Thursday, September 29, 2011

THE PROBLEM WITH SEQUELS

According to the movie website Den of Geek (denofgeek.com) there are at least 95 sequels to existing movie franchises in some form of pre-production or production right now. Wow. Are there really that many properties out there that were so successful that they warrant sequels? Are there really people clamoring for CLOVERFIELD 2? CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK 3? DIE HARD 5 and 6? Apparently the studio executives think so. But more importantly, are they really necessary?
It seems Detective John McClane has nine lives as a 5th and 6th sequel to DIE HARD are in the works.
In my last post I pondered whether TV had eclipsed movies in terms of creativity and excellence. My opinion was that it had. Some of the shows you can find on HBO, Showtime, AMC and FX, and even the main four networks, are eminently smarter and more engaging than most big screen fare. And when I heard that Hollywood is making almost a hundred sequels it confirmed that movies have lost a lot of their mojo. If movie studios truly believe retreads and reboots are the surest path to profit, so be it, but it is not the surest path to making movies that matter.

Many movies lend themselves to sequels. The James Bond franchise is about to lens its 23rd entry. The crew of the Enterprise has kept audiences enthralled for over 40 years. And comic book movies, despite diminishing returns these days, have many new chapters to tell as their long print runs have proven. But most sequels have two big problems. First and foremost, their scripts are lazy, content to tread the same ground as before with precious little news added to the narrative. And two, sequels are usually overproduced and bloated because studios feel the need to make everything bigger and more extravagant. (Look! The new SHERLOCK HOLMES sequel has half a dozen more explosions and the girl with the dragon tattoo!)
The sequel to THE HANGOVER gave audiences too much of a sense of deja vu.

The laziness is the worst part. Too many sequels feel that all they have to do is follow the formula that made the original so successful and everyone will be happy. How wrong that thinking is. One need look no further than this past summer’s sequel to THE HANGOVER. It was so ridiculously slavish in following the first film’s plot points and gags that it felt more like a Xerox copy than a second chapter. Yes, it made money, but that’s because everyone wanted to see it. The audience scores, as well as the reviews, were dreadful. At least the filmmakers have promised to shake up the formula for the inevitable third one coming down the pike.
2012's SPIDER-MAN will tell the same origins story that the first Spidey movie told less than a decade ago.

Some sequels think they’re covering new territory by rebooting the franchise. This can make for a successful outing like X-MEN: FIRST CLASS that did tell its origin story with a younger cast, a unique Sixties time period, and a host of new mutants in its cast. But what are we to make of the upcoming reboot of SPIDER-MAN occurring less than a decade after the first film? Do we really need to see that origins story all over again? How many ways can you show Peter Parker getting bit by a radioactive spider? And I love what Chris Nolan has done with his BATMAN sequels but another Batman entry with Catwoman in it? Really? Even with an actress as comely as Anne Hathaway playing her, the Selina Kyle storyline may have been exhausted already by the likes of Michelle Pfeiffer and Halle Berry.  
It remains to be seen if the third big screen outing of Catwoman is sublime or ridiculous.

Then there are those sequels in the plans that are just plain head scratchers. Do we really need a third visit with stoned slackers BILL & TED a full twenty years after their last sequel? And what audience out there is demanding BEVERLY HILLS COP 4? Maybe if Eddie Murphy’s cop shook up the formula by traveling to England or Japan, but another go-round in Beverly Hills?  Yawn. Maybe the studio heads think the first GHOST RIDER was so wretched that a sequel could almost serve as a proper remake, but I doubt their intentions are noble.
Eddie Murphy's Axel Foley character will soon be seen in another sequel, still stuck in Beverly Hills.

Studios will tell you that sequels are so prevalent because they come with a built-in audience. They've already bought into the franchise. That may be true, but look at the actual marketing costs and you'll see that studios hedge their bets. They spend a ton on advertising. A tent pole sequel like PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: AT WORLD'S END cost over 300 million and its marketing costs were in excess of 150 million. That's 450 million spent before the film even opened.

Still, when I see a sequel, I am always hopeful that the film will aspire to follow the example of superior seconds like those of TOY STORY or the subsequent BOURNE features. But too often the sequels I see feel more like brokered deals, not entertainment. A fresh script becomes an afterthought as long as you can get the original cast back in the same room. But then you see what efforts like GHOSTBUSTERS 2 or AMERICAN PIE 3 and 4 are. Such sequels discourage audiences and make them think less fondly of their original source material. I love THE GODFATHER and THE GODFATHER PART II as much as the next guy, but the whole franchise is now tainted by its lame third effort. (Frankly, Michael Corleone's story was over after the second film. By the third outing, he became a crusty curmudgeon that is best forgotten.)
THE GODFATHER PART 3 just couldn't live up to the first two chapters in the saga.
I am always encouraged when I see a new film come out that is completely original. New in its story, new in its characters, something that I haven’t seen before. I’d rather see a MIDNIGHT IN PARIS or BEGINNERS any day of the week than another expensive, star-studded, CGI-driven sequel that really isn’t moving the story or the world of film forward in any meaningful way. And guess what? Both MIDNIGHT IN PARIS and BEGINNERS were hugely profitable. They cost a fraction of what most movies cost and made back their investment five-fold. If only Hollywood would use 200 million dollars to make 20 films that cost 10 million each rather than blowing that kind of cash on one dud like THE GREEN LANTERN we’d all be happier. And the industry could hold its head high both at the bank and at awards shows.
The story of Giselle made for the fun and frothy ENCHANTED but hardly warrants a sequel.

Perhaps there is a way to make a sequel like those planned for ENCHANTED, EASTERN PROMISES, and BAD SANTA, but I will believe it when I see it. (If I see them.) But I’d have preferred that Hollywood left well enough alone. Some stories don’t need sequels, even if there are millions to be made.

Guess that’s why they call it show business instead of show art. Me? I just call it sad.

Monday, September 19, 2011

IS TV BETTER THAN MOVIES?


After watching the Emmy's last night, I say yes. The quality of television that was honored last night is evidence of just how far the medium has surged past movies in these contemporary times. In fact, TV has become so good that we are now in the middle of a new golden age of the medium. The film world pales in comparison. Sure, there are wonderful films out there, but they have become fewer and farther in between. Instead what we mostly get are franchise reboots or sequels. Meanwhile, it’s TV that dares to create the more original and provocative work. Ignore the reality shows and anything with a Kardashian in it, and you’ll find amazing things on the small screen that trump most anything on the big screen these days. Particularly in genres that film used to own.
Bryan Cranston stars in BREAKING BAD on TV. (And in DRIVE in movie theaters)

Take thrillers, for instance. A movie like the just opened DRIVE is well made but its script is riddled with the same old clichés that virtually every other “lone wolf vs. the mob” thriller traffics in. Clint Eastwood or Sylvester Stallone made this type of movie a dozen times each. DRIVE is a triumph of style and mood but it’s painfully old hat with its obvious plotting and two-dimensional characters.

A better thriller, and one that also stars Bryan Cranston, is BREAKING BAD, now in its fourth season on the AMC cable channel. True, it has a loner battling the mob too, but that’s where similarities end. Its hero isn’t a handsome hunk like Ryan Gosling but rather a cranky, middle-aged cancer patient named Walt (the sublime Cranston). Walt used to teach chemistry in high school but now secretly cooks Meth for the mob so he can pay for his chemotherapy and assure his family’s financial well-being. It’s not glamorous or romantic like DRIVE with all of its midnight drives and longing looks between Gosling and damsel-in-distress Carey Mulligan. It’s ugly and dark and riveting in ways that most thrillers on the big screen have forgotten how to be. That’s because it twists and turns its narrative and never quite goes where you think it’s going. You won’t see anything as tense or as fresh anywhere on the big screen, not in the latest Jason Statham vehicle, not in the umpteenth Wolverine movie.  
Alexander Skarsgard and Stephen Moyer are superior vampires on TV's TRUE BLOOD.
And while we’re talking thrills and chills, compare movie vampires vs. TV vampires these days. A big movie vampire is a guy like the TWILIGHT series’ Edward Cullen. Some bloodsucker he is. He twinkles in the daylight, re-ups for high school every four years, and won’t hunt humans, preferring to nosh on small animals. (I feel sorry for the squirrels!) Meanwhile, over on HBO’s TRUE BLOOD series, the vamps are macho guys like Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer) and Eric Northman (Alexander Skarsgard) who like to bite, fight and f**k. Ladies, which bad boy would you rather have nibblin’ at your neck?

It’s amazing that horror can be done so much better on TV what with commercial breaks and all, but it's true. And the best scares today can be found on THE WALKING DEAD on AMC's network. What makes it so utterly scary is not its gore but rather how it shows normal citizenry turning monstrous to fight the zombies. Most horror movies would rather spend their time finding new ways to eviscerate teens than plum such psychological depths. How wrong.
Michael C. Hall as DEXTER, a serial killer hiding in the police department.

And isn’t Showtime's DEXTER (the all-American yet glowering Michael C. Hall) eminently more chilling than Jigsaw from SAW? What’s scarier, a dying old fart hiding behind a clown doll or a serial killer hiding in plain sight as a police blood spatter expert?

TV has always done comedy exceedingly well and that’s truer than ever today. How many movie comedies are as funny as ABC's MODERN FAMILY or Comedy Central's THE DAILY SHOW? There are more laughs in a mere 22 minutes of either of those comedic gems than most big screen comedies. 
The incredibly hilarious ensemble cast of ABC's MODERN FAMILY.
Even more amazing is that lately TV is doing period pieces as well as any film. One could easily put AMC's series MAD MEN or HBO's BOARDWALK EMPIRE or Masterpiece's DOWNTON ABBEY on PBS up against something like THE KING’S SPEECH and compare just as favorably. And the fact that TV does period just as exquisitely week in and week out is truly extraordinary.  
The cast of TV's MAD MEN, winner of four consecutive Emmys for best drama series.
Look, I love movies. And I know that the big screen can get out of its rut. The promising fall and winter slate of movies, from THE IDES OF MARCH to TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY, certainly will help. And 2011 has already seen some terrific movies too, like MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, BEGINNERS, THE HELP and HIGHER GROUND. But Hollywood needs to make more movies like this that are as smart and fresh. Tent pole epics are not delivering the audiences anymore, probably because they seem more like business calculations than entertainment. A movie’s goal should be to truly delight, not set up another multimillion dollar franchise. Stop with all the reboots and sequels and super heroes! Can you imagine what could have been made with the money that was put into a dud like THE GREEN LANTERN? Probably a dozen midnights in Paris. The mind reels.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

SAVE THE CAT!

I refuse to see the remake of STRAW DOGS opening this weekend for one distinct reason. The redneck villains in the movie kill the innocent couple’s cat. I know this because I read an article that said the remake follows the original closely, including this grisly scene where the protagonist couple returns home to find their pet hung in a closet. I hope my divulging that awful plot point will keep you from seeing something so egregious and unnecessary too.
Even though Blofeld was a villain in the James Bond movies he always treated his cat well.

Blofeld may have been an arch villain in the Bond movies, but he always treated his pet with the utmost of love and care. Unfortunately, too many other villains in movies these days are not as gracious. The killing of pets has become epidemic in thrillers and horror movies. As a film fan I loathe it because it’s lazy screenwriting. So many unimaginative hacks in Hollywood think that’s the way to cue nasty things-a-comin.’ But it’s become so prevalent in thrillers now that it is insulting. And as a loving owner of two adorable cats, I am deeply offended by Tinseltown’s reliance on such carelessness.  

If you’ve ever owned a pet, you know - Pets are members of the family. They are an integral part of your daily life. And to lose a pet, in any way, is devastating. But this is lost on the filmmakers in Hollywood who think a pet’s death is nothing more than a practice kill for their villain. But more and more, such events are stopping a film cold. It takes you out of a movie because of its awfulness. 


Blake Snyder wrote a book on screenwriting called Save The Cat. He called it that because one of his great pieces of advice for any script was to have the main character save a pet early in the story. That way the audience would be drawn to such a good and caring individual. Of course some in kind would think that the best way to cue a bad guy is for him to kill a pet. Perhaps that is true, but the more it’s done, the more filmmakers feel the need to up the ante of the previous film. And that means the killing of pets in thrillers is becoming more and more sadistic.

In the movie FEAR (1996) Reese Witherspoon’s psychotic boyfriend Mark Wahlberg and his thug friends start an assault on her family’s home by cutting off the head of the family dog and shoving it through the doggy door. After that it’s hard to believe anyone wouldn’t hesitate to kill any of the perpetrators instantly, but Reese’s family does. And we lose sympathy for them because of their fickleness. The list of films guilty of such outrage is getting longer and longer. Here are just a few examples from the last decade: the remake of WILLARD in 2003 (a pet cat is killed and eaten by a pack of rats); THE HILLS HAVE EYES remake in 2006 (the family German shepherd is the first victim); and DRAG ME TO HELL in 2009 (The heroine kills her pet kitten as part of a voodoo ritual). 
Marley and Owen Wilson in MARLEY AND ME (2009)

Sometimes the onscreen death of an animal is vital to the story. In a movie like 2009’s hit MARLEY & ME, the family pet is dying and put down mercifully in the vet’s office. That scene was devastating but in a more meaningful way. But when horror movies and thrillers kill pets these days, it is merely for the cheapest and vilest of scares. It's sickening.

Scriptwriters need to learn a lesson from the sci-fi horror classic ALIEN (1979). In that movie, the cat was in harm’s way many times but never got killed. The horrible creature from outer space simply had too much respect for another animal to kill it. And Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) felt the same way. She destroyed the villainous alien but saved the innocent cat.
Sigourney Weaver did the right thing in ALIEN (1979)


That Blake Snyder, he was onto something.

Friday, September 9, 2011

MY FAVORITE FEMALE DRAMATIC PERFORMANCE ON FILM


This was a tough one.

There are so many great choices, wow, are there great choices! I could easily make a case for just about any performance by these actresses I love: Ingrid Bergman, Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Jane Fonda, Barbra Streisand, Vanessa Redgrave, Catherine Deneuve, Meryl Streep or Kate Winslet. Some of my specific runners-up included Olivia DeHavilland in THE HEIRESS, Maria Falconetti in THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, Gloria Swanson in SUNSET BOULVARD and Marion Cotillard in LA VIE EN ROSE. But ultimately my favorite female performance in a drama is a perfect match of great actress and role:

Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara in GONE WITH THE WIND.
Original caricature of Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara in GONE WITH THE WIND (copyright 2011)
I was a latecomer to this classic film from 1939. For some inexplicable reason, perhaps its length, I had never seen GONE WITH THE WIND all the way through until about a decade ago. I finally got the chance to view it in its entirety during a business trip to Santa Monica in the late 1990’s. The movie was being revived at a theater on the Third Street Promenade and I had a free afternoon so I decided to finally take it in. As I sat listening to the sweeping overture that preceded the movie I knew I was in for a treat. What I didn’t know was that I would walk out at the end of those four hours and immediately go back in and buy a ticket to see it again. I did so because I had to see Leigh’s marvel of a performance again right away.

Obviously a legendary film like GWTW has so much to recommend. It’s a great story and an important one, politically and socially. David Selznick’s incredibly detailed production is still a marvel from its lush cinematography to its exquisite costumes to Max Steiner’s hauntingly romantic score. The movie was expensive and expansive but also incredibly intimate. The story never loses focus on its lead. And Vivien Leigh holds our interest as Scarlett the entire time. She mesmerizes us, bewitches us, just as Scarlett does to all those who meet her. 
The character of Scarlett O’Hara is one of the most complex characters ever put up on the screen. She is a walking contradiction: both woman and child, sometimes selfish and other times selfless, often caring, too often vicious. Scarlett, like her name, burns with a fire that no one can extinguish. Her lusts, her passions, her temper, they’re too hot for anyone to handle, especially in the quaint and cordial old South. To find an actress to play such a mercurial and complex character, producer Selznick had his work cut out for him. He auditioned hundreds of actresses, finally settling on Leigh. She was an unknown, a Brit whose only real experience was on the stage. But Leigh was a natural for the medium of film. She became an instant star. Leigh brought intensity to the role of Scarlett that blazes throughout. Why, the inferno that takes down Atlanta couldn’t hold a candle to her.

It is astounding to me that Margaret Mitchell’s book became such a bestseller and that the movie is so beloved by the masses because at the center of the story stands a woman who is in many ways a monster. She dishes out pain and drama wherever she goes. She is hurtful, spiting, and very possibly sociopathic. Yet we understand the motives behind her actions because Leigh invests so much commitment in them. It draws us in, like moths to the flame. 

And of course it is entirely intentional that the great love of Scarlett’s life is with a man whose name is as fiery as hers. Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) is Scarlett’s only equal: a man who is as stubborn and as selfish as she is. They’re perfect for each other but also disastrous together. Scarlett needs a complementary color to counter her excesses but the cool Ashley isn’t up to the task. Only Rhett is, even though it renders their relationship as dysfunctional as any portrayed on the big screen before or since. That we care for these two is a testament to Leigh and Gable both. They find deep wells of humanity in their character’s bad behavior. And they also play up the maverick qualities that Mitchell wrote for both of these firebrands ahead of their time. Rhett recognized that the way of the old South was a fool’s nostalgia. Scarlett is a smart cookie too, thinking for herself and defying the rigid rules of the time. They’re smart, accessible actors who compel us towards them.

Leigh wears every emotion on her sleeve as brazenly as Scarlett wore that dress made from the drapes, using her incredible eyes and a cocked eyebrow to draw us in to the inner workings of her character. Scarlett may not want to listen to the advice from Mammy (Hattie McDaniel) but Leigh’s eyes let us know that she takes her slave’s word as gospel. Scarlett may defend Ashley endlessly but Leigh’s eyes let us know that she’s bitterly disappointed by all of his weaknesses too. And even though Scarlett hisses at Rhett, Leigh’s arched eyebrow clues us in to the fact that she just can’t wait to be taken upstairs and kissed. And often. And by someone who knows how.

The role of Scarlett was gigantic and Vivien Leigh made it even bigger. It is a performance that excites me, frightens me, and leaves my jaw on the floor every time. I only wish that I had seen it sooner.

Now it’s your turn. There are so many amazing actresses and performances to choose from. What’s yours?

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

MY FAVORITE MALE DRAMATIC PERFORMANCE ON FILM


Picking a favorite male dramatic performance is difficult as there are just so many to choose from. I could probably make the case for a dozen or so. Al Pacino in THE GODFATHER, Paul Newman in THE VERDICT, Alistair Sim in SCROOGE, and William Holden in SUNSET BOULEVARD, those were just a few of my runners-up. In the end though I’ve picked a performance that has so many shadings and nuances to it. And it is always a marvel to watch it, viewing after viewing after viewing. It’s Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (1960).

(NOTE: If you haven’t seen PSYCHO be warned as I will be giving spoilers away throughout this blog entry.) 
Why Norman Bates/Mrs. Bates (Anthony Perkins) wouldn't hurt a fly in the last scene of PSYCHO.
For starters, Perkins’ performance is an extraordinary achievement because when you see the movie the first time Norman seems fairly innocent. He comes across as an earnest, hard-working, well-intentioned young man, a bit eccentric and troubled perhaps, but at first a very nice guy. The worst we think of him throughout the movie is that he’s protecting his mother and covering up for her fiendishness. Then all that changes with the last 10 minutes of the movie and everything that preceded it demands to be viewed differently. Norman is not the innocent he appeared to be but rather, a psychotic and deceitful monster.

When I watched PSYCHO the second time, after knowing what really happened, every act of Norman’s now meant something completely different. His hesitation in assigning Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) room #1 at first seemed merely like awkwardness but in actuality it shows the calculation of a dangerous man. When the gently intrepid detective Arboghast (Martin Balsam) gets the best of Bates during his questioning we feel sorry for the naïve Norman but after a second viewing, you cringe because you realize that the cop is poking the lion and sealing his own doom. Even Norman’s taxidermy, which seemed like merely an eccentric hobby, means a whole helluva lot more. And some of his lines are so laden with irony they almost make you laugh, as when Norman tells Marion, “Mother, uh, what is the phrase? She isn't quite herself today.” 
Anthony Perkins was a tall, handsome leading man before he took on the role in PSYCHO.

At the climax when Norman rushes to the cellar to knife Marion’s suspicious sister Lila (Vera Miles) the two impressions of the man collide in the same scene. Lila can’t imagine why Norman is dressed up in drag. She thought he was just a nervous young man covering up something about her sister’s disappearance. But we in the audience are forced to see things as they truly are. Norman is not what we thought he was. And this new clarity changes everything that has gone on beforehand.

None of this could have worked so brilliantly had it not been for Perkins’ astute rendering of Norman. If he had tipped his hand too early, revealing Norman’s evil side too transparently, the audience would have gotten ahead of the story and the rest of the narrative would have been ruined. If Perkins had played Bates too naively, without the shades of gray conveying pride, intelligence, even a sense of humor, then we wouldn’t buy that rug pull when it showed up and realized that there was so much more to Norman. It was a very tricky, delicate task but throughout Perkins deftly walked the tight rope between being victim and villain.

My favorite scene in the movie is in the parlor where Norman and Marion enjoy sandwiches and conversation. It’s probably the longest and most intimate discussion Norman has ever had in his life. It thrills him to have a beautiful woman interested in him, even flirting a bit. But the talk also scares him because he’s not used to chat being so personal. Marion draws Norman out and he responds by being cordial, laughing, and letting go of his shyness. And the audience responds in kind and is drawn to him. If Perkins hadn’t succeeded right there the rest of the movie would not have worked. We have to find Norman likable and root for him in some way. After all, Janet Leigh only has a few more moments to live and the rest of the picture requires a character for us to empathize with. Perkins ensures that by playing Norman as both likable and mysterious. We want to know more about him and we invest in this troubled man. 
Norman enjoys the company of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), albeit for a short time.
I love the way Perkins uses his nervous energy throughout the role. Norman looks like a clean-cut, all-American boy but he’s never very comfortable. He appears always on edge. Something isn’t quite right there. Perkins suggests that Norman is not all that he appears to be. And in doing so, he properly sets up the big payoff at the end.  But even though Norman turns out to be quite monstrous, Perkins never lets us lose sight of the sadness consuming the man. Norman is a loner, a lost child never allowed to really grow up, and thus destined to fail in the complicated adult world.  

Perkins plays it all with such tenderness and tragedy and I think, more than anything else, that is what has given PSYCHO its true legendary status. Yes, Hitchcock was working at the top of his game, and Joseph Stefano’s script is brilliantly tight and clever, and Bernard Hermann’s all-strings score enriches the terror and suspense and has become a classic. But if you don’t care about Norman you don’t care about the film. Janet Leigh dies 45 minutes into the proceedings. The rest is all Norman Bates.
Norman is aghast at the things his 'mother' has done. And so are we.

Perkins was so good as Norman Bates that it changed the trajectory of his career. Before PSYCHO he was a tall, handsome leading man. But his Norman was so vivid that it typecast him. It was too big of an achievement to shake. He turned Norman Bates into an icon: our age's Doctor Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, a split personality with good and evil spectacularly at play in the same man. Perkins characterization of Norman has had tremendous influence in the horror and thriller genres. It can be evidenced in the well-mannered and soft-spoken psychos rendered onscreen since, from Hannibal Lecter to Patrick Bateman to Dexter Morgan to Anton Chigurgh. But none of them create as much sympathy as Perkins did with Norman. Even in the last moments of the film, you can’t help but feel sorry for the lost boy in police custody, asking for a blanket to keep warm. By then the personality of his mother has completely taken him over. Tragically. Hitchcock even super-imposes the grinning skull of Mrs. Bates upon the face of Norman. But when you watch that final scene again, tell me that Perkins’ humanity isn’t still there. He makes this monster worthy of sympathy still. And that might be the most haunting part of it all.
 
So who gets your vote for favorite dramatic male lead in a movie? There are so many great ones to choose from, I know your choice (or choices) will be wonderful. So please share with all of us and as always, thanks for following.

Friday, September 2, 2011

MY FAVORITE FEMALE COMEDIC PERFORMANCE ON FILM

My choice here is going to surprise some. It’s not from an actress generally thought of as a comedic one. But my pick is the greatest actress in the movies - Meryl Streep. And if you’ve ever seen her in the wicked 1992 black comedy DEATH BECOMES HER you’d realize there is nothing she cannot do. 
Original caricature of Meryl Streep in DEATH BECOMES HER (copyright 2011)
Streep is mostly known for her heavy dramatic roles but she has soared in a few deft comedies along the way like THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA and JULIE & JULIA. And in Robert Zemeckis’ inspired satire on Hollywood’s youth obsession, she achieves something truly special. She creates one of the greatest, bitchiest and most hilarious vamps in film history.

The character Streep plays is Madeline Ashton, an aging Hollywood actress well past her prime and forever in fear of the mirror. Her life is filled with disappointment. No roles. No acclaim. She’s like Norma Desmond from SUNSET BOULEVARD but with more self-awareness. Madeline suffers at home too. She’s in a dead-end marriage to the doddering Ernest (Bruce Willis), a once-promising surgeon now reduced to undertaker work due to his drinking problem. And when her longtime rival Helen (Goldie Hawn) shows up looking not a day over 30, Madeline feels compelled to compete and do whatever it takes to drop as many years off her looks as possible. Then she hears about a magic potion making the rounds in Tinseltown that stops the aging process. She discovers it is a veritable Fountain of Youth in a bottle and is drawn like a moth to a flame.
Lisle Von Rhuman (Isabella Rossellini) explains how to achieve immortality in DEATH BECOMES HER.

Streep hilariously captures the shadings of an actress fighting time and show biz’ youth obsession. She exquisitely lampoons an arrogant woman, once the belle of the ball, now yesteryear’s golden girl. I’m sure Streep's seen firsthand how show business chews up and spits out its actresses. She captures that humiliation in a way that is poignant but still very, very funny.

My favorite line in a movie from the last 20 years is delivered by her right after she drinks the expensive elixir offered to her by the sensual and mystery Lisle Von Rhuman (a surprisingly hilarious Isabelle Rosselini). Rhuman has convinced Madeline to cough up a check with a lot of zeros by telling her she’s over 100 years old and the potion not only restores youth but it actually stops the aging process altogether. Madeline drinks and Lisle says, “Now a warning.” And then Streep repeats the line as a question. “Now a warning?!” The horror and shock in her voice makes me bust a gut every time. Madeline is a pampered, coddled coward who wants no stress and no problems. And the thought of side effects is way beyond her consideration set.

Ignoring the warning to take good care of her body as she must live with what happens to it forever, that ends up dooming Madeline. The concoction makes Madeline beautiful on the outside but of course it doesn’t re-do the ugliness of her soul. She becomes even more vain and careless. And when she decides to dump Ernest she insults him repeatedly, viciously, albeit hilariously. And it leads to a  horrific twist of fate for her. And I do mean twist of fate. Just watch.
After that shocking scene, DEATH BECOMES HER becomes truly the darkest comedy Hollywood has dared make in a generation or two. Madeline gained eternal life but she hasn’t taken care of her body as she was advised to do. So she lives, but with a broken neck and other injuries. They’ll multiply over the last hour of the film and each is a greater insult to this preening monster. I won’t spoil the rest of the story for you if you haven’t seen it, but I will tell you that Helen’s youth is not all it appears to be either. DEATH BECOMES HER savages the desperation in La-La Land to stay young at absolutely any cost. And if you can laugh at the pain, you will have a wonderful time watching this modern ‘Frankenstein’ tale.

Streep’s physicality in the role is a comedic tour de force. As she stumbles around, broken, dead skin peeling off her dilapidated body, she is both sad and funny. Madeline is a lost little girl wounded by the demands of Hollywood. Literally and figuratively.

Meryl Streep has gone from the hot young thing in Hollywood to veteran character actor. She has been a star for over 30 years and she is a marvel in almost every movie. And her rare comic turns are something to be relished. They are special little gems, like DEATH BECOMES HER. Streep is always fearless. She dives right in to every role. And as Madeline, she takes a few dives down the stairs that will make you howl. And it’s my favorite female comedy performance because of it. 
Helen (Goldie Hawn) and Madeline (Meryl Streep) are not quite themselves in DEATH BECOMES HER.

Tell me, what is your favorite female comedy performance on film? Madeline Kahn in WHAT’S UP, DOC? Babs in FUNNY GIRL? Katherine Hepburn in BRINGING UP BABY? Share your favorite here and we’ll keep the conversation going.