It’s easy to dismiss Robert Zemeckis’ Death Becomes Her (1992) as an example of the absurdity of ‘90s movies. After all, the premise is sufficiently whack: Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn play frenemies who, in their war over a sniveling mortician – Ernest, played by Bruce Willis – drink a magic potion that provides eternal youth. At first glance, the movie is a slapstick vehicle that allows Streep and Hawn to highlight their dark comedy skills (Streep spends a chunk of the movie with her head twisted backward and Hawn walks around with a giant hole in her stomach). But on closer examination, this movie is actually an excellent representation of our collective obsession with youth – specifically, the female incentive against aging and male privilege when it comes to the issue.
As far as metaphors go, this one is pretty heavy handed: Streep and Hawn literally drink from the fountain of youth. When it comes to placing a premium on youth, you don’t get much clearer than that. Their motives, however, are slightly more nuanced. Streep plays Madeline Ashton, an actress whose “glory years” are slowly fading thanks to her “advancing age.” It’s necessary to use these quotation marks because even though Madeline is painted as over the hill, it’s worth noting that Streep was only 43 when this movie was made. Although she plays Madeline until over 50 in the film, that’s hardly a senior citizen. But this is what it’s actually like in Hollywood, and in the real world too. Women are deemed less valuable after a certain age. It’s typical for a woman to feel like she’s being “put out to pasture” at the ripe age of 30, in favour of younger women who have yet to make the same life mistakes that inevitably end up etched on their faces. This is especially true in the superficial world Madeline lives in, where an actress’ best years are only when she is young, and it’s true in the sexual sense too. To illustrate the latter, Madeline is rejected by her younger lover for an even younger female lover. It’s no wonder she goes running for the magic potion.
For Hawn’s character, Helen Sharp, the desire to stay young (and therefore beautiful) is motivated by a rivalry with Madeline. On the surface, it seems like Helen wants Ernest back from Madeline, but really, she only wants to best Madeline. Competition between the two women is what spurs the desire for youth. It’s Helen who drinks the potion first, and her newfound youth brings her success and fame. Youth is a type of currency, a definite source of power, and with her newfound youth, Helen finally has the power over Madeline and the ability to win Ernest back, which is an afterthought more than anything.
Speaking of Ernest, Bruce Willis’ character offers the male viewpoint in this war against aging. While the women in the film fight hard to stay young, literally blowing themselves to pieces in the process, Ernest is completely unaffected. In fact, at one point he is provided with the opportunity to drink the magic potion, and he rejects it. He has no reason to drink it, because he is okay with growing old. And of course he would be; he’s allowed to grow old and wrinkly without judgment. This is a benefit of being a man: he has the privilege of living out life as an old man, instead of a woman whose value is often placed on her looks, which are directly affected by her youth. That’s the way it plays out in this movie.
At the end of the film, we witness Ernest’s funeral. During the funeral, the pastor talks about how Ernest discovered the secret of eternal youth – through his family, a litter of children that he had in his 50s, which is another privilege that men enjoy. Like Ernest, most men can have kids until their old age, while women are relegated to a prime window of time only. Of course Ernest was able to reject the magic potion and live his life as an old man: there is no limit on what he can do. He completes his life blissfully climbing mountains, totally unconcerned with the ravages of time because no one will ever judge him or deem him less useful of a man because he’s aging. Helen and Madeline attend his funeral, cackling in the back row, perhaps aware of the irony.
While Death Becomes Her will never be deemed one of Zemeckis’ greatest films, and it may very well be regarded by those who view it as a shallow, fantastical film, it does speak to the panic that specifically women feel when it comes to aging. It highlights the premium we place on youth as a society, and the unfair ways this premium is distributed between men and women – and it feeds on the panic that leads women to purchase anti-aging creams with fervency.