Death Becomes Her is the story of one woman’s lifelong frenemy stealing her fiancé and that woman dying to one-up her—literally.
Starring the inimitable Meryl Streep as the Broadway star and fiancé poacher Madeline Ashton, Goldie Hawn as aspiring writer turned spurned bestseller Helen Sharp, and a pre-Pulp Fiction Bruce Willis playing the plastic surgeon fiancé Ernest Menville, Death Becomes Her makes a horrific betrayal and unfortunate turn of events all quite fun.
After Helen opines to her fiancé, Ernest, about Madeline’s undying need to one-up Helen, even going as far as to steal her boyfriends in high school, Ernest does the inevitable: he marries Madeline. Fast forward 14 years, and Madeline has a floundering acting career and Ernest can no longer perform plastic surgery procedures on the living due to a profound drinking problem. Instead, he reassembles cadavers as a reconstructive mortician.
But when Madeline and Ernest are invited to Helen’s book launch party, Madeline’s old tendency to best Helen flares and spurs her to seek an emergency facial. The esthetician gives her a card, but Madeline won’t investigate until she’s seen Helen magically madeover and youthful at the book launch party, overheard Helen tell Ernest she blames Madeline for his betrayal, and been rejected by her much younger lover. In short: Madeline turns to the miracle cure when faced with her aging face. Then, the violence begins.
All of this to say, Death Becomes Her is a notable entry in the lineage of horrific female frenemies for being funny. For the most part, starting with the foundational silver screen frenemy film 1962’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, these psychological horror films are played straight. Although the two main characters in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane are two sisters instead of simply friends, much like in Death Becomes Her, one sees success early while the other is in her shadow until their situations swap later in life. Enraged by her sister’s success, Jane falls into alcoholism and hits Blanche with a car, disabling her. Only after Jane has caused numerous deaths and strapped Blanche to a bed does Blanche admit to framing Jane for the accident that made her paraplegic. To this Jane replies, “You mean all this time, we could have been friends?”
Similarly, Helen and Madeline brawl in the elegant ballroom of Madeline’s home, causing a litany of bodily harm to one another. Although the effects are dated now, the cartoonish yet grotesque damage done to the women’s bodies won an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects in 1993. Afterward, they air their grievances, admit to each other why they felt insecure, and strike up a truce. It’s a fairly earnest moment, considering the otherwise comedically insincere actions of the pair, and an interaction most frenemy movies lack. It’s decided they’ll share Ernest as they’ll need him to repair their undead bodies when damaged.
The other comedic frenemies movie which springs to mind is 2004’s Mean Girls. It even discusses the obsession Lindsay Lohan’s Cady has with discussing the queen bee Regina George. Part of the interim 14 years between the Death Becomes Her betrayal shows Helen unable to stop discussing Madeline to the point the hospital staff of the psychiatric ward she’s in tires of it. Although played for laughs in both films, the psychological damage of a frenemy seems to be quite severe.
Take Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 psychological horror Black Swan. Ostensibly teammates on the same dance troupe performing in the same show, Natalie Portman’s Nina and Mila Kunis’ Odie have a confusing rivalry that spans sexual tension to professional aspirations to identity conflation. Nina devolves into an eating disorder, like Helen, and an excruciating regimen of dance akin to the bodily lengths Helen and Madeline go to establish undeniable superiority to the other.
Six years later, 2016’s The Neon Demon, taking obvious influence from Death Becomes Her, follows a young model befriending a makeup artist who moonlights as a mortuary cosmetologist. The young model meets two older models through the makeup artist and a strange dynamic of jealousy and affinity occurs. This culminates in the two older models cannibalizing the younger girl to acquire her youth and beauty. Here, one of the cannibal models regrets the act and begins regurgitating bits of the consumed girl while stabbing herself in the stomach. The other picks up a regurgitated eyeball and pops it in her mouth. Mind you, this is all highly stylized but ultimately played straight.
Much like the sisters past their prime in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, both Helen and Madeline wind up decaying but bound to one another, caring for each other’s failing bodies and shattering—again, literally—together outside of a church during Ernest’s, who abandoned them years before, funeral service. Despite their decades-long contentious relationship, Helen and Madeline are stuck taking care of one another—because they are the only ones who will. How hilariously horrific.
Brooke Knisley is a freelance journalist and comedy writer. She has balance issues. Let her harass you on Twitter @BrookeKnisley.