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Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999) « The MacGuffin Men

Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999)

Published on August 31st, 2011

James recommends Drop Dead Gorgeous, the best recent female comedy he could think of not about getting a boyfriend

Earlier this year, after Bridesmaids was a critical and financial success, many people felt the desire to examine the role of females inHollywood and comedy. Some said Bridesmaids was empowering because it was about a uniquely female experience of being a bridesmaid, written by and starring women, yet still brought in and pleased a significantly-sized male (and female) crowd. Some said it wasn’t empowering or groundbreaking at all and the reason a major studio made it at all was that it was simply a formulaic gross-out male comedy that just happened to have women in it, women who found the most important thing in life was to get a man. I decided to do my recommendation this week about a good female-centric comedy that appeals to both genders, but isn’t about trying to get a man.

Before Bridesmaids, I think the best female-centric comedy that men and women really liked was Mean Girls. That movie is great, was received very well, boosted Lindsay Lohan and Tina Fey’s careers, is on the IMDB top 500 and made $130 million on a $17 million budget. It was written by women and while it was about the high school experience in general, it focuses much more on females. There are 2 reasons I’m not going to recommend Mean Girls:

1) Almost everybody knows about this movie and knows that it’s great. Many males that I have met, who sometimes may have a hard time admitting that a female-oriented movie can be any good, have no problem admitting it’s a funny movie, so good for you guys, you go Glenn Cocos.

2) Cady, the lead character, quickly develops a crush on a fellow student named Aaron and while this isn’t the sole focal point of the movie, it does take up a lot of screentime and plot. I wanted to suggest a movie where the actions of the women are driven by something other than a guy.

This is why I am recommending 1999’s Drop Dead Gorgeous, a film about a teen beauty pageant in small town Minnesota. I know. A beauty pageant? Feminists may not like this goal for a progressive protagonist much more than the affections of a man but don’t worry. I think beauty pageants are silly too but so does this movie. The main character, the sweet, hard-working Amber Atkins (Kirsten Dunst), seems to only want to win in order to gain just enough fame to start a career as a news reporter to move out of her small town and make her mom proud. However, her fierce opponent, the spoiled and rude Rebecca Leeman (Denise Richards), attempts to fix the pageant so that she can win and reap the popularity and status that comes along with it.

It made $10 million in theatres and has a 6.3 rating on IMDB. Do not be fooled by this. It has developed a cult following because of its great script and all around great performances. Yes, even from Kirsten Dunst. Trust me, I never thought I’d say it but somehow she moves up from her normal position of painfully intolerable, skips right over mediocre and achieves a performance that is actually good. Denise Richards, who also has never impressed me before, plays the nauseatingly fake-sweet and the unforgivably evil sides of her 2-faced character perfectly, who at one point dances with a statue of a crucified Jesus on wheels. Allison Janney keeps up her apparently life-long streak of being perfect in everything and hilarious whenever she chooses to be with this film, which she says gets approached about more often then her Emmy-winning West Wing performance. Amy Adams makes her film debut as an over-sexed, over-perky cheerleader and walks the fine line between funny and sexy with no trouble. And similar to Lindsay Lohan in Mean Girls, this movie brings us a pre-drug problem/eating disorder cutie in Brittany Murphy, who plays the loveable misfit who seems completely uncomfortable with the whole pageant.

The movie seems slightly ahead of its time in 2 small ways. The film is made in the mockumentary style and while that concept has been around a while, Drop Dead Gorgeous has a lot of fun with that fact. I am a fan of mockumentaries in general and I enjoy when people play around with what is already a postmodern genre. This format alone provides many good jokes, one of the best being when the camera crew following the pageant contestants runs into a separate camera filming another show. Perhaps I just don’t watch enough TV and missed it but isn’t the day going to come when there are so many reality shows that they start running into each other on street by accident? Especially in LA where it seems 65% of the population is on a reality show, this has to happen eventually.

The other way this movie seems ahead of its time was more of a happy accident than brilliant filmmaking. The film takes place in the small, conservative town of Mount Rose, Minnesota where everyone sounds like the characters from Fargo. The evil Rebecca’s possibly even more evil mother Gladys is played by Kirstie Alley, a former pageant winner herself. She is obsessed with her former glory, her perceived elevated social status in town, in staying famous and using her daughter to help keep her that way. This 1999 film somehow made one of the best Sarah Palinesque characters ever committed to film. Gladys’ accent is weirdly similar to Palin’s, as is her pageant history, undue confidence, and fake moral outrage/conservativism. Early on in the film she defends the idea of a beauty pageant and says that she is aware of but will ignore the opinions of “big city, no bra-wearing, hairy-legged, women-libber’s” who find them demeaning. I would bet good money Sarah Palin has said that at one point in her life without seeing this movie.

What I’m trying to say is Drop Dead Gorgeous is really funny, no matter what gender you are. It flew in under the radar, perhaps because of its small budget and the plot sounds like it will be a boring, catty drama about stuck-up teenagers. In reality, shockingly good performances and a wide variety of great characters really drive home this sometimes dark but ceaselessly funny underrated comedy.


  1. Posted by Claudine on August 31st, 2011, 23:59 [Reply]

    I agree, one of the most underrated movies of all time. I’m going to watch it right now.

    It is also a movie that is fundamentally about class, where much of the depictions of the two main characters, Rebecca and aAmber is comparing Rebecca’s priviledged, entitled lifestyle with Ambers sh*t-poor one where she balances a job at the morgue and at the school cafeteria, while trying to practice her talents for the show.

    Also, there is good foreshadowing to Denise Richards’ future nuptials to the notorious Charlie Sheen, as the theme of “WINNING” is very much part of her introduction in the movie.

    Good review, i hope that this encourages other people to see this wonderfully irreverent romp.


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