My first encounter with Michael Patrick Jann’s Drop Dead Gorgeous was probably a couple of years after its release, on one of its televised broadcasts. I inadvertently came across the film at the very moment Tammy Curry (Brooke Elise Bushman) was killed by an exploding tractor. I instantly wanted more.
I don’t think I’m alone in coming to the film after it had already left the cinema: it was quite the box office flop. It’s also never really risen to prominence, although thankfully it’s gained support as a cult classic. Still, I suspect when most people think of a comedy bringing together a group of now well-known actresses in an hilarious tale on the rumination of female friendships and the unrealistic expectations demanded of teenage girls, the rule which requires that women can only have one film means that Drop Dead Gorgeous tends to lose out to Mean Girls, despite doing all that five years previously.
And Drop Dead Gorgeous does it all sumptuously, using its mockumentary-style to fantastic effect, as it follows the fortunes of a group of teenage girls participating in the 50th anniversary of the nation’s oldest beauty contest. From the very beginning when we encounter the Pageant Organising Committee, Gladys Leeman’s (Kirstie Alley) careful chair placement, which ensures that she eclipses the rest of the committee, demonstrates how small details can speak volumes. On a re-watch, I have a sneaking suspicion that the documentary crew’s policy to remain “true observers and not interfere with its subjects” enables them to cleverly (and morally dubiously) influence the plot. We also find ourselves in the midst of a murder mystery as contestants and their friends suddenly start dropping dead (pun intended, one must assume).
Of course the film should also be celebrated for its fantastic cast. Every character is impressively rendered and fully realised. I would genuinely happily watch a film based on any of them, from pageant judge and convenience store owner Frank Vilmes and his intellectually disabled yet surprisingly perceptive brother Hank, to Chloris Klinghagen, the chain-smoking dance instructor. There are more wonderful performances from numerous actresses than I have room to recount here. Suffice to say, from newbies like Amy Adams through to well-established actors like Kirstie Alley, everyone commits to wonderful effect.
Coming back to the film for the first time in quite a few years I was still expecting to laugh at the bizarre shenanigans in the world of pageantry in the midwestern US. But I certainly wasn’t expecting to laugh quite so much. I also wasn’t expecting such an intelligent and carefully crafted commentary on the problems of privilege and inequality in American life. While the trope of struggling to get out of a one-horse town is done so often in cinema that at times it feels like that very horse is being flogged, Drop Dead Gorgeous gets it just right.
There’s a palpable and at time desperately sad sense that Kirsten Dunst’s Amber Atkins has an impossible challenge ahead of her, personified in the form of Denise Richard’s Becky Leeman and her wealthy family. Oh, and of course, the spate of murders and murder attempts spiraling ever closer to Amber. If not for several instances of grotesque serendipity she certainly would never be able to make it out of Mount Rose, Minnesota. Self-making just isn’t possible in a world of Leemans, who can bribe or threaten (pageant) judges, and possibly cops as well.
And this is all before we get to the absurdity of the pageant itself. From the physical fitness number performed on stools still wet from paint to the impersonation of dog barks, there is so much to enjoy. Denise Richards’ bizarre dance with a model Jesus on the cross has to go down in cinematic history as one of the greatest scenes set to the tune of Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” (the other being the party scene in The Deerhunter, of course. The bleachers scene from Ten Things I Hate About You can take a well-deserved third place).
And certainly, Richards should be given kudos for the dead-eyed star of her disturbingly privileged character. There’s something even more creepy about the fact that Becky isn’t the murderer. Instead, the spate of dead bodies and murder attempts are for her just the natural reactions of a world in which everything always goes her way. Thanks to the recent revelations regarding the Hollywood parents who bribed their children’s ways into Yale and Stanford, it feels like Drop Dead Gorgeous has added relevancy right now.
For all that Drop Dead Gorgeous is a biting satire, it does seem to genuinely care about the female relationships explored therein. And not unlike Soderburgh’s recent Logan Lucky, it suggests that perhaps despite the crass commercialism, bloodthirsty competitiveness and female objectification found in pageantry, there is still the opportunity for girls to discover a sense of self. It can become a space to forge a space of female solidarity and support, seen particularly in Lisa’s (Brittany Murphy) decision to give Amber her place in the final round. Further kudos should be given for the fact that Murphy’s ditzy character turns out to be the most intelligent and grounded individual in the whole film.
In case it’s not already clear, I loved this movie and only loved it more upon rewatch. I can happily attest to the fact that Drop Dead Gorgeous has stood the test of time and feels as relevant today as it ever did. Maybe it’s something of an indictment that in twenty years I can’t think of many mainstream films about female rivalry – where the majority of the young women are in fact surprisingly supportive and any romantic relationships with young men are entirely downplayed – that are so refreshing and genuinely care about their characters. Or maybe Drop Dead Gorgeous is just that good.