"Drop Dead Gorgeous"
A Film Review by
Linda Lopez McAlister
on "The Women's Show"
WMNF-FM 88.5, Tampa, FL
July 24, 1999

Since the image of feminists protesting beauty pageants is, in the popular imagination, an indelible symbol of the women's liberation movement of the 1960s and '70s, I thought, perhaps, that a film whose purpose is to mock such pageants might be one that feminists would enjoy. Now, having seen Drop Dead Gorgeous, I think not.

This is a weird little film. Its press materials call it, a "mockumentary." But, of course, calling it that means that no one will take it to be what it purports to be, a documentary about the Miss Teenage Princess contest. My idea of a "mockumentary" that works is Cheryl Dunye's "Watermelon Woman" where you don't know until the very last frames whether what you've just seen is fact or fiction. Of course, mainstream Hollywood can't do such a film if it hires well known actors to appear in it. Once you see Kirstie Alley and Ellen Barkin in the cast, you know it's a faux documentary so then what's the point?

The point is the MOCK in mockumentary. This film takes aim at a fictional Minnesota town and blasts away at it with the cinematic equivalent of an AK-47. The plot is simple. The Miss Teenage Princess Pageant is coming up and it has ten or so high school women preparing frantically for the competition. The hitch is that the pageant is run by Gladys Leeman (Kirstie Alley) who won the pageant herself when she was a teenager and whose own daughter Rebecca (Denise Richards) is one of the contestants. Wealthy and powerful in town, Gladys will do anything to make sure her daughter wins. One of the top competitors is killed in a tractor accident leaving Amber Atkins (Kristin Dunst) as Rebecca's only real competition. Amber herself isn't all that excited about the pageant per se. She's doing it because she wants to please her mother, Annette Atkins (Ellen Barkin) who, too, is a former pageant contestant who has had a hard life in this little town and sees her daughter's winning the pageant as her ticket out of there. And Amber, who has paid for dancing lessons by working as a makeup artist in a funeral home, wants the opportunity to dance for her mother. A series of suspicious "accidents" makes Amber suspicious that someone is trying to kill or disable her and she nearly drops out of the pageant. Well, that's enough of the plot to set it up for you.

What I want to talk about, however, is not the plot or the acting (Ellen Barkin is particularly good) but the pitfalls of trying so hard to satirize something that the filmmakers themselves contribute to the things they are trying to rail against. It's a similar phenomenon to one I've written about elsewhere, i.e., how do you condemn violence against women on film without showing violence against women on the screen, thereby running the risk of glorifying it or at least normalizing it? Here it's not violence that's in question, but the veneality, bigotry, and ugliness of life in small town America. The filmmakers are trying to show how mean, crooked, stupid, prejudiced, and hateful people can be in such a place. Because they are making a satire they exaggerate the flaws that they are trying to attack. In so doing, however, their film runs the risk of furthering just those things they're seemingly trying to attack. Just to give one example, of many, from this film. There is a hardware store owner who is one of the judges for the pageant. He has a retarded younger brother. Everyone in the film repeatedly calls this young man "the retard." I presume this is done to point out how readily and unselfconsciously middle America throws around such demeaning labels. But are the mass audiences who are likely to see this film going to get that? Or are they just going to think that calling such names is the norm and it's o.k. for them to do it too. The same goes for ethnic slurs and a variety of other odious things that, in the name of satire, this film seems rather to normalize. If Mr. Leeman, who looks reasonably attractive and prosperous, can freely use an ethnic slur when talking about his customers, doesn't that just make it easier for others to think it's all right to do so?

The response is to say that the film is pointing to these things so the audience will laugh at them and see how awful they sound. In at least some instances, when I saw the film, some of the good folks of Tampa seemed to be laughing with rather than laughing at these characters.

Drop Dean Gorgeous isn't. I'd say don't waste your money.

For the WMNF Women's Show, this is Linda Lopez McAlister on Women and Film.

Copyright 1999. All rights reserved. Please do not copy or reproduce this review without permission of the author: mcaliste@chuma.cas.usf.edu

Posted 8/16/99