Films that deserve a more dignified home video release: Death Becomes Her
*This column is one in which we look at different films that we feel should get better treatment regarding release to the public, based on their content and behind-the-scenes material*
For me, 1986-1990 was a 5 year period in which I came to know the name of my favorite director: Robert Zemeckis. It was during this time, that Zemeckis and his friend Bob Gale finally got their film Back to the Future made, which also ended up becoming a trilogy. Zemeckis also worked with Steven Spielberg to direct Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a film which was a prime example of how Zemeckis would use effects to not just be showstopping visuals, but also enhance and tell a story.
So, after those 5 years, where did Zemeckis decide to go? Why, into the realm of dark comedy, of course! In a way, Death Becomes Her almost feels like an extended episode of Tales From The Crypt (the HBO television anthology series, which Zemeckis was executive producer of).
The film opens in 1978, where we are introduced to starlet, Madeline Astor (Meryl Streep) as she performs in a Broadway show. Also in attendance, is her childhood friend, Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn), and Helen’s fiance, Ernest Menville (Bruce Willis), a plastic surgeon. Shortly thereafter, Helen’s world is turned upside-down when Ernest is charmed by Madeline, and marries her! After this, Helen falls into a deep-seated depression.
We then cut to the present day (aka 1992), in which Madeline is a fading starlet attempting to keep her looks. Ernest meanwhile, has become an alcoholic, and is now a mortician. Madeline and Ernest are soon invited to a book signing for a self-help book Helen has written, and are surprised when Helen is revealed to look even better than Madeline!
After seeing her exasperated at her aging appearance, a person at a rejuvenation clinic Madeline goes to gives her the card of a woman named Lisle. At the end of her rope, Madeline goes to meet with Lisle, who is willing to sell her a special potion, that can stop the aging process, and allow her to live forever (“Sempre Viva,” as Lisle says).
While the Summer of 1992 had plenty of big films like Batman Returns, Death Becomes Her didn’t come close to reaching the box-office that Zemeckis’ last 4 efforts had achieved. Some have said dark comedies are a hard sell for the American audience, and that summer, it proved to be true (Death grossed the lowest amount of money next to Zemeckis’ first two films, I Wanna Hold Your Hand, and Used Cars).
Though it faded quickly at the end of the summer, the film’s name would be revived come awards season, when it took home numerous awards for its ground-breaking visual effects. Much like The Abyss and Terminator 2, Death would take advantage of new computer-generated effects from Industrial Light & Magic, notably in the creation of digital skin for a few scenes. The film’s place in the history of Industrial Light & Magic’s computer graphics revolution put it right before the release of what would truly signal the digital revolution: 1993’s Jurassic Park.
When it came to the home video market, the film became one of those casualties of less-popular releases. We weren’t expecting a lot from video cassettes at the time, but when DVD’s came along, Universal Pictures committed one of the ultimate release ‘crimes.’ While they did put the film on DVD, the release only came formatted to fit the average television set (aka pan-and-scan!). As it stands today, the only way to see a wide-screen release of the film in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, is if you own the laserdisc.
As the marketplace has begun to fill up with all sorts of films being released on the Blu-Ray disc format, many have wondered why Universal Pictures has not yet released this film. There’s even a petition on Facebook that has over 400 likes. Then again, Universal is a studio that loves to dip multiple times into the well of more well-known films (take all the different releases for the American Pie and Mummy movies).
Of course, while many of us would expect better picture quality (not to mention a letterboxed aspect ratio!), there are plenty of features one could include with a new release. Here are some of my thoughts:
1) Audio Commentary – It would be quite a coup to get Meryl Streep, Goldie Hawn, and Bruce Willis to all sit down for an audio commentary, but I doubt you could. In my mind, I’d imagine an audio commentary consisting of Director Robert Zemeckis, Screenwriters David Koepp and Matt Donovan, and Visual Effects Supervisor Ken Ralston. There was a similar grouping on the Who Framed Roger Rabbit commentary, and I think these four would be able to keep the commentary lively (no pun intended).
2) The Alternate Cut -Unknown to a lot of people, the final film differs from the original cut, due to a test screening before its theatrical release. Comedian Tracy Ullman was featured as a bartender named Toni who befriends Ernest, and becomes the only true friend he has in his miserable existence. Ullman’s appearance actually did make it into a few scenes shown on the film’s trailers, but after the test screening, all her footage was cut from the final release, and several scenes were rewritten and re-shot (including the ending). With these scenes, they could either give us both the original and theatrical cuts, or they could always just include Ullman’s parts as ‘deleted scenes,’ and just give a small blurb from the filmmakers, talking about how the scenes were rejected.
3) Original Behind-the-Scenes Material –During the making of the film, a 9-minute special was assembled, showing the cast and crew, as well as camera set-ups, and several of the major visual effects setups.
4) Visual Effects retrospective – There have to be special effects tests, and possibly some discussion from Ken Ralston and several other people, regarding not just the digital effects, but even the films makeup effects that made Goldie Hawn look obese in one scene, as well as the various makeup effects also used on Meryl and Bruce.
5) Theatrical Trailers – After all, we cannot have special features without a gallery of these.
It does feel odd how we got Zemeckis’ first two films released with at least an audio commentary in in the last 7 years, but we have not seen anything at all regarding Death Becomes Her. Even his first major hit Romancing the Stone got released with deleted scenes, and several retrospective featurettes.
In a way, Zemeckis seems to love the idea of dark humor. He and his screenwriting friend Bob Gale kept trying to pitch a film called Bordello of Blood for many years, before it finally got made in the early 1990’s. As well, Zemeckis and Gale were also the writers for Steven Spielberg’s 1941, which was pretty un-PC in a lot of areas, and took a more humorist approach to American paranoia in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Death Becomes Her even channels some of Zemeckis’ love of having his characters interact with/inspire historical figures, such as at Lisle’s party which she throws for all the people who have taken her potion. The guest list even includes Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, and James Dean.
Plus, there’s a great little gag when Madeline finds out that Helen took the potion too. When Madeline demands to know when she took it, Helen responds with “October 26, 1985.” For those who are fans of Zemeckis’ work, this was the date in Back to the Future when Marty Mcfly went back in time.
As this year marks the 20th Anniversary of the film, one would hope there would be some kind of release on the horizon from Universal Pictures. Then again, they’re probably busy prepping that American Pie boxed set that will include this year’s American Reunion.