My family moved to Alabama from Wisconsin and I guess pageants were what ten year old girls did in Dothan, Alabama so I entered. I did not win but I did get a trophy for participation. I hate trophies for participation. Anyway, pageants didn't stick for me (shocker) but that didn't mean that I wasn't fascinated with them growing up. I, like most Americans, watched Miss America every year and rooted for Miss Michigan and Miss State We Lived In (Alabama, Louisiana, or Virginia). In Alabama, we also had Azalea Trail Maids and the Azalea Trail Queen. These girls would sit outside the houses along the Azalea Trail in the spring and serve as really pretty lawn ornaments. I'm sure the official description was more like "Hostesses of the Spring" or something equally as horrifying. However, when I was ten I thought they were glamorous and beautiful and the only thing to aspire to was to be an Azalea Trail Queen.
My aspirations have changed since then but that doesn't mean that I don't love a good pageant movie; made for tv movies about beauty queens in peril are phenomenal. The first Miss Congeniality is a triumph. But one pageant movie says everything we need it to say about beauty pageants, small towns, and why we do the things we do to succeed. That movie is Drop Dead Gorgeous.
Never heard of Drop Dead Gorgeous? I'm not surprised. The movie was released in 1999 (the same year as another amazing dark teen movie, Jawbreaker) and was a cinematic flop. But like most flops, it has gone on to become a cult movie. The write, Lona Williams, was a former pageant contestant from Rosemount, MN. She wrote a dark and hilarious movie about beauty pageants that was probably way ahead of its time. We hadn't yet seen the world of Toddlers & Tiaras when this movie came out. Maybe things would have been different for Drop Dead Gorgeous if we had. Or maybe it wouldn't be as glorious and magical as it is.
There is so much to talk about in this movie so let's get started. Grab yourself some coffee and bars and settle in for Drop Dead Gorgeous.
- The movie is set up to be a documentary about the American Teen Princess Pageant. Much like the mockumentaries of the great Christopher Guest, Drop Dead Gorgeous is dark, odd, and hilarious.
- Adam West is the celebrity of note in the greatest opening video montage ever. The American Teen Princess Pageant recruitment video has everything - a great voice-over, Adam West, amazing music, and really old looking teenage girls.
- "Iris, you taped your shows over it." Iris is Gladys's (Kirstie Alley) sidekick. She and Allison Janney practically steal this movie. You may recognize the actress, Mindy Sterling, from the Austin Powers movies.
- Say what you will about Kirstie Alley but you can't deny that she is flawless in this movie. She nails the role of Gladys Leeman - I dare say she is the epitome of Minnesota nice. She has some of the best lines in the movie and you can tell she's slightly off from the minute you meet her. Also, she introduces us to coffee and bars within the first ten minutes of the movie.
- Gladys: No, I think you boys are gonna find something a litle bit different here in Mount Rose. For one thing, we're all God-fearing folk, every last one of us. And you will not find a "back room" in our video store. No, no, that filth is better left to the sin cities. Iris: AKA Minneapolis St. Paul.
- I can quote this entire movie and often do it with a fairly convincing Minnesota accent. Sometimes after I've watched this movie, I catch myself using this accent for no reason at all. "You'd think they'd have the parking lot of America to go with the Mall of America." (FUN FACT: The mall is actually the Eden Prairie Center not the Mall of America.)
- Let's meet the contestants:
- Leslie Miller - It's Amy Adams! This was Amy's film debut and she plays the cheerleader perfectly. She's funny and fun to watch. We all went to high school with Leslie Miller.
- Amber Atkins - Kirsten Dunst is perfect for this role. She's got Amber's hopefulness and pluck down perfectly. I love her scenes with Ellen Barkin (her mom) and who didn't want to dress like her after seeing this movie?
- Rebecca "Becky" Leeman - Denise Richards is also perfection as the town's mean girl and the "heir" to the crown. Gladys is her mom and she has some great lines too. "Jesus loves a winner" is a personal favorite.
- Tess Weinhaus - I was probably the Tess Weinhaus of the pageant I was in; I'm totally cool with this. Memorable line, "They remade my belly with skin from my butt." (after she was mauled by a dog)
- Lisa Swenson - Seeing Brittany Murphy always makes me sad. She's lovely as Lisa and is a genuinely good person. "It's just what you do" - her response when asked why she's in the pageant.
- Molly Howard - you just have to watch the scenes with her adopted family. That is all.
- Michelle Johnson - There has to be an actress. And of course she does a monologue from Solyent Green as her talent
- Janelle Betz - I usually refer to her as ASL/Interpretive Dance Girl
- Tammy Curry - star athlete, President of the Lutheran Sisterhood Gun Club, Becky's direct competition. She has to go.
- One of my favorite things about this movie is all the odd side characters: the clueless mayor, the funeral director, Iona Hildebrandt (1945 winner now librarian), Chloris Klinghagen (the dance teacher), Brett Clemmens (the ill-fated love interest), Hank and Harold, the other judges (Jean is writer Lona Williams) - this is a town of awesome. We should all move here.
- Tammy Curry's out - her death is described as "odd and gross." At her funeral, we're introduced to the importance of jello salad in the grieving process.
- The current Miss Mount Rose, Mary Johanson. The dark tone of this movie is one of the reasons that it was not widely received. Mary's part in the story, as the clearly anorexic current queen, is just one of the dark elements of the movie. Her performance at the pageant is hard to watch but also more of a commentary on the idea of beauty than most people probably want to face in a comedy.
- Amber: "Guys get out of Mount Rose all the time on hockey scholarships... or prison." Amber wants to be the next Diane Sawyer and sees pageants as a way out of Mount Rose. Admirable.
- Ellen Barkin and Allison Janney as Annette and Loretta - they are a perfect duo and should be in more movies together or perhaps a sitcom. I would watch them in anything as long as they were being as awesome as they are here. They're perfectly trailer park and it's so good. Annette is the perfect foil for Gladys; in fact they competed against each other for the American Teen Princess crown.
- Iona: "Lutefisk is codfish that's been salted and soaked in lye for a week or so. It's best with lots of butter"
- Has anyone ever been cow-tipping? It seems like an incredible waste of time even if you live in a farm town and there is literally nothing else to do.
- More deaths - Amber at the funeral parlor is perfect (besides the tap dancing). There's also a fire - this movie has so much going on. "Ruined a brand new pair of Lee Press-ons." Annette's reaction to the fire at her trailer.
- Amber: My mom never hid the fact that my dad chose his career over us. What was it she always said? Loretta: Once a carnie, always a carnie. Amber: Mom still cries when she sees a tilt-a-whirl or a fat lady in a tube top.
- Best Gladys line and words to live by: American Teen Princesses do not cross their legs like streetwalkers. (to Leslie) Excuse me, Miss Penthouse '98, put your knees together. I could drive a boat show in there.
- Can you name and spell all 50 states? I'll give you a few minutes to try.
- Finally it's pageant day! Another contestant has been lost, Amber's talent costume has gone missing, and Hank painted the ladders for the physical fitness number on the day of the pageant. Still, the show must go on. Some highlights:
- Tess and the largest ball of twine in the opening number
- Mary's lip sync performance is just too much
- Becky's song and dance
- Amber tap dances up a storm
- Gladys and her culottes - "She had a big ass then and she's got a big ass now."
- Of course, we all know who's going to win. We've known that since we met Becky but it's fun to see the shock ripple through the crowd as she's crowned and the mayor sings an incredibly awkward song.
- The parade:
- Small town parades are the best - from the Shriners to the old ladies with fake musical instruments to the militia families, everyone has a spot in the parade.
- The giant swan float - "like a glistening lake"
- The explosion is totally unexpected and leads to the greatest line in the movie, "The swan ate my baby!"
- The collision of the COPS film crew and our film crew - great moment
- Of course Gladys is the bad guy. The 90s gave us the Texas cheerleader mom case so why wouldn't Gladys be the responsible party? What's amazing about this event is that we still have more time left in the movie. What else could possibly happen?
- It turns out lots - Amber is crowned Mount Rose American Teen Princess and goes to state. It's at state that Nora Dunn and Mo Gaffney make cameo appearances (that are epically awesome), Loretta gets lucky, and a freak food poisoning accident (or was it an accident?) sends Amber to nationals.
- Question: what do you think happens to cameras that are used during movies? Loretta and Annette both use disposable cameras. Do they have real film in them and what happens to the film? I bet there are some great photos from this movie.
- Does anyone else wonder why nationals didn't contribute any money to the state competition? Didn't any think to contact Sarah Rose Cosmetics to see what was going on? It would have saved lives if you think about it.
- Joan Jett's version of "Love is All Around" - perfect way to end the movie as we learn the fates of many of the contestants (who survived). Sometimes it pays to be at the right place at the right time.
I leave you with the wonderful words of Loretta, just in case you ever doubt something in your life:
Loretta: You are a good person. Good things happen to good people.
Loretta: No. It's pure bullshit, sweetie. You're lucky as hell, so you might as well enjoy it.
Quotes from IMDB