Death Becomes Her (Blu-ray)
(Shout! Factory, 4.26.2016)
Along with Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, and very few others, Robert Zemeckis is a rare filmmaker whose sensibility -- and preoccupation with innovation -- has resulted in films that bear the precise personal stamp of an auteur without sacrificing mainstream appeal. What’s often forgotten about Zemeckis is that he was once perceived as box office poison, co-scripting Spielberg’s first flop (1941) and failing to find an audience for his first two directing efforts (which are still among his best): I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Used Cars. What distinguishes these films (particularly Used Cars) from most of the director’s later work is a biting cynicism that channels the worldview of caustic comedies like Dr. Strangelove. Just as Spielberg tapped this youthful cynicism for 1941, Zemeckis joined forces with young screenwriters Martin Donovan and David Koepp (who went on to write the next year’s Jurassic Park) on 1992’s Death Becomes Her, the most negative, mean-spirited, and irreverent film of his post-Used Cars career.
Charting a long-running feud between a pair of vain, shallow rivals (Meryl Streep, Goldie Hawn) and the bumbling moron (Bruce Willis) they’re both inexplicably drawn to, this Zemeckis curiosity temporarily interrupted his box office winning streak, which may explain why he wholeheartedly embraced feel-good sentiment two years later on Forrest Gump. While it’s not much fun spending time with these reprehensible characters, Death Becomes Her works as an exercise in visual indulgence that’s equal parts Roman Polanski, Coen Brothers, and Barry Sonnenfeld. The film’s overall perversity also seems to stem from Zemeckis’ involvement in Tales from the Crypt, the then-current HBO series that he executive produced and occasionally directed.
In a recent interview with the Shock Waves podcast, Shout!/Scream Factory’s Jeff Nelson and Cliff MacMillan explained that they hoped Death Becomes Her would be a full-blown special edition, but they had trouble getting any of the actors involved. Instead, they had to settle for a limited (but sufficient) selection of extras: the trailer, a photo gallery, a vintage featurette, and The Making of Death Becomes Her, a new 25-minute documentary featuring Zemeckis, Koepp, and several key crew members. This featurette is a bit unfocussed, but Zemeckis and Koepp both make it clear that they enjoyed a fruitful and rewarding collaboration. In the case of Streep’s famous backwards head scene -- the film’s Oscar-winning effects look a little silly by modern standards -- Koepp says Zemeckis asked him to expand a quick moment into a long scene, even though it seemed impossible to execute.
For those familiar with Kevin Smith’s notorious Bruce Willis stories -- their Cop Out collaboration was unpleasant to say the least -- an observation from producer Steve Starkey is especially revealing. He explains that Willis works much better when he’s collaborating with a director who has a solid game plan, as it gives him the confidence and freedom to take risks. While Death Becomes Her is not one of Zemeckis’ most distinguished films, it clearly benefits from careful planning and self-effacing actors who are willing to put aside their vanity -- unlike the characters they play. -- Jonathan Doyle