'drop dead gorgeous' is the cult movie that combines pageants and murder mystery
The 90s film features a host of names including Kirsten Dunst, Allison Janney, and Ellen Barkin.
Photos via New Line Cinema/Everett Collection.
Even though Drop Dead Gorgeous has never been available for streaming, it remains one of the most underrated and beloved 90s films. In March, Hulu tweeted that it would arrive on the streaming platform April 1, but the tweet was later deleted. There’s still hope, as the iconic pageant mockumentary will turn 20 this July, so perhaps they just spoke too soon.
Like other cult favorites Heathers and Josie and the Pussycats, the Michael Patrick Jann-directed film garnered a substantial fan-base for its dark comedy pageant plot, emerging at the height of Kirsten Dunst, Denise Richards, and Brittany Murphy's careers. Ellen Barkin, Allison Janney, Kirstie Alley, and Amy Adams round out the all-star cast, making it a sardonic look at small-town life.
Set in Mount Rose, Minnesota, the film chronicles the impact of the Miss American Teen Princess pageant on a God-fearing Midwestern town, and specifically, the tap-dancing funeral cosmetologist Amber Atkins (Dunst). Amber enters the beauty pageant because her two favorite people, her mom and Diane Sawyer, competed in pageants. But the film, shot mockumentary-style has a dark subplot — someone is trying to sabotage the pageant with a slew of actual (and attempted) murders. And the town is full of, well, eccentric personalities: Gladys Leeman (Alley), Mount Rose's Miss American Teen Princess of years past and president of the local chapter, her gun-toting daughter Becky Ann Leeman, who is rich, popular and Amber's biggest competition, Annette Atkins (Barkin), Amber’s cigarette-smoking hairstylist mom, her flirty, booze-loving best friend Loretta (Janney), horny cheerleader Leslie Miller (Adams), the generous but naive Lisa Swenson (Murphy), and the previous year’s anorexic winner Mary Johanson (Alexandra Holden).
Despite only making $10.5 million at the box office, the film’s popularity grew from word of mouth and by copies of VHS tapes and DVDs that were passed around. Five years ago, Buzzfeed explored the legacy of the film even though it totally bombed in theaters. At the time, Janney told the publication that she was recognized more often for her role as Loretta than anything else she had done. “My funniest moment about Drop Dead Gorgeous was being in an airport and sitting next to some kids who were going over their favorite Loretta lines … and I said, 'Um, hi, I played Loretta in the movie.' And they literally started screaming. It was really funny. I feel like a rock star being part of that movie,” she recalled.
Everyone in and out of the competition is looking to make an impression upon the mockumentary's viewers. That includes Becky, who shows up with chocolates to visit Mary at the hospital, where she's being treated for an eating disorder. Becky pretends she visits her every week like Amber does (“She’s skinny Amber, not deaf,” Becky says, covering Mary's ears.)
It’s one-liners and tiny moments like this that have made the movie a treasure. When Becky is being interviewed by filmmakers, she recalls getting a 9mm gun for her birthday and a card from her mom that says “‘Jesus loves winners.’ That’s why no matter what I do is win.” Or when her performance of “Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You" with a blow up doll Jesus nailed to a cross helps her win the pageant. Several attempts are made on Amber's life (her trailer is even burnt down!), so she considers quitting the competition. “Guys get out of Mount Rose all the time on hockey scholarships... or prison,” she says.
But there’s a certain bluntness to Drop Dead Gorgeous that makes it precious. There’s no semblance of karma in the movie. Sure, Amber has all of the traits that would seemingly make her pageant queen: wholesome values and a sort of girl-next-door, underdog look. But everything that happens to her is by circumstance alone. In fact, Amber doesn’t want to win anything like that. Loretta says, “You stop right there. You are a good person. Good things happen to good people.” To that she replies, “Really?” And Loretta goes, “No, it's pure bullshit, sweetie. You're lucky as hell, so you might as well enjoy it.”
And (*SPOILER ALERT*), the film has one of the best endings of all time. As Amber arrives at nationals with the other girls, she finds out that Sara Rose Cosmetics has gone bankrupt for tax evasion, so the beauty queens start destroying everything. But Amber finds success on her own: after witnessing a shooting she plays her best Diane Sawyer and takes over for an on-air-reporter when she’s shot down, which ultimately leads her to her dream career.
Twenty years later, the quirks of the movie hold up especially well in Trump’s America. The Midwestern tropes still run wild: the extreme accents, aspirations to live sin-free, praise of Jesus and guns, aspirations of big dreams and even jello salad.