Drop Dead Gorgeous

USA/Germany 1999

Reviewed by Charlotte O'Sullivan


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

In a Minnesota small town a documentary crew arrives to cover a beauty pageant. The event is organised by wealthy Gladys Leeman, whose own daughter Becky is in the competition. The crew are more interested in Amber Atkins, a hardworking urchin whose heroine is NBC anchorwoman Diane Sawyer. Amber is determined to win but Becky (with a little help from her mother) will stop at nothing to secure the prize for herself. As contestants die in mysterious circumstances, Amber remains unbowed. Even when her trailer-park home is blown into the sky (and her mother almost killed), a few supportive words from a friend give her the strength to go on.

On the day of the contest, the corrupt judges award Amber second prize while Becky wins the crown. But during the victory parade a freak accident burns Becky to a crisp. Amber becomes "teen princess" and is whisked off to the county finals, where this time she succeeds because the rest of the contestants fall ill with food poisoning. The national finals are cancelled due to problems with the IRS. Meanwhile, Becky's vengeful mother turns a gun on the crowd and in the process a female television reporter is killed. Taking instant advantage of this, Amber catapults herself into a plum anchorwoman job.


There's much about Drop Dead Gorgeous - a satire on all things smalltown and ultra-feminine - to shock and tickle us. The reigning "teen princess" of the town beauty pageant, for example, is expertly cast: Mary Johanson is an anorexic who really looks like an anorexic. And her two scenes possess an eerie cynicism reminiscent of Michael Ritchie's neglected pageant-drama Smile. Early on, a two-faced Becky, desperate to demonstrate her femininity, brushes Mary's long, blond mermaid hair, which is falling out. It sticks to the brush like wool to a barbed wire fence. If Becky is a wolf in sheep's clothing, Mary is a sheep being led to the slaughter.

Later, on the point of handing over her crown, Mary appears in a wheelchair - attached to a drip, with a wig - lip synching to weepy pop hit 'Don't Cry Out Loud' (the perfect song for the repressed crowd-pleaser). She looks like all those beauty queens, both the real ones (JonBenet Ramsey), and the metaphorical (Karen Carpenter), and she's beautiful too (a dead ringer for model James King). She's sex and death, skull and scented skin, in one flailing, dogged little package, and sadism (your own) snaps through the air like a whip.

Unfortunately, young scriptwriter Lona Williams chooses to play safe more often than not. Most crucially, she keeps Amber and her white-trash family uncontaminated by the town's corruption, which is a big mistake. From Cinderella on down, tales of poor girls battling with bitchy rich ones are two a penny and your heart sinks as you realise you're supposed to find Amber genuinely more attractive and more talented. Amber's routine at the talent contest is jazzily shot (even though this is meant to be a documentary) and edited like a pop promo. So why is maniacal tap dancing in a top hat any better than singing 'Can't Take My Eyes off You' with a crucifix strapped to your back (Becky's choice)? Can't they risk us thinking Amber's routine is tacky?

It's the old American dream nonsense. The film-makers don't trust us to urge on a heroine who's actually pretty much like the rest. We've got to believe in her plucky, self-reliant specialness. The irony is that having set her up as a trouper, she comes across finally as pampered, the film's own darling who's going to be made to look good whatever the cost. We're expected to laugh at cartoonishly ambitious Gladys Leeman but her principles are shared by the film itself. The danger is that it risks triggering a reaction: you end up begrudging Amber her success and wanting Becky (lent a mad sort of glow by Denise Richards) to win.

A little more effort in the script might have distracted us from this weakness. But where you expect to find sticky darkness, there's a vacuum. The mockumentary device, for instance, is never fully exploited. We never know why this particular bunch of slacker guys chose this subject nor what they're getting out of it. Only once are they tested by the central narrative: when one of the judges, realising they think he's a pervert, says, "Well, you guys have got a camera and no one's accusing you of anything." You assume this is the start of something postmodern and wily, but as with so many threads in this film, the crew just hang there, cluttering up the scenery.

Towards the end, Williams attempts to complicate things too late by pointing up Amber's ruthless side. But we can't tell if Amber's been hiding this side all along (the only one who really knew how to manipulate the cameras) or has been hardened by the contest itself. The film has no answers, so the twist offers no satisfaction (in any case, To Die For has been there, done that). All in all, the acknowledgement of Amber's dark underbelly feels like an opportunity missed, which just about sums up Drop Dead Gorgeous itself.


Gavin Polone
Judy Hofflund
Lona Williams
Director of Photography
Michael Spiller
David Codron
Janice Hampton
Production Designer
Ruth Ammon
Mark Mothersbaugh
©New Line Productions Inc
Production Companies
New Line presents in association with Capella/KC Medien a Hofflund/Palone production
Executive Producers
Claire Rudnick Polstein
Donna Langley
Lona Williams
Michael Nelson
Executive in Charge of Production
Carla Fry
Production Executive
Claire Best
Production Supervisor
Robert J. Graf
Production Controller
Paul Prokop
Production Co-ordinator
Teresa L.E. Meyer
Supervising Production Co-ordinator
Emily Glatter
Unit Production Manager
Michael Nelson
Location Manager
Anne Healy
Executive in Charge of Post-production
Jody Levin
Post-production Supervisor
Diana Kaufman
Production Resources
Marc Jacobs
Assistant Directors
Linda Brachman
Darrell Woodard
Script Supervisor
Linda Kuusisto
John Papsidera
Akerlind & Associates Casting Inc
Curt Akerlind
ADR Voices:
Joyce's Voices
Joyce Kurtz
News Footage Graphics
Laser-Pacific Media Corporation
Special Effects Co-ordinator
Paul Murphy
Special Effects Foremen
Steven Hintz
Tim Drackert
Graphic Designer
Bradford Richardson
Art Director
Maria Baker
Set Decorator
Helen Britten
Storyboard Artist
Wendell Andersson
Costume Designer
Mimi Melgaard
Wardrobe Supervisor
Jeannine Bourdaghs
Key Stylists:
Mary K. Flaa
Desne Holland
Kristin Robinson
Special Make-up Effects/Prosthetics
Make-up Effects Crew Supervisor:
Chris Ballas
Make-up Effects Crew:
Nate Courteau
Brook Johnson
Susan Magnusen
Key Stylists:
Sherry Heart
Mela Murphy
Additional Stylist:
Stephanie Von Brunner
Title Design
Howard Anderson Co
Music Supervisor
Evyen Klean
Music Co-ordinators
P.J. Bloom
Ray Espinola Jr
Music Executive
Paul Broucek
"Watch You Sleep" by John Paul Keith, performed by The Nevers; "Days of Our Lives Theme" by Tommy Boyce, Charlie Albertine, Bobby Hart; "Lost Picasso" by Jason De Costa, Sun Sannes, performed by Hot Sauce Johnson; "Everything's Coming Up Roses" by Jule Styne, Stephen Sondheim, performed by Ethel Merman; "Through the Eyes of Love" by Carole Bayer Sager, Marvin Hamlisch; "Call Me" by Tony Hatch, performed by New Staple Singers; "Devil's Triangle" by Chris O'Connor, performed by Primitive Radio Gods; "Voices of Spring" by Johann Strauss, performed by the Wiener Philharmonic, conducted by Willi Boskovsky; "Queen of the House" by Roger Miller, Mary Taylor, performed by Jody Miller; "Ballad of a Teenage Queen" by Jack Clement, performed by Dale Watson; "Counting" by Jeremy Digby, Dustin Bartholomew, Michael Pearson, performed by Skirt; "Number One" by William Tyler, performed by Lifeboy; "This Land Is Your Land" by Woody Guthrie, performed by The Boston Pops Orchestra, conducted by John Williams; "Don't Cry Out Loud" by Peter Allen, Carole Bayer Sager, performed by Melissa Manchester; "Conga" by Enrique Garcia, performed by Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine; "How Do You Do What You Do So Well" by Craig Wiseman, Benmont Tench, performed by Craig Wiseman; "Can't Take My Eyes off You" by Bob Crewe, Bob Gaudio; "Pressure Man" by James Reid, Matt Thomas, Hamish Gee, performed
by The Feelers; "Miss America" by Bernie Wayne; "Fanfare for the Common Man" by Aaron Copland, performed by London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Aaron Copland; "Downtown" by Tony Hatch, performed by Petula Clark; "Saturday Night's Alright (for Fighting)" by Elton John, Bernie Taupin, performed by Elton John; "Also sprach Zarathustra" by Richard Strauss, performed by Slovac Philharmonic Orchestra; "Beautiful Dreamer" by Stephen Foster, performed by Mandy Barnett; "Love Is All Around" by Sonny Curtis, performed by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts; "A Girl That's Hip" by Tim Carroll, Duane Jarvis, performed by Tim Carroll; "She" by Billy Voss, Tony Robbins, Mike Rogers, performed by Sunday Suit; "Young Americans" by David Bowie, performed by Everything
Jerry Mitchell
Sound Mixer
Mack Melson
Re-recording Mixers
Elliot Tyson
Tom E. Dahl
Steve Kohler
Supervising Sound Editors
Cormac Funge
Frederick Howard
Supervising Dialogue Editor
David Grant
Dialogue Editors
Jed Dodge
Louis Creveling
Mike Hertlein
Sound Effects Editors
Javier Bennassar
Roland Thai
Dorian Cheah
Michael Mullane
Susan Shin
Alan Freedman
S. Diane Marshall
David Lee Fein
Myriam Nelson
Mary Erstad
Lucy Sustar
Craig Jurkiewicz
Stunt Co-ordinator
Eric D. Howell
Animals Provided by
Animal Connection
Kirstie Alley
Gladys Leeman
Ellen Barkin
Annette Atkins
Kirsten Dunst
Amber Atkins
Denise Richards
Becky Leeman
Allison Janney
Will Sasso
Hank Vilmes
Mindy Sterling
Iris Clark
Sam McMurray
Lester Leeman
Mo Gaffney
Nora Dunn
Matt Malloy
John Dough
Seiko Matsuda
Tina/Seiko Howard
Richard Narita
Mr Howard
Patti Yasutake
Mrs Howard
Brittany Murphy
Lisa Swenson
Amy Adams
Leslie Miller
Laurie Sinclair
Michelle Johnson
Shannon Nelson
Tess Weinhaus
Tara Redepenning
Molly Howard
Sarah Stewart
Jenelle Betz
Alexandra Holden
Mary Johanson
Brooke Bushman
Tammy Curry
Michael McShane
Harold Vilmes
Lona Williams
Jean Kangas
Jon T. Olson
Casey Tyler Garven
Ashley Dylan Bullard
fry girl
Jacy Dumermuth
pregnant fry girl
Adam West
Mary Gillis
Chloris Klinghagen
Allyson Kearns
candy stripper
Tom Gilshannon
Lars Larson
Claudi Wilkens
Iona Hildebrandt
Dale Dunham
Amanda Detmer
Miss Minneapolis
Thomas Lennon
voice of documentarian
Eric D. Howell
sound recordist
Matthew G. Park
crew guy
Terry Hempleman
Christopher Carlson
James Cada
Lisa Swenson's father
Kristin Rudrüd
pork products lady
Luke Ingles
Nick Ingles
rocker kids
Jimmie D. Wright
Peter Aitchison
male news anchor
Mary Rehbein
Jeany Park
female reporters
Richard Ooms
Robert-Bruce Blake
Mr Melchoir
Bruce Linser
Tiffany Engen
tap dancer
Jennifer Baldwin-Peden
opera singer
Annalise Nelson
Samantha Harris
Miss Burnsville
Kari Ann Shiff
Miss Duluth
Mark Dahlen
cops crew guy
Jeff Tatum
Icon Film Distribution
8,829 feet
98 minutes 7 seconds
Dolby digital SR/Digital DTS sound/SDDS
In Colour
Prints by
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011