That ‘Death Becomes Her’ was made at all feels like a miracle. Centered on a pair of celebrities—vain Helen and vainer Madeline—trapped in a rivalry fueled by jealousy and black magic, this outlandish parable written by Martin Donovan and David Koepp plays like ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous’ meets ‘Tales from the Crypt.’ Yet its gleefully gruesome script attracted Robert Zemeckis, who, after making ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’and the ‘Back to the Future’ trilogy, was eager to take on something more mature and daring. His involvement attracted Meryl Streep, Bruce Willis, and Goldie Hawn. Despite a big budget, juicy spectacle, and A-list leads, ‘Death Becomes Her’ended up fizzling on its 1992 release. But this deliciously deranged dark comedy eventually found redemption in the embrace of the queer community, who have insured its legacy.
“It was meant to be ‘Night of the Living Dead,’ if George Cukor had directed it,” Koepp told ‘Vanity Fair’ via e-mail. “It felt like no risk whatsoever, because we both had nothing but credit-card debt to our names. There was nowhere to go but up.”
The pair imagined their project as a modest indie movie, perfect for big names of yesteryear like Ann Margaret, Tuesday Weld, and Dean Stockwell. “In our wildest dreams,” said Koepp, “the budget was about $5 million.” But once Universal sold Zemeckis on ‘Death Becomes Her,’ their would-be B-movie began to blossom into something bigger, bolder, and more bizarre.
But while its visual effects won praise and an Academy Award in 1993, the film was savaged by critics. “I read every word of every review I could get my hands on,” Koepp confessed. “Fortunately, this was pre-Internet, so my masochism was kept sort of in check. Many people got it, and loved it for its weirdness. Many did not. But you can’t have a life in the circus without a certain amount of elephant shit.”
Between rough reviews and making just $58 million domestic on a $55 million budget, ‘Death Becomes Her’ died with a whimper at the box office. But in the 25 years since its initial release, the film has become a touchstone of the queer community. Madeline and Helen’s looks have inspired cosplay and untold drag performances. The film is screened during Pride month, where bar rooms and theaters full of fans mouth along with every line. ‘Death Becomes Her’ even inspired a runway challenge on the groundbreaking reality competition series ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race,’ where sickening queen Violet Chachki won for her breathless look and dangerously cinched waist.
Both Koepp and Donovan are aware and thrilled with the fandom that’s grown around the film. But when asked why ‘Death Becomes Her’appeals so to the queer community, both are at a loss.
“You really can’t underestimate the entertainment value of two women swinging shovels at each other,” Koepp offered. “I could invent some excuse,” Donovan said. “But deep down in my heart I don’t know.” He mused that the gay community is often attracted to tales of “struggle” and resilience—about people who are “never giving up, even if it’s a mess.”
Fans do embrace Helen and Madeline for these very qualities. These are women—an aspiring writer and a fading actress—who are ignored by the world unless they are beautiful. It’s no wonder that they break the rules of nature by taking a seductive serum to become flawless goddesses of glamor and youth. Though they’re technically cast as villains in the film, ‘Drag Race’ executive producer Tom Campbell sees them as sympathetic figures: the movie was “ahead of its time in a lot of ways, because they have these conversations about looks, and what we’re willing to do to our bodies for beauty,” he told ‘Vanity Fair.’ “I think it’s only multiplied exponentially since that movie was made.”
Campbell is also the chief creative officer of World of Wonder, a “largely gay” production company—it produces ‘Drag Race’—that places ‘Death Becomes Her’ on “the short list of movies that inspire us every day.”
That sentiment is echoed by one of the film’s biggest fans: ‘Drag Race’ Season 5 winner Jerick Hoffer, whose drag persona, Jinkx Monsoon, embodied Streep’s acid blonde for a ‘Death Becomes Her’-themed photo shoot, and featured the film at the center of Hoffer’s biographical documentary ‘Drag Becomes Him.’
Hoffer ties Helen and Madeline to a lineage of beloved bad women who dared to be both divinely stylish and unrepentantly ambitious. “I think this is a trait that runs throughout the queer community, the obsession with the hyper-feminine female villains,” Hoffer explained. “And we see it in Disney movies and in movies like ‘Death Becomes Her,’ and in characters like Poison Ivy and Catwoman. Almost all the Disney villain witches are gay icons”—like ‘Sleeping Beauty’s’ Maleficent, with her cold cackle and cool cape, or ‘The Little Mermaid’s’ octopussy Ursula, whose design was reportedly inspired by the defiant drag queen Divine.
“I think it’s a combination of it being a strong female character who you love how evil she is, you know?” Hoffer said. “I don’t know why that is a trait that appeals to queer people so much, but it’s pretty consistent amongst the queer community. I think it has something to do with feeling like outcasts and imagining yourself in this position of power where, even though you’re the outcast, you still have some kind of power and strength within you.”
“They’re fighting for beauty,” Campbell said. “They’re against the system. They’re also villains, but we understand their complexity.” We root for the undead divas because they’re trying to win a game that’s rigged against them, and—to borrow an apocryphal quote from Ginger Rogers—they sort of have to do it “backwards and in high heels.”
“I think it’s really feminist that they’re willing to take their lives into their own hands,” Hoffer mused. “And do whatever it takes—be willing to spray-paint themselves and fill themselves with cement or whatever, to just uphold themselves and try to stay in command.”
Madeline and Helen are evil, vengeful bitches—but they’re also bold, ambitious, and demanding. In that sense they’ve spoken to women—
Queer or not—who’ve felt confined by the “likable” heroines of film and television. Like the glamour girls of classic Hollywood, Madeline and Helen are fierce and flawless, uncompromising and awe-striking. They’re the zombie equivalent of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford—two other divas adored by the queer community for their resilience, beauty, and daring.
And like Bette and Joan, they also display a hyper-femininity—va-va-voom curves, arched brows, and sexy sneers. In a patriarchal society that deems all things feminine to be verboten for men, of course Death Becomes Her became a beacon for gender-nonconforming children who fantasized about Old Hollywood glamour, dreamed of snapping back at the macho men who bullied them, or snuck off to try on their mother’s high heels.
Then, of course there’s the brash humor of two broads in full feud mode. “You don’t normally see a movie with two heavily made-up women sword-fighting with shovels and calling out catty retorts as they just decimate each other,” Hoffer noted. “I don’t know; it’s just so campy and over the top that it’s like, how could this not have been made for drag queens?”
The parallels are clear: Madeline and Helen use arduous makeovers to turn themselves into feminine caricatures that are ludicrous and alluring, larger than life and unrepentantly rich in eleganza. And Streep knew it, too: when interviewed by the Dallas Voice in 2016 for the release of Florence Foster Jenkins, the Oscar winner said she knew that Death Becomes Her would be a gay classic as soon as she sang the opening number: a campy song from a fictional musical version of the tragic Tennessee Williams drama Sweet Bird of Youth. “I thought, ‘Oh, all right, I’ll see this in a club somewhere.’ I mean, with lines like, ‘Now a warning?!’ I mean, come on! It was so much fun.”
Like any cult classic, the key to truly appreciating Death Becomes Her is re-watching it. “Oh it’s about beauty. It’s about a rivalry of women. It’s about one-liners,” says Campbell—all things better appreciated on repeated viewings. “I just think it’s clever and smart and funny. And I will go out on a limb with a theory—so many Goldie Hawn movies did not perform well in the 80s and 90s but now are classics based on their cable play. Somehow they are better at home in bed.”
Maybe that’s true. In theaters, audiences were shocked and confounded by seeing such likeable female stars daring to play such devious dames. (Variety’s review clutched its pearls over Streep’s “commanding shrillness” and Hawn’s “abrasive demands.”) But at home, fans discovered Death Becomes Her on their own terms. Hoffer recounted asking their mother to rent the movie over and over again as a child—until every line, every emphasis was committed to memory.
However they find it, Death Becomes Her is an elixir of life for its fans—one that not only spurs them to laugh at absurd vanity and suffocating heteronormativity, but gives them license to challenge those things. We can relate to Helen and Madeline’s rejection of tedious norms, and aspire to their determination to get what’s theirs. Death Becomes Her is a fantasy of defiance and power, beauty and eternal youth. And even if it ends as a nightmare for its anti-heroines, to its cult audience, they are eternally queens.