Drop Dead Gorgeous
October 8, 2019
Michael Patrick Jann
1 Hr., 37 Mins.
rop Dead Gorgeous (1999) is a trenchant, irreverent satire. Its subject is the beauty-pageant world; its comedy is delivered in the pseudo-documentary (i.e. mockumentary) style perfected by Christopher Guest. The comedy is lacerating if admittedly not particularly funny; this is a movie that often equates offensiveness with an especially edgy type of humor. Yet I both enjoyed and admired the movie. Its
performances, delivered by a cast sharper than the material, find a witty heart inside rampant stereotyping. There's a consistent and impressive willingness to push boundaries, even though the chances of a boundary-push being unsuccessful come to be pretty high.
Drop Dead Gorgeous is set in 1995, in Mount Rose, Minnesota. The town lives up to what you might think of when someone invokes a small, conservative, American town. In an early scene in the film, Gladys Leeman (Kirstie Alley), an artificially nice former beauty-pageant contestant who for a time works as our narrator, tells us that this is the kind of town so pure that there is no “backroom” in the closest video store. Everyone who lives here is “god-fearing." Towns in any way larger than Mount Rose are, in Gladys’ mind, “sin cities.” Throughout the film, homophobia, racism, sexism, ableism, and other social ills pop up with the suddenness of a whack-a-mole ripe for a smack.
The Mount Rose we see in the movie is Mount Rose at its most frenzied. Drop Dead Gorgeous begins just before the commencement of the lengthily titled Sarah Rose Cosmetics Mount Rose American Teen Princess Pageant, an event to which almost everyone in the area annually flocks. This is one of the few times during the year that women are enthusiastically spotlit in the community. We meet many of the contestants — the cartoonishly lascivious Leslie (Amy Adams, in her film debut), the dull-witted Lisa (Brittany Murphy), and the recovering anorexic Mary (Alexandra Holden), who won the pageant last year.
Two young women are apples to the film’s eyes. There’s Becky (Denise Richards), Gladys’ conniving and manipulative daughter who has a smile that makes us wonder if she could shoot noxious venom at us using just her mouth, like a snake. She’s one of the movie’s primary villains. There’s also Amber (Kirsten Dunst), a relatively good-natured girl who dreams of becoming the next Diane Sawyer when she isn’t gussying-up corpses at her after-school mortuary internship. (One of the film’s funniest recurring bits involves Amber practicing her tap routine while giving hunting-accident victims rosy cheeks.)
At first Drop Dead Gorgeous seems the most direct heir to 1975’s Smile, Michael Ritchie’s excellent black comedy on the same subject. But that film is much more of a fly-on-the-wall parody. It’s cutting and wry but never hits us over the head with its satirical missives. But Drop Dead Gorgeous turns out to be more of a horror-comedy than its spiritual predecessor; its heart is far ashier. Not long after the film opens, one of the contestants, a vivacious gun-club member named Tammy (Brooke Elise Bushman), is killed when her tractor explodes. “Nobody can’t stop me but me,” she says to the camera just before the eruption. Then Amber’s crush is shot in the head during a hunting sortie. While drinking a beer in their trailer, Amber’s mother, Annette (Ellen Barkin), almost dies when the home cartoonishly blows up. She’s miraculously left with no injuries, except for the beer can that’s attached itself to her hand like a leech. Before we get the opportunity to think that all these mishaps are coincidental, the film corrects us. “You’re next,” says the back of a postcard that’s been shoved into Amber’s locker at school. “I bet Diane Sawyer never had to deal with crap like this,” Amber complains.
The movie makes a case, largely efficiently, for the implicit monstrousness of the “show must go on” ethos, not to mention the culture of pageants and performative womanhood in general. The film’s screenwriter, Lona Williams, isn’t as darkly incisive as I wish she would be — so focused is she on creating a jokey atmosphere that the dichotomy between comedy and horror is never distinguished with enough focus or understated compassion. There’s too much laughing-at and not enough laughing-with; it becomes difficult to have total faith in the vision of Williams and the movie’s director, Michael Patrick Jann, when a main source of laughter, in one example, is a mentally disabled character (Will Sasso) who is portrayed as little more than a loud dolt.
But Drop Dead Gorgeous has been made with enough chutzpah, and features just enough perceptive satire, to work in spite of itself. You can see why the film, since flopping at the box office and tanking with critics 20 years ago, has grown to become a cult classic. It’s so ridiculous (but engagingly ridiculous) across the board — you never know quite how to react to it, which is part of the fun — that it almost seems to beckon viewing parties and intermittent re-watches. Recently, it was released on Hulu, the first streaming service on which it’s been featured. You should watch it, if you haven’t already, not because it’s that good a movie, but because it’s such a spectacularly pert one. B