Drop Dead Gorgeous: 15 years on, cinema’s forgotten American Teen Princess

Anyone who has experienced the explosion of the social web will, for better or for worse, be familiar with the commodification of quotability. The shared references of a generation—if I’m going to arbitrarily designate a period, I’d say that of the last 20 years—have become fuel and fodder alike on Facebook and Twitter and, resultantly, on the sites created seeking to capitalise on what is now lovingly described as “shareable content”. In-jokes are now “shareable content”.

The most prominent example of this is, for the purposes of this discussion, Mean Girls. Tina Fey’s little comedy that could become an enduring phenomenon turned 10 this year, sparking a flurry of articles from Vulture to Buzzfeed to Jezebel, all desperate for a piece of the pageview pie.

Mean Girls, of course, has its detractors—ubiquity will do that to a film. And there’s certainly an argument to be made that it has only reached the status is has thanks to the churning waterwheel of nostalgia that drives pop culture content on the internet. The reality of Mean Girls for me was that it was something bizarrely unifying in my teenage years. A well-placed “She doesn’t even go here!” in high school set everyone off (substitute teachers will be ruing that line of dialogue for decades), be it me—the snarky gay kid in the corner—or the rugby-playing jocks who laughed the loudest. I once playfully (and definitely not sadly flirtatiously, shut up, no you) told one of them that they were like the Regina George of our school and he thanked me like it was the highest compliment. As lovers of film, we all know the waves of joy that come when you find people who are as effusive about something as you are. Mean Girls has become that, but on a massive scale.

It’s not entirely clear why Mean Girls hit the stratosphere beyond surfacing in the right place at the right time. When it came out in 2004 in the last weekend of April and made nearly $25 million, it was a pleasant surprise to many. Here’s a delightful time capsule of box office fortunes from Box Office Mojo in the form of a report detailing what a surprise it was that it usurped Jennifer Garner vehicle 13 Going on 30, a movie which apparently cost $37 million to make.

(My favourite part of that article, regarding the audience’s positive response in Paramount’s research: “even those outside the target demographic, such as men in their 30’s, were over 80%.” Over 80%! All of them gay, probably.)

So okay, Mean Girls did pretty well grossing $86 million domestically, but to contrast, that $110 million when adjusted for inflation doesn’t exactly compare to Bridesmaids or even The Heat. But fast forward a couple of years to MySpace’s heyday and you couldn’t breathe for Mean Girls quote status updates, often appended with “feeling  funny”.

The film has become part of a broader strain of great comedies about, and ostensibly for, teenage girls, from Heathers to Clueless to Bring It On to Easy A. And yet there’s one that remains, improbably, on the outside of this conversation.

“I know what some of your big city, no bra-wearin’, hairy-legged women libbers might say…”

If Drop Dead Gorgeous  were anywhere near the level of Mean Girls we’d know; it’s now the 15th anniversary of the former’s release, but so far only one true (and excellent) appreciation has been written. When you Google “Mean Girls buzzfeed”, there’s a page and a half of results. For Drop Dead Gorgeous, there are three, all by the lovely Louis Peitzman, who also authored the above anniversary piece.

Opening to a first weekend of $4 million, it went on to gross about $10 million—just a little less than Zelig, just a little more than Husbands and Wives did in their days. By this point the ‘90s had seen something of a golden age of the mockumentary, beginning with Bob Roberts and ending with A Mighty Wind (though there’s a fair gap between Best in Show and that film).

While director Michael Patrick Jann didn’t have the cache of any of those films, he did score a hell of a cast. Jann, a performer, writer and director on comedy series The State, hasn’t directed a feature film since, instead chipping away on comedies like Community and Happy Endings, as well as a metric shitton of passed over pilots. Its writer, Lona Williams, was an assistant to Al Jean and Mike Reiss on the early years of The Simpsons and to Bruce Helford on Roseanne. She has since written additional dialogue for Shark Tale, the upcoming Scouts vs. Zombies is the uncredited writer on 2001’s Sugar & Spice. This shit just isn’t right. That said, it appears as though Williams has a script in production to star Leslie Mann called Les Madres, which is being rewritten by South Park/Team America veteran Pam Brady, who is pretty great in her own right. I have very high hopes.

It’s a goddamn shame because Drop Dead Gorgeous has vision to spare. It might be fair to say that the film is too sketch-y given where he got his start. But the film is too deft and too nuanced for such a dismissal. Beyond its relatively standard mockumentary format it both embraces and critiques Middle America, creating a tapestry of lives glimpsed in the streets and buildings of Mount Rose, Minnesota, while also functioning as a surprisingly smart rejoinder to corporate influence on teen body image. It is, in many ways, an unsung precursor to Parks & Recreation, which adores and mocks its Pawnee, Indiana setting in equal measure.

For those who perhaps aren’t familiar, Drop Dead Gorgeous’ opens with sepia footage of passive landscape and corn fields, followed by an admission of its format.

“1995 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the nation’s oldest beauty contest…The Sarah Rose Cosmetics®©™ American Teen Princess Pageant. A documentary film crew was sent to a small town in Minnesota to commemorate this occasion.”

The pageant is presided over by Gladys Leeman (Kirstie Alley), a former winner herself and Mount Rose’s preeminent Good Christian Bitch. This is the year her daughter, Rebecca Ann (Denise Richards), competes in the pageant. But she has stiff competition from Amber Atkins (Kirsten Dunst), a trailer park-raised go-getter who idolises Diane Sawyer and does make-up on cadavers at the local funeral home. She loves her mother, Annette (Ellen Barkin), who cuts hair in her trailer for the likes of best friend Loretta (Allison Janney). Loretta is the greatest, FYI.

The town has a population of about 5000, so contestants are pretty few and far between. They are:

  • Leslie Miller (Amy Adams), the extremely peppy, slightly airy, very horny cheerleader.
  • Lisa Swenson (Brittany Murphy, RIP), the dweeby girl who took a trip to New York to see her gay brother and has started talking with a kind of Lorna Morello on Orange is the New Black NYC accent
  • Tess Weinhaus (Shannon Nelson), a spacy girl who loves dogs and was hit on the head by a metal bolt and got attacked by her dog (they remade her belly with skin from her butt)
  • Molly Howard (Tara Redepenning), a white girl adopted by Japanese parents to help them “acclimate to American”
  • Michelle Johnson (Laurie A. Sinclair), a drama student seeking to use the pageant as a launching pad to an acting career
  • Janelle Betz (Sarah Stewart), an earnest girl with deaf parents who dreams of spreading sign language around the world
  • Tammy Curry (Brooke Elise Bushman), the varsity soccer captain who is signing up for the scholarship opportunities it can provide

Amidst these introductions we are treated to a couple of pieces of stock footage: Adam West’s promotional video for the pageant, and a commercial from actress and former pageant winner Connie Rudrud (Kristen Rudrud), who likes Saint Paul Pork Co. products so much…she works there now! There’s also poor Iona Hildebrandt (Claudia Wilkens), the 1945 Winner who, at the height of WWII, had to turn her tiara in for scrap.

A trend emerges in these 15 minutes or so of set-up: almost every character we meet is a woman. We even get to see the welcome sign on the highway to Mount Rose advertising the fact that it’s the home of the oldest living Lutheran, Freda Hegstrom. As the film wears on, the male characters are consistently marginalised and demonised. Williams and Jann are very clearly setting up the ideas they want to convey, and immediately get to reinforcing them.

Right after we meet Tammy Curry, we see her drive over a ridge on a thresher followed by a massive explosion. Thus the Drop Dead of the title is introduced; there’s murder on this pageant stage, but it’s not really the plot that counts. Most viewers can likely figure out where it’s headed early on, but narrative isn’t really the point here. Jann uses the strictures of the mockumentary in a much more Maysles-esque way, as though the crew is observing the lives of a community as out-of-step with modern society as the Beales of Grey Gardens. At Janelle’s house, she offers them bars and we see the cameraman and sound guy take some.  It’s this contrast of the kindly superficial and the sinister that Drop Dead Gorgeous revels in. [If you’d rather not read spoilers, best to stop here, but the plot isn’t really the point in my opinion.]

This isn’t to say that the film thinks the residents of Mount Rose are evil, but it becomes apparent that they’re subject to the same kind of small town hierarchy that can be found on Parks. Connie Rudrud won the pageant and ended up working at a pork products factory; for most of these girls, their dreams are aspirational and are pinned on the idea that they can escape Mount Rose. They won’t say it out loud, but they want out. They don’t want to be the next spokespeople for St. Paul Pork Co.

This goes, too, for the likes of Annette and Loretta, who stick out from the prim and proper pageant committee, particularly Iris (the wonderful Mindy Sterling), whose subordination at the hands of Gladys becomes painstakingly clear. Those around Gladys, whose catalogue-housewife façade steadily disintegrates as we see her daughter bear out her buried traits, are dominated by her. Her home is a pristine mid-‘90s mansion, built courtesy of her husband Lester (Sam McMurray), who runs a furniture store where he tells customers not to “Jew him” out on his merchandise and sexually assaults his clearly beaten down secretary, Jean (played by Lona Williams herself), a judge on the pageant who never speaks.

The other judges are both men; Harold (Michael McShane) is selected, and he brings along his intellectually disabled brother Hank (Will Sasso) with whom he runs the hardware store. Hank is consistently referred to by the contestants and townspeople as “retard” and “’tard”, their way of absolving themselves of any responsibility or concern for him. In a particularly depressing post-film insight, we find out that Harold died of Lyme disease and see Hank, trapped in a community either unequipped or unwilling to support him, in front of the hardware store gone to ruin.

The other is the hilariously named John Dough (Matt Malloy), who embodies the objectification that pageants propagate. His routine gawping at the mere presence of teenage girls—always “young girls”, always qualified—plays into the film’s greater criticism of pageants and the beauty industry’s systemic undermining of teenage girls’ confidence. In the Adam West video, we’re told that Sarah Rose “knows you’re ready for the ultimate in teen glamour”, advertising the prospect of making it “all the way to Lincoln, Alabama”. This competition’s corporate sponsor doesn’t care about the girls at all; it only wants to make sure they buy their products.

The pageant’s reigning winner, Mary Johanson (Alexandra Holden), is a clearly prototypical Regina George figure. Amber visits her in hospital where she is being treated for anorexia, another symbol of pageantry’s ill effects. Becky Ann barges in while Amber is doing her hair as she does every week, bearing chocolates as a gift. With a crucifix around her neck, her barging in on good deeds is an incredibly cynical way of pointing out the hypocrisy of the rich, religious right-wing. Instead of displaying genuine compassion, it’s all for show as she acts surprised the crew is there filming and purrs, “And me without a stitch of make-up on.”

Becky is quite hilariously a neat allegorical figure for the state of today’s Republican. She’s the Vice President of the Lutheran Sisterhood Gun Club, whose motto is, “To strengthen spirituality within ourselves and our community.” They’re God-given rights, after all. As Becky says, “Jesus loves winners.” 6 rounds to the head.

“There are 8000 sequins and 1500 beads on the skirt alone. My mum had Mrs. Lopez make it; she’s one of my father’s many Mexican workers. He lifts them from the poverty they know in Mexico, mhm!”

These small town communities which depend on a source of wealth to survive can end up revolving around people like the Leemans. As Loretta says, “When they take a shit it’s front page news.” Drop Dead Gorgeous  reacts against this by showing the gentility in the everyday. Barkin, Dunst and Janney give such terrific, lived-in performances that the bond between them is just the right amount of warmth to balance out the causticness of the film’s satire. When Annette and Amber’s trailer blows up, she stuffs Amber’s tap shoes in her panties to save them for the competition. She self-sacrifices so her daughter can get the career she wants and do better than she did with Amber’s absentee father.

This sisterhood extends to Loretta—she may not be the “most smartest”, but she’s lived a life and is a significant maternal figure for Amber. Amber, though, is remarkably well-adjusted, and she deals with the tragedies that befall those in the Leemans’ path with the stony resolve of someone who works in a funeral home (see the sign below—such gorgeous attention to detail in this film).

When the night of the pageant comes, it turns into an exorcism of demons for the contestants. Amber’s tap costume goes missing, so Lisa lets Amber use hers as it has already been approved per pageant rules. This is one of those Brittany Murphy performances that I watch and marvel at; she had such presence and vitality onscreen that I’ve been known to cry when she hands off her costume to Amber, only to be rebuked by her father that her brother Peter would never have done that, prompting this immortal line reading:

Drop Dead Gorgeous shows as having 45% on RottenTomatoes, which seems utterly insane to me. I can only argue that it was either ahead of its time or just not in the right place. It’s such a marriage of Heathers’ pitch-black acidity, the wonderfully peppy subversion of both Clueless and Bring it On, and the fondness for Marge Gunderson-esque Minnesotan small-towners. There’s so much in it that feels ancestral to so much of the great comedies that have then followed in the past 15 years that it’s rather alarming that it’s so criminally underseen.

Some of the reviews were brutal, too. Lisa Schwarzbaum called it “a graceless mockumentary”, despite its savvy, fourth wall-breaking construction. Ebert gave it two stars, citing “subtle miscalculations of production and performance” which, with the film’s steady cult classic canonisation, feeds the idea that its comedic tone is better suited to the Arrested Development and The Office era than the one that came before it. The Hollywood Reporter called it “a mockumentary of numbingly unfunny proportions”, which is practically an endorsement in itself.

So why was it so maligned, and why has it not been reclaimed? I suspect that, given the backgrounds of its writer and director, it was just too weird. Mean Girls and many of the other films I’ve cited here had a lot of things going for them; well-known directors or writers whose style required little adjustment, less loaded premises, and a sort of willingness to have the film play to all the seats in the house (as smart as Mean Girls is, it does still have Lindsay Lohan flailing her legs after falling into a bin).

These critiques were later made more palatable in the likes of Bring It On and Stick It (another highly underrated and underseen gem in the former’s mould), which were about characters overcoming a societal desire for young girls to compete against each other, and against themselves, to succeed. A moment like the physical fitness number—a dance choreographed by Chloris Klinghagen (the wonderful Mary Gillis)—which has the contestants using freshly-painted ladders as props is the kind of thing that would be hailed as genius on a sitcom today. Such a simple joke just gets funnier and funnier as they get more and more paint on them.

On the other hand, the cracks do start to show in the final act. The attack on the Sarah Rose Cosmetics building still feels too broad given the slyness of the rest of the film, and Williams definitely could have done a better job of exploring Gladys’ motivations. It’s clear that she’s desperate for her lost youth, but this narcissism only goes some way towards feeling realistic (even in a film with a somewhat heightened reality). But her crafting of Becky into the idealised, gun-totin’ and Jesus-lovin’ conservative teenager is all the more hilarious in light of Sarah Palin’s intrusion into our collective consciousness.

One last important point is the fact that Ebert says that, because of its inclusion of vomit and the like, that it qualifies “to open in this Summer of Raunch”, showing how sluggishly the film industry has adapted to increasingly high profile female-led comedies and the freedom they feel to move across the spectrum of comedy. Drop Dead Gorgeous is a parade of genius character actresses finding generous helpings of humanity and camp in amongst food poisoning jokes and suppressed horniness among women of a certain age. Remember when Bridesmaids came out and people were shocked that it might show women having diarrhoea? Yeah, it’s been 15 years and we haven’t made any progress on that front (up to and including Tammy, apparently).

Perhaps I’m advocating for the embrace of a film that’s designed to remain more of a cult canon candidate, but a classic’s a classic and shouldn’t be cordoned off for specific audiences. At the same time, is it worth pushing it from in-joke to “shareable content”? Is it still simply pitched too far from the centre? It seems silly to think so, especially in an online environment with so much space for critique of the very same issues Williams and Jann had in mind when making Drop Dead Gorgeous all those years ago. But the person who deserves to win doesn’t always quite get there.