Perhaps the only outright comedy on this list, Death Becomes Her is a great comedic companion to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane’s critique of the star-making machine for actresses, aging in Hollywood, and venomous jealousy in female friendships. Madeline (Meryl Streep) and Helen (Goldie Hawn) are old rivals, but still friendly until Madeline, a Broadway actress, steals novelist Helen’s doctor husband Ernest (Bruce Willis, who should’ve played the schmuck more often) away from her. We flash forward first to a fat Helen who cannot let go of Madeline’s success when she herself has failed, then later to a miserable Madeline whose marriage to Ernest (now doing reconstructive work on corpses) has fallen apart due to her vanity and his drinking. The two rivals reunite at a party for Helen’s book release, where Madeline is shocked to find Helen looking impossibly young, thin, and full of vitality — she’s just ignored her own facialist’s suggestion to go see a woman named Lisle (Isabella Rossellini) for a true cure for aging.
Furious about Helen’s success and rejected by her young lover, Madeline goes to see Lisle, and and finds out about the secret to eternal youth: a magic potion that will make her beautiful forever, but she’ll have to retreat from the public eye (the horror!) after ten years so no one grows suspicious. Madeline accepts the terms and the cost of the potion, but like the monkey’s paw, every bargain in horror has a price — while she’s been away, Helen has seduced Ernest once again, and they’ve decided to kill Madeline. When an argument between she and Ernest turns violent, Madeline falls down some stairs and breaks her neck, but of course, she doesn’t die — in one of the film’s funniest sequences, Ernest takes her to the ER, where no doctor (even an uncredited Sydney Pollack) can figure out how she’s still alive, but Ernest sees this as miraculous, and steals Madeline back from the morgue to take her home for repairs. Helen arrives then too, and an enraged Madeline shoots her in the stomach with a shotgun…only to find out that she too has been given the secret to eternal youth and beauty from Lisle, and cannot be killed either. From there, the two bitter rivals must learn to work together to survive the horrors of eternal life, bickering each step of the way.
Robert Zemeckis’s film takes concerns about female beauty and youth to a surreal degree — the Oscar-winning visual effects are an extreme take on the lengths some women go to to stay young, but in an age of anal bleaching, blood facials, eyelash implants, and tongue splitting, Death Becomes Her’s satire of plastic surgery culture feels all the more relevant. Likewise, by grounding the story in a long-standing rivalry between two formerly good friends, we see just how the pursuit of aesthetic perfection and jealousy over romantic relationships can drive two women apart. It certainly helps that this film, like Baby Jane, features two powerhouse, older female leads in Streep and Hawn and while there’s no notorious rivalry to speak of in their past, it does seem like each actress has quite a bit of fun jabbing at the other. Madeline and Helen’s feuding over Ernest is especially hilarious given Bruce Willis’ schlubby appearance in the film, which seems to be a comment on female territoriality when it comes to men — Ernest may be a schlemiel, but he’s also the most decent character of the film’s central trio, and that’s enough to engage Madeline and Helen.
I wanted to include this film on the list because it so deftly uses black comedy to explore very real concerns about vanity, aging, professional and romantic rivalries for women approaching middle-age. There’s always a sense of competition among professional women to be the best at “having it all,” and Madeline and Helen’s bodily destruction of one another takes that competition to a surreal degree. It’s a true treat to watch Streep and Hawn passively, then violently, snipe at one another, and the film’s EC comics ending — which finds a feuding Madeline and Helen, their immortality held together by spray paint and bondo, falling down steps at Ernest’s funeral 40 years in the future, and still unable to stop pestering each other even when reduced to severed heads — is a perfect thematic conclusion to their rivalry. In an era where social media dominates so much of our daily lives, where everyone is constantly comparing themselves to others and feeling inadequate as a result, the ultimate message of the film becomes more resonant. When well-executed, horror and comedy make a fantastic pair, and Death Becomes Her, like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? before it understands that the black comedy that comes from combining those genres can be used to explore some complex issues about life for aging women.