.
Alluring and dangerous, she is a dynamic, unforgettable force in her brief scenes

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
A major highlight of Death Becomes Her is getting to see the great Madeline Ashton in full diva-fabulous mode appearing onstage in a misguided musical version of Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth. A play, appropriately enough, about an aging star making a comeback. The time is 1978, and, as described in the screenplay, our first glimpse of 40-ish Madeline is of her “Singin’ and dancin’ up a storm seemingly without benefit of training in singin’ or dancin’.”
The song she’s singing is a riotously vainglorious paean to self, titled “Me,” and the production number is a compendium of every star-gets-hoisted-about-by-chorus-boys Broadway musical cliché in the book. The number is terrible—from the song itself, to the costuming, choreography (they break into “The Hustle” at one uproarious point), and the over-emphasized “stereotypically gay” voices of the chorus boys—and therefore, it's also absolutely brilliant. 
What's great about the number is that without benefit of inserting any intentionally comedic elements (save for a ceaselessly shedding feather boa) it manages to be side-splittingly funny and cheesy as all get-out merely by channeling any number of '70s variety shows. As a quick glance at YouTube will attest, nothing about Madeline's dance routine would be out of place on an episode of The Hollywood Palace, The Ed Sullivan Show, or take-your-pick Mitzi Gaynor TV special.
Although Madeline is supposed to be awful, Streep is actually quite marvelous. Her musicality and phrasing is spot on. Her movements are sharp, she never misses a beat with any of her gestures, and there's an effortlessness to the number of small bits of comic business she's able to insert into the performance without ever losing her stride. What really makes the number so hysterically funny is the level of Las Vegas showroom self-satisfaction her Madeline radiates. No one could tell Madeline she's not stopping the show and bringing down the house with this ridiculous number, and her genuine obliviousness to the silliness surrounding her makes for a priceless moment in wince-inducing musical cinema.
The first time I saw Streep perform "Me," what immediately popped into mind was the 1986 Academy Awards telecast. That was the year Teri Garr opened the show with a truly cringe-worthy production number around the song Flying Down To Rio that was every bit as atrocious as Madeline's First Act closer (even down to the same tearaway skirt and hyperactive chorus boys). Further cementing the recollection: Meryl Streep, who was nominated that year for Out of Africa, when interviewed about the show afterward, expressed her enjoyment of Garr's performance and her wish to someday be invited to sing and dance in a production number like it. She got her wish.
Late-actress Alaina Reed (Sesame Street, 227) as the psychologist
who inadvertently sets Helen on her murderous course 

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Like Sweet Charity, Fatal Attraction, and the musical version of Little Shop of Horrors, Death Becomes Her is a film whose original ending was jettisoned due to unfavorable preview response.
Grotesquely disfigured and unable to maintain themselves with any level of precision,
Madeline & Helen attend Ernest's funeral in the year 2029
In the original version, after escaping from Lisle's, Ernest fakes his death and runs off with Toni (Tracey Ullman, the entirety of whose footage ended up on the cutting room floor), a sympathetic owner of a local bar he frequented. Jump ahead 27-years, Madeline and Helen, still beautiful and perfect, are in the Swiss Alps, bored with life and bored with each other's company. In the distance they glimpse an old, hunched over, toddling married couple. Madeline comments on how pathetic they are, Helen, as she watches them walk away, hand in liver-spotted hand, is not so sure. We learn that the couple is Ernest and Toni, now very old, but very much in love. Fade Out.

I absolutely adore that ending! Test audiences claimed the more poignant conclusion didn't fit the more cartoonish flavor of the rest of the film, so rewrites and reshoots resulted in the very good, very funny ending the film currently has. It's not a bad ending at all, and based on the success of the film, is perhaps more in keeping with the tone established at the start; but honestly, I just love the idea of the jettisoned ending. I think it would have provided the perfect coda for a wonderful film.
Helen and Madeline, talons sharpened, become living gargoyles

BONUS MATERIAL
Goldie Hawn discusses her preference for the film's original ending HERE

You can read the original screenplay in PDF form with all the deleted material HERE

The original theatrical trailer features many scenes that never made it into the final film. HERE

 Copyright © Ken Anderson