At the graveside of a recently deceased beauty pageant contestant in Rosemount, Minnesota, a group of God-fearing locals gather to quietly pay their respects. The girl in question met her maker after a freak accident caused both herself and a giant, Mexican-produced swan to go up in flames during a town parade.
“Maybe this is your way of telling us to buy American,” muses the pastor to the heavens before the coffin is lowered into the ground.
Drop Dead Gorgeous was released in the summer of 1999 to an audience still under the spell of 10 Things I Hate About You and She’s All That – films with heart-melting love stories and Shakespearian narratives with neatly tied-up endings.
Michael Patrick Jann’s film was the bad seed, a fantastically dark comedy about a rigged beauty pageant in the upper Midwest that made no effort to keep to the moral path, preferring instead to bury its characters underneath it.
“You are a good person. Good things happen to good people,” soothes Allison Janney’s deeply tanned Loretta to her friend’s daughter Amber (Kirsten Dunst) during a pause in their story. “Really?” “No, it’s pure bullshit. You’re lucky as hell, so you might as well enjoy it.”
Instead of your usual heteronormative teen romance, writer Lona Williams put everything into the relationship between Amber and mom Annette, played with brittle, beer-soaked charm by Ellen Barkin. The sweet and compromising nature of their bond is the film’s secret weapon, a shred of goodness in a world built on corruption and privilege. It would also become the inspiration for Amy Sherman-Palladino’s Gilmore Girls after the concept was pitched to her by Jann.
What really cut Drop Dead Gorgeous above the rest however was its unrivalled cast of ’90s royalty. Dunst had cleared her child actor days and was headed straight into teen queen territory, her polished girl next door get up making her a dream lead for films like Bring It On and Get Over It. Brittany Murphy and Amy Adams (making her big screen debut) dazzled as fellow pageant contestants: the former a giggly realist, the latter a horny cheerleader who mimes sexual favours on a replica model of the Washington Monument.
But it’s Denise Richards who proved most deserving of the spotlight. Much like Regina George or Kathryn Merteuil, Richards’ thoroughbred rival Becky gets boxed into the bad girl corner but ultimately takes home the film’s best scenes, notably a public rendition of ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’ sung silkily to a life-sized plush Jesus, complete with crucifix.
Drop Dead Gorgeous did not perform well upon its initial release, taking $10.5 million from an estimated $10-15 million budget and receiving mostly lukewarm reviews. “It’s like a cross between Heathers and Waiting For Guffman, had those movies been made by morons,” wrote The A.V. Club’s Keith Phipps.
This commercial underachievement hardly dented the trajectories of the cast, but for writer Williams – who infused the film’s spiky satire with her own experience of teenage pageants – it was a crushing blow, while director Jann stepped back from feature filmmaking entirely.
Perhaps because of its apparent failings, Drop Dead Gorgeous has never been unavailable to stream in the UK. In the US, Hulu have only just released the film to coincide with its 20th anniversary, but prior to this the only way to watch it was via torrent or forking out for a DVD that for a long time remained out of print.
In my teenage years I recorded the film onto VHS from a late night slot on terrestrial TV and watched it on a weekly basis, gleefully replaying the scene where a regional cohort of beauty queens projectile vomits bad shellfish off of a hotel balcony. Stand By Me couldn’t shine this film’s shoes.
Such was my need to share Drop Dead Gorgeous with the world, I programmed it at a rep cinema in London in 2016, and was delighted by the crowd that showed up with Mount Rose tattoos and t-shirts to rejoice in this delicious if slightly dated swipe at small-town America.
The film’s slowburn success is a triumphant word-of-mouth tale. A quiet trailblazer that slipped past those still misty-eyed from Clueless, it has crept into the hearts of those who like to see their beauty queens burned in giant swans – and there it will stay, a generational anthem that’s finally getting the respect it deserves.
Published 21 Jul 2019
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