Friday, September 2, 2011


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.


  1. Whoa, really? Not even a nod to Cloris Leachman in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN?

    I really disliked DEATH BECOMES HER so much that I probably didn't pay much attention to Meryl Streep's performance.

    I think one of the unsung performances is Anne Ramsey in THROW MOMMA FROM THE TRAIN. While her performance seems very one dimensional on the surface (screaming "OWEN" over and over again), the movie would have been nothing without her.

    But for recent films, love, love, love Ellen Page in Juno. She so elegantly and believably delivered Diablo Cody's words.

    (and a final shout out to Kristen Wiig - SO much funnier off SNL. DEWEY COX's wife for the win!)

  2. Indeed, Cloris Leachman warrants mention. For her turn as Nurse Diesel in HIGH ANXIETY as well! ("He who is late...does not get...fruit cup.")

    Sorry that you don't share the same opinion of DEATH BECOMES HER, but that's one of the great things about this forum here. I want to hear all opinions, especially those that disagree. That makes the conversation all the more interesting!

    I love that you mentioned Anne Ramsey and Kristen Wiig too. Wiig was superb in BRIDESMAIDS this summer.

    And I adore Ellen Page. She was brilliant in JUNO. BTW did you see her in SUPER? She's very different there, a little psycho and very sexually aggressive and she pulls that off quite humorously there. As opposed to HARD CANDY where she was similar but frightening as hell!

  3. In another tribute to the older generation, nobody curses, screams and “god-damns” her way to more laughs, while trying to convince her co-stars she is a helpless old woman, than the toughest old lady in comedy I ever saw, the brilliant Ruth Gordon.

    “A whole goddamn bag of Oreo’s!”

    Here she is, sharper than ever at age 82, in EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE (1978), letting loose on Clint Eastwood, and Clyde:

  4. I love Ruth Gordon too. BTW she was a screenwriter for decades before she tried her hand at acting. She and Garson Kanin wrote some of the best Spencer Tracy & Katherine Hepburn comedies in the 1940's and 1950's like ADAM'S RIB and PAT & MIKE. I particularly liked her evil turn in ROSEMARY'S BABY and her touching and fun work HAROLD & MAUDE.

  5. Ruth Gordon's performance in Harold and Maude merits great consideration for the best female comedic performance on film. My personal choice, even though the film isn't considered a "comedy," is Frances McDormand in Fargo. What she achieves in that film is nothing short of extraordinary--you almost could eliminate her and make the film entirely about Bill Macy's character and the bumbling but dangerous stooges played by Buscemi and Peter Stormare, but if you were to eliminate Marge Gunderson you'd have no movie. She gives Fargo its soul, and manages to make you love her from the moment she leans over to barf in the snow. Extraordinary. And now I have to watch Death Becomes Her.

  6. Jeremy, Ruth Gordon is a great choice and has placed here a couple of times so it's nice to know she still has her fans. As for Frances McDormand, well that is one fantastic pick! She's one of the best actresses around and indeed, she made FARGO the incredibly special movie that it was.