Pageantry, With a Vengeance: ‘Drop Dead Gorgeous’ at 20

The Midwestern pageant queens of the #MeToo era are speaking out against workplace harassment, but the teen beauty contestant competitors of 1999 were setting their rivals on fire in open corn fields — at least, according to the outlandish, utterly crass, and possibly diabolical film, Drop Dead Gorgeous

America is obsessed with the pageant movie. From Miss Congeniality to Dumplin’, Little Miss Sunshine to the wild card Sundance selection of 2013, Ass Backwards, pop culture loves to reclaim and reposition the pageant. In Dumplin’ a local competition in Texas that frowned upon bigger women becomes an opportunity for empowerment. The film is a joyous–and gorgeous–celebration of body positivity, queerness, and Dolly Parton. In the rom-com/dramedy, womanhood becomes something deeply pleasurable and ecstatic; in its own PG-13 kind of way.  

Drop Dead Gorgeous is another beast entirely. And by beast, I am specifically referring to this one scene that has been scorched onto my cornea as if a fiery IUD has been plugged directly into it: I am, of course, talking about the scene where dozens of regional winners from across Minnesota gather together in a hotel and dispel vomit onto each other, from every corner of the lobby, oozing expired shellfish and bile. It is rapturous and cathartic. In watching this, I felt an uneasy cackle pour of me, as if expunging womanly guilt and shame and decorum. 

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Courtesy of New Line Cinema.

At the time of its 20th anniversary, the dark comedy, Drop Dead Gorgeous has enjoyed a renaissance of sorts, with a glowing New Yorker review and an Amazon streaming deal to boot. Contemporary viewers will likely feel uneasy with some of the film’s humor: director Michael Patrick Jann includes some rather tasteless jokes and creates an at times offensive caricature of a blue-collar community. The film is not shy nor is it particularly nuanced. 

Amber Atkins (Kirsten Dunst) practices for the Mount Rose American Teen Princess title, tap-dancing as she applies makeup to corpses at the funeral home where she works. She is blonde, doe-eyed and popular in a more quiet way. But as the main competitor of Becky Ann Leeman (Denise Richards), the rich girl daughter of Gladys Leeman (Kirstie Alley) and president of the Lutheran Sisterhood Gun Club, begins killing competitors, she fears for her life. But for Amber, the pageant is her chance to make it out of the small town and become a journalist like her idol, Diane Sawyer. 

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Courtesy of New Line Cinema.

Pageant films hold our interest because they illustrate the enormous labor of pursuing a certain kind of femininity: the bikini-clad and be-sequined sort, with grinning smiles enforced by Vaseline. In the world of this film, the pursuit of this kind of beauty and fame is one working-class girl’s ticket to success. Michael Patrick Jann brilliantly makes that labor a part of the form. Drop Dead Gorgeous is first and foremost a mockumentary: A camera crew enters into each character’s home and captures these girls as they attempt to perform, with various degrees of success, a cookie-cutter mold of beauty and poise. 

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Courtesy of New Line Cinema.

There’s something unsettling about the film’s treatment of Amber, though, who haplessly, almost accidentally, curates the best performances. And yet, she is alone, looking on in horror and shock as her peers decorate the hotel with vomit. She is alone when her peers raze down a cosmetics corporation, pillar by pillar, in a fury that comes from deep inside. Instead of joining in, she walks back onto the bus that they rode in on. The cruelty of the film is that, for her, the performance never ends, even when she “makes it.” 

The solitude of Drop Dead Gorgeous doesn’t feel too out of place with its horror. The film is loud and unrestrained, and deliberately overzealous. With extraordinary performances from Allison Janney and a feature film debut from Amy Adams — who plays the most glimmeringly innocuous cheerleader committed to film — the spectacle never ceases. It almost distracts from the fact that the film is basically hell for its protagonist; it is a world built on false promises and corporations that do not care. All this, one year before the easy, breezy glamour of Miss Congeniality. 

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