Sunset Streep

The title sequence of Robert Zemeckis's Death Becomes Her promises a much funnier and more adept black comedy than what eventually comes to pass. On the Broadway stage in 1978 (the year is important), Madeline Ashton (Meryl Streep), a waning theatrical diva, stars in a musical production adapted from Tennessee Williams's Sweet Bird of Youth. Outside the theater, audience members are making a fast exit, tossing their programs at the pavement and wincing at the absurdity of the idea -- the show is entitled Songbird!. Then we reel backward in horror at Madeline Ashton's pathetically inadequate (though spirited) warbling and shaking in her big number, decked out in faux Ann Miller gear, all white satin and sequin, to resemble a cross between Williams's Alexandra del Lago and Jerry Herman's Mame Dennis or Dolly Levi. This ear-shattering and credulity-stretching number -- a narcissistic love song entitled "Me" -- reaches its histrionic and choreographic climax with a salute to disco as the lights dim and the pit orchestra delivers a few strains of "The Hustle." It's relentlessly, brilliantly atrocious.

The only member of the audience that vigorously applauds upon the conclusion of this song-and-dance fiasco is Dr. Ernest Menville (Bruce Willis), a plastic surgeon, who's accompanied by his fiancee -- who also happens to be Madeline's old friend and rival -- Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn). The doctor then proceeds to drop Helen for Madeline and marry the latter, setting up the second, perhaps funniest, sequence in the film.

It's now seven years after Ernest and Madeline's wedding, and Helen lives alone and miserable in an apartment overrun by cats and covered wall to wall with uncleaned plates and debris. She's gained at least 100 pounds, and while the landlords pound on the door to evict her, the jumpsuited, zeppelin-size Helen passively sits in an armchair, obsessively replaying a VCR tape of a soap opera where Madeline is strangled while dipping her swollen fingers into a tub of commercial cake frosting. The body make-up is so convincing that if Goldie Hawn ever wondered how she would look obese, she certainly knows now. The unsightliness of this thigh-chafing portrayal of anonymous overeaters is enough to make Karen Carpenter's anorexia emerge as the ideal.

Death Becomes Her was intended to be -- and with another director could have been -- a stylishly mean-spirited attack on vanity. But Zemeckis's penchant for high-concept phantasmagoria ruins what should have been intimate and, above all, trenchant. Instead we get a fable about a youth-restoring potion given by Isabella Rossellini to both Streep and Hawn, an elixir that keeps the body young and beautiful even after the heart has expired. And both actresses get to eat up the scenery like Beluga caviar with the help of some often nifty special-effects innovations (Streep with her head screwed on backwards, Hawn with a hole through her belly). Interestingly enough, Sydney Pollack does a nice cameo turn as an emergency-ward physician who examines Streep after she has fallen down a flight of stairs -- he hears no heartbeat as she talks to him, and he collapses. I'd wager Death Becomes Her would have been twice as amusing -- and certainly half as expensive to produce -- had Pollack (who directed, among other things, Tootsie) assumed the chair over Zemeckis.

When you take into account that Meryl Streep's last three performances (in She-Devil, Defending Your Life, and Postcards from the Edge) were predominantly comic, it makes you wonder how much the conventional critical wisdom -- that she's a cold technician with all the humor of an open grave -- has played a part in her choices of late. I don't belong to the Streep-stalking clan, but I view her campy forays into comedy as terribly misguided. Pauline Kael, notorious in her disregard of Streep's dramatic achievements during the Eighties, went so far as to suggest Meryl's forte was screwball comedy. Based on these (now four) excursions, the great, retired film critic of The New Yorker must be eating flambeed crow.

Streep does not embarrass herself even out of water. The affected delivery turned brothel-madam's screech, a device she introduced in the otherwise bilious She-Devil, is right on target. Streep also recalls Bette Midler's clunky, high-heeled strut of Down and Out in Beverly Hills to good effect. But truth be told, Meryl Streep has never been very funny on screen or stage. (I saw her performance as Katharina in Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew in the Seventies, which confirmed her comedic limitations.) Her finest performances depict emotionally strangled, hypersensitive women breaking the constraints of custom and circumstance, particularly Lindy Chamberlain in A Cry in the Dark, Karen Blixen in Out of Africa, and Susan Traherne in Plenty. The sweetness we first witnessed in Cimino's The Deer Hunter has not been revisited.

Goldie and Bruce play second fiddle to Meryl, and neither detract nor add much to this deadbeat party. Frankly, the one true beauty of the film is the stunning Isabella Rossellini, who makes even the magically altered countenances of Meryl and Goldie emerge as coarse and inelegant as two Stiltsville seamstresses. Death becomes this pair of doves like a leotard becomes Imelda Marcos.

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