In 1978, narcissistic, manipulative actress Madeline Ashton performs in a campy musical version of Sweet Bird of Youth on Broadway. She invites long-time rival Helen Sharp, an aspiring writer, backstage along with Helen's fiancé, plastic surgeon Ernest Menville. Ernest is smitten with Madeline, and breaks off his engagement with Helen to marry her. Helen winds up in a psychiatric hospital after fixating upon Madeline. Obese and depressed, Helen feigns rehabilitation and is released, plotting revenge on Madeline.
Seven years later, Madeline lives in Beverly Hills with Ernest, but they are miserable. Madeline's career has faded, and Ernest is an alcoholic reduced to working as a reconstructive mortician. Receiving an invitation to a party celebrating Helen's new book, Madeline rushes to a spa where she regularly receives facial treatments. Understanding Madeline's situation, the spa owner gives her the business card of Lisle von Rhoman, a woman specializing in youth rejuvenation.
Madeline and Ernest attend the party for Helen's novel, Forever Young, and discover Helen is slim, youthful and beautiful. Dumbfounded and depressed by Helen's appearance, Madeline visits her young lover but discovers he is with a woman his age. Dejected, Madeline drives to Lisle's home. Lisle is a mysterious, wealthy socialite claiming to be 71, but looks much younger. She reveals to Madeline the secret of her beauty: an expensive potion that promises eternal life and an ever-lasting youthful appearance. Madeline purchases and drinks the potion and is rejuvenated. As a condition of purchase, Madeline must disappear from public life after ten years to keep the existence of the potion secret. Lisle warns Madeline to take good care of her body.
Helen seduces Ernest and convinces him to kill Madeline. When Madeline returns home, she and Ernest argue, during which Madeline falls down the stairs, breaking her neck. Believing Madeline dead, Ernest phones Helen for advice, not seeing Madeline stand and approach him with her head twisted backward. Ernest assumes she has a dislocated neck and drives her to the emergency room. Madeline is told she is technically dead and faints. She is taken to the morgue due to her body having no pulse and a temperature below 80°F. After rescuing Madeline, Ernest takes the sign of her "resurrection" as a miracle, returns home with Madeline and uses his skills to repair her body.
Helen demands information about Madeline's situation. Overhearing Helen and Ernest discussing their plot to stage Madeline's death, Madeline shoots Helen with a shotgun. Although the blast creates a hole in her stomach, Helen survives, revealing that she drank the same potion. Fed up with the pair, Ernest prepares to leave, but Helen and Madeline convince him to do one last repair on their bodies. They realize they will need constant maintenance and scheme to have Ernest drink the potion to ensure he will always be available.
After bringing Ernest to Lisle, she offers to give him the potion free of charge in exchange for his surgical skills. Ernest refuses rather than being immortal. He pockets the potion and flees, but becomes trapped on the roof. Helen and Madeline implore Ernest to drink the potion to survive an impending fall. Ernest refuses and drops the potion to the ground several stories below, but after falling he lands in Lisle's pool and escapes. After Lisle banishes Madeline and Helen from her group, the pair realize they must rely on each other for companionship and maintenance.
Thirty-seven years later, Madeline and Helen attend Ernest's funeral, where he is eulogized as having lived an adventurous and fulfilling life with a large family and friends. They are parodies of their former selves, with cracked, peeling paint and putty covering most of their grey and rotting flesh. Helen trips and teeters at the top of a staircase. After Madeline hesitates to help her, Helen grabs Madeline and the two tumble down the stairs, breaking to pieces. As their disembodied heads totter together, Helen sardonically asks Madeline, "Do you remember where you parked the car?"Goldie Hawn as Helen Sharp
Bruce Willis as Dr. Ernest Menville
Meryl Streep as Madeline Ashton
Isabella Rossellini as Lisle von Rhoman
Ian Ogilvy as Chagall
Adam Storke as Dakota Williams
Alaina Reed Hall as Psychologist
Michelle Johnson as Anna Jones
Mary Ellen Trainor as Vivian Adams
William Frankfather as Mr. Roy Franklin
John Ingle as Eulogist
Debra Jo Rupp as Patient
Fabio as Lisle's bodyguard
Sydney Pollack as Emergency Department Doctor (uncredited)
Death Becomes Her was a technically complex movie to make, and the production had a fair number of mishaps. For example, in a scene where Helen Sharp and Madeline Ashton are battling with shovels, Meryl Streep accidentally cut Goldie Hawn's face, leaving a faint scar. Streep admitted that she disliked working on a project that focused so heavily on special effects, saying:
My first, my last, my only. I think it's tedious. Whatever concentration you can apply to that kind of comedy is just shredded. You stand there like a piece of machinery—they should get machinery to do it. I loved how it turned out. But it's not fun to act to a lampstand. "Pretend this is Goldie, right here! Uh, no, I'm sorry, Bob, she went off the mark by five centimeters, and now her head won't match her neck!" It was like being at the dentist.
Computer generated imagery (CGI) by Industrial Light and Magic was used to create the skin effects, such as Madeline's twisted neck and stretching skin, and the shotgun hole through Helen's abdomen.
The score was composed by American film composer Alan Silvestri, who also composed scores of other films directed by Zemeckis.
The film received mixed reviews. Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a rating of 50% based on reviews from 24 critics.
Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert both gave the film a 'thumbs down', commenting that while the film had great special effects, it lacked any real substance or character depth.
The film's release on DVD was called "appallingly bad", "horrible" and "sloppy" due to the quality of its transfer, which has been said to suffer from excessive grain, blur and muted colors. Many online DVD forum users speculated that the DVD transfer was taken from the Laserdisc edition of the film and called for a restorative release. The film was initially distributed in an open-matte, fullscreen edition with an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 in the United States before a widescreen version with its intended ratio (1.85:1) was released and subsequently distributed worldwide. The latter version has also been mistakenly labelled anamorphic. It was later released in North America on Blu-ray from Shout Factory on April 26, 2016.
The film opened at number 1 at the box office with $12,110,355 on the same weekend as and ahead of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Bebe's Kids. It went on to earn over $58.4 million domestically and $90.6 million internationally.