Of all the modern American directors, none has shown a more comprehensive interest in the advancement of special effects than Robert Zemeckis. Most of his movies, regardless of genre, seem intended to solve some new challenge or other. In the case of the supernatural comedy Death Becomes Her from 1992, multiple tricks were employed toward the main goal: the hyperbolic manipulation of the bodies of the two lead actresses, Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn. Besides some pioneering work with CGI mixed with prosthetics and animatronics to put across the more violent physical changes, the filmmakers mostly relied on the more tried-and-true fakery of cinema: makeup, stunt doubles and body doubles. Like airbrushing and Photoshop in modeling, or in another arena, the use of trained vocalists dubbing over the ostensible singing of the stars, doubles are often considered a money-saving cheat at best, and a dangerous deception at worst. Movies construct an idea of perfection out of scattered fragments, making something that’s actually impossible look real. Much has been said about the ethics of this, but let it suffice for now to consider the thematic appropriateness of the subject to the Hollywood satire of Death Becomes Her, a movie about the cult of youth and the terror of bodily decay, specifically for women. The Streep and Hawn characters discover a magical shortcut to giving themselves perfect (as in “youthful and thin”) bodies. The parallels to how this perfection was achieved on camera might be the reason the film took a step that, at the time, was unusual: giving screen credits to the body doubles hired to represent two of the actresses in the film.
The first of these is Catherine Bell, who has since moved on to a notable acting career of her own. Credited as “Lisle Body Double,” Bell appears in four shots, with her back to the camera. For those brief seconds, she borrows the role of Lisle Von Rhuman, a potion-peddling glamour queen, from Isabella Rossellini, even as Rossellini’s voice is looped in for the character’s dialogue. The reason for Bell’s presence is simple and plain to see: the shot features the character’s nude backside emerging from a swimming pool. Without speculating on the reasons for using a body double in this instance, it will do to note that the switch from one woman to another is rendered adequately invisible through the editing, the matching hair, and the shawl that is Lisle’s only attire. Rossellini’s performance in general creates the impression of Lisle as an urbane seductress, and these qualities are quickly reinforced in these shots, filmed as they are from the perspective of Dr. Ernest Menville (Bruce Willis), who has just awoken in a dazed and vulnerable state and is meeting this strange woman for the first time.
After Bell, the credits list Donna Baltron as “Madeline Body Double” — Madeline Ashton being the name of Meryl Streep’s character, an actress with an abiding need to look and feel young. Baltron’s contribution to the film is likewise posterior-centric, her single shot portraying Madeline lying on her stomach on a sheet-draped pool table as Ernest spray-paints her legs. (To back up just a bit: Ernest is a plastic surgeon who has lately become a specialist in painting corpses for open-casket funerals. Madeline, having taken the potion, is now immortal, but after getting pushed down the stairs, her body is still subject to the rapid decay that follows death. She commandeers Ernest to solve her unique problem.) Zemeckis gets a lot fancier with the transition from Baltron to Streep here. It’s all apparently done in a single shot. After painting Baltron’s left leg, Willis moves around the table to the foreground. The camera pans right to follow him and tilts slightly upward so that “Madeline’s” body is no longer visible. He then moves behind the table on the other side, revealing Streep’s face and arms. There are no seams, no cuts. My best guess is that Streep’s lower half is tucked away under the table — one of those simple magic tricks that work every time.
Another technique that works almost every time regardless of technology is the use of stunt performers. Somewhat like editing, it’s an art form that’s designed to be invisible. If you know you’re seeing a stunt double, it’s because the body type or hair is a demonstrably bad match for the actor. Given the quick movements and excitement inherent in stunt work, precise continuity is less important than it is for body doubles. In fact, the same stuntwoman (in this case, the late Denise Lynne Roberts) can double for both Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn at different times without anyone noticing until the end credits. As described in a Los Angeles Times article from 1996, Roberts performed a stunt known as a “ratchet gag” in a scene when Madeline shoots Hawn’s character, Helen Sharp, with a double-barreled shotgun. Clad in a harness that would be removed in post-production, Roberts is sent flying backward in a smooth arc, landing in a shallow pool. The shot lasts all of three seconds but is crucial for the absurd escalation of violence that is so central to the film’s comedy. Helen, we learn a couple minutes later, has taken the same potion Madeline did and rises out of the pool sporting a large hole through her abdomen.
Because Death Becomes Her is not an action movie, the stunts are largely of this kind; namely, falls. Roberts was also on hand to double for Streep during Madeline’s brutal tumble down the stairs. There are eleven shots during the fall down a long stretch of marble steps that would seem to be Roberts’ work. (Another shot might be as well, though there is definite digital manipulation to show the character’s neck breaking.) They are filmed from a variety of odd angles and edited together in rapid, disorienting fashion, but the unforgiving nature of those stairs comes through clearly. Not to be outdone, Ernest takes his own bad fall near the end of the movie, crashing through a stained-glass copy of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam and into the same pool from which Catherine Bell had emerged. The fall is accomplished through some effective green screen work, with the actual impact through the glass performed by Keii Johnston, who had already doubled for Bruce Willis several times, including in the Die Hard films. The imagery of the painting gives this moment a certain “mad scientist gets his comeuppance” quality, though Ernest’s survival immediately puts a different spin on it.
Two other performers are credited as stunt doubles for Goldie Hawn: Barbara Klein and Debby Lynne Ross. I haven’t been able to find any information about who did what, but one of them was obviously needed for the film’s final scene, in which both Madeline and Helen take a spill down yet another set of stairs. In general, Helen is involved in just a bit more derring-do than Madeline. A set piece about an hour into the film features Helen sneaking onto Ernest and Madeline’s property, dressed like a cat burglar. Hearing a car engine revving, Helen collapses to the pavement of the mansion’s circular driveway in a panic. The car races in reverse, its left rear tire stopping inches away from her head. Once again, Zemeckis flaunts the magic on display, showing the whole action in one take, with the aid of composite photography. The seams are only briefly visible on close inspection. The continuity of motion, and the fact that Hawn’s face is clearly shown at the beginning and end of the action, makes the whole thing unspeakably thrilling and scary. At the end of the day, “how it was done” is not something I can completely explain or describe. I’m fine keeping it that way.