By the end of the 90s, the teen movie scene was slowly making its way into the millennium. The teen genre was going strong ranging from Shakespeare adaptations, musicals, the dark side, sex comedies and modern twists on classic novels BUT in 1999, mockumentary was added to the long list of what a teen film could be.
Drop Dead Gorgeous from the outside seemed like any other teen comedy set in a small town during the run-up to a beauty pageant. The cast was full of well-known faces as well as future Oscar-nominated actors.
This may have been about beauty pageants but it was also dark as hell comedy at times, especially with the murder of a contestant not even 20 minutes into the film. Adding to the list of reasons why the film sets itself apart from the rest, there’s no love story and oh my that is a refreshing thing to write. The film focuses on the contestants, their families and of course, the bigger picture, the ‘documentary’ itself, with crew members appearing in front of the camera at times making it very clear this is ‘real-life’ we’re witnessing. Plus with names like Kirstie Alley, Ellen Barkin, Kirsten Dunst, and Denise Richards, names and faces of the time, you already know you’re in for a rare treat.
Set in the fictional small town of Mount Rose, Minnesota, nine contestants at the local high school sign up to take part in the annual Miss Teen America pageant. With the most likely contestant to win up in flames, the remaining eight are introduced and followed as they work towards the big night where one of them will be crowned and others may or may not make it. With quirky and ambitious characters, even the minor characters can make a lasting impression, the documentary crew takes us inside what it means to be just like the theme of the pageant, proud to be an American.
Faces of the late 90s and early 2000s; Kirsten Dunst and Denise Richards play rivals Amber and Becky, the cast also included Amy Adams and Brittany Murphy The fantastically cast Kirstie Alley as Gladys Leeman, pageant committee organiser and former beauty queen herself does steal the show as she will stop at nothing to make sure her daughter wins. With an unnerving and ambitious drive, she really does see herself as better than everyone else and although claims to be God-fearing folk, there something that isn’t so stable about her. Ellen Barkin as Amber’s chain-smoking, former pageant contestant mother, Annette, couldn’t be further from Gladys. But she does support her daughter and her talent, even when flying through the air, she grabs Amber’s tap shoes so she can still compete in the pageant. Allison Janney is on top comedic form as Loretta’s Annette’s friend and neighbour, who predicts the winner of the pageant as she knows exactly what the town is like.
Alongside the main protagonists is a large cast of supporting characters which really do make the film a cut above all those other mockumentary teen movies. From odd and creepy judges to contestants whose talent is to imitate dog barks to the Minnesota Modelling Academy sponsors who drink wine and scream at kids in pools, there are inserts of other random characters slotted into the finished documentary for context. Edited together to create a dream of ‘real’ documentary that I’m no one in Mount Rose ever saw.
Released in 1999, the film received mixed, unenthusiastic reviews and failed to find an audience. But over the years, the film has earned the coveted ‘cult film’ status that all films that failed the first time at the box office crave. But Drop Dead Gorgeous deserves and lives up to the hype. This can all be rooted from writer (and Judge #3) Lorna Williams’ darkly comedic, deadly sharp script. Inspired by her home town, Rosemount, Minnesota, Williams was also a pageant contestant, entering as a way of escaping the small-town life. Elements from her pageant days were also used in the film, such as the physical fitness dance sequence, she actually used the mini step ladder in a routine back in the day. Cast members have commented on how proud they’ve been to a part of a film written by a funny woman and Williams’ writing is something to be in awe of. Although not everyone was laughing along with her at the time, they are now.