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Drop Dead Gorgeous (film)

Drop Dead Gorgeous is a 1999 American black comedy film directed by Michael Patrick Jann and starring Kirsten Dunst, Ellen Barkin, Brittany Murphy, Allison Janney, Denise Richards, Kirstie Alley, and Amy Adams in her film debut. Shot in a mockumentary format, it follows the contestants in a beauty pageant called the Sarah Rose Cosmetics Mount Rose American Teen Princess Pageant, held in the small fictional town of Mount Rose, Minnesota, in which various contestants die in suspicious ways.

Drop Dead Gorgeous
Drop Dead Gorgeous poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byMichael Patrick Jann
Produced byGavin Polone
Judy Hofflund
Written byLona Williams
Music byMark Mothersbaugh
CinematographyMichael Spiller
Edited byJanice Hampton
Distributed byNew Line Cinema
Release date
  • July 23, 1999 (1999-07-23)
Running time
98 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$10–15 million[1][2]
Box office$10.5 million[1]


In 1995, Mount Rose is preparing for its annual beauty pageant. Amber Atkins (Kirsten Dunst) is an optimistic teenager who signs up to compete in the pageant so she can follow in the footsteps of her idols, television news reporter Diane Sawyer, and Amber's mother, a former contestant. Amber works after school applying makeup to corpses at the mortuary, and lives with her mother, Annette Atkins (Ellen Barkin), in a small trailer near their friend Loretta (Allison Janney). This is in stark contrast to fellow contestant Rebecca ("Becky") Leeman (Denise Richards), the daughter of the richest man in town and his wife, Gladys Leeman (Kirstie Alley), who is the head of the pageant organizing committee and a former winner. Various business connections between the Leeman Furniture Store and the judges of the pageant cause many to speculate that the contest will be rigged or fixed.

Many odd events occur around town during the run-up to the pageant, including the death of a contestant, the athletic and competitive Tammy Curry, who is killed when her tractor explodes, and the death (ruled a hunting accident) of a boy who Becky liked, but who showed himself partial to Amber. Amber decides to pull out of the pageant after her mother is injured in an explosion at their mobile home, but reconsiders and decides to compete to follow her dreams and make her mother proud. At the dress rehearsal, fellow contestant Jenelle Betz swaps numbers with Amber. Midway through Janelle's rehearsal performance, a stage light falls and hits her in the head, knocking her unconscious and rendering her deaf. Luckily, Jenelle is a master of sign language so she claims that despite dropping out of the pageant, she has never been happier.

At the pageant, Amber's dance costume mysteriously goes missing. Amber blames Becky and the two get into a catfight. Gladys Leeman's right-hand woman Iris Clark (Mindy Sterling) and Amber's best friend and fellow contestant Lisa Swenson (Brittany Murphy) pull them apart. Pageant choreographer Chloris Klinghagen (Mary Gillis) then gives Amber a new costume to perform in, however Amber is told by both Iris and Gladys that she can't perform due to her new costume not being approved weeks in advance. Later, Lisa finds Amber crying as the fellow contestants try to console her. After learning about the costume situation, Lisa then drops out of the pageant in order to give her own approved costume to Amber. Amber then performs her tap dance number to a standing ovation. Rebecca sings a cringe-worthy rendition of "Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You" as she dances with a life-size Jesus doll on a crucifix, both amusing and horrifying the audience. During judging, the previous year's winner Mary Johanson (now hospitalized with anorexia) reprises her talent act (lip-synching "Don't Cry Out Loud") while being pushed around the stage in her hospital wheelchair in a re-enactment of her dance movements. When the new winner is announced, Amber is named first runner-up to Rebecca.

During the victory parade the next day, Rebecca is killed in a freak accident when the elaborate float (made in Mexico, to save her father money) on which she is riding explodes. The grief-stricken Gladys flies into a blind rage and admits to having killed Tammy and to being responsible for all the attempts against Amber in the run-up to the pageant, and is immediately arrested. Rebecca's tragic death and Gladys's antics leave Amber as the new pageant winner.

At the State Competition, Amber wins the Minnesota American Teen Princess title by default after all the other contestants fall ill with seafood-related food poisoning, and Amber gets an all-expenses-paid trip to the national Sarah Rose American Teen Princess Pageant. Upon arrival there, Amber and the other state winners are devastated to find that the cosmetics company has been shut down by the IRS for tax evasion. This sends all the contestants except Amber on a rampage, vandalizing and destroying the property.

A few years later, Gladys escapes from prison and is sniping from the top of the Mount Rose supermarket, declaring her intent to take revenge on Amber. During the six-hour police standoff, a television reporter doing a live report at the scene is hit by a stray bullet. Amber quickly picks up the reporter's microphone and takes over reporting the story, impressing the news station with her poise and confidence. The film closes with a scene showing Amber as co-anchor of the evening news for Minneapolis–St. Paul television station WAZB-TV, thus living her dream of possibly becoming the next Diane Sawyer.



The movie is set in the fictional town of Mount Rose, Minnesota. The town is based on Rosemount, where the writer, Lona Williams, grew up. The film was originally titled "Dairy Queens" but was changed for legal reasons.[3]

The accents portrayed in the movie are that of the North Central American dialect found in the Midwest, notably Minnesota.[4]

The film was shot throughout the Carver County area, mainly in Waconia, Minnesota, although names of real Minnesota communities were shown on the sashes of contestants later in the movie.

News reporter Diane Sawyer is mentioned throughout the film as Kirsten Dunst's character Amber Atkins's idol as Sawyer was a former beauty pageant winner. Amber's other idols include her beauty pageant mother who raised her alone in a trailer park and the previous year's winner who is hospitalized for anorexia. Competing in the beauty pageant for a scholarship is juxtaposed against the opportunities that boys have in leaving "Mount Rose" such as hockey scholarships and prison.

Two Melissa Manchester songs are featured in the film as songs used in the talent portion by contestants. Mary lip-syncs "Don't Cry Out Loud", while Jenelle sings and signs "Through the Eyes of Love". Fanfare for the Common Man is played to introduce the parade for the rigged competition and the plight of Hank. "Are we on Cops again?" is used throughout the movie when the "mockumentary" film crew is spotted. Strauss's "Sunrise" (inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra) is played when the Minnesota state pageant is interrupted by the violent illness of the contestants who ate shellfish (all except Amber).


The film received mixed reviews. Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a score of 46% based on 69 reviews.[5] Metacritic gives the film a score of 28% based on reviews from 28 critics, indicating generally unfavorable reviews.[6] Audiences surveyed by CinemaScore gave the film a grade "C-" on scale of A to F.[7]

Many critics liked the modern interpretation of the pageant world although just as many people disliked the film as a whole. Allison Janney and Denise Richards in particular received praise for their performances from a number of critics.[8][9] Dennis Harvey of Variety called the film "a fitfully amusing satire that would have gained a lot of mileage from just a tad more subtlety." Harvey says the writing is not sophisticated enough to pull off the some of the jokes without being condescending. Otherwise he praises the pacing, the performances, and the clever visual casting.[10]Roger Ebert liked the idea of the film, but wrote that the script failed to translate into screenplay and is never quite funny enough, due to subtle miscalculations of production and performance.[11] Jeff Vice of the Deseret News criticized the film for being derivative, comparing it to the 1975 pageant comedy Smile, and also Fargo and the mockumentary Waiting for Guffawing (sic).[12] Entertainment Weekly gave the film a D grade, and compared the film unfavorably to Smile, and The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom.[13][10]

Cult statusEdit

The film has gained new fans with time and is regarded as a cult film. In 2011, Allison Janney stated in an interview that she is approached by more fans of this film than for her Emmy-winning tenure on The West Wing.[14]

In July 2019, the movie was released for streaming for the first time on Hulu, which was "met with a host of celebratory tweets, particularly among women and queer people, who have long recognised it as a cult classic", according to The Independent's Adam White.[15] The 20th anniversary of the movie's release on July 23 attracted a slew of retrospective praise from the likes of The Independent, The Guardian, Teen Vogue, The New Yorker and E! News.[16][17][18] The New Yorker's Jia Tolentino credited the movie's "transformation" from a flop to a "venerated artifact of Y2K camp" to its slow discovery on VHS and DVD by teenage girls who identified with its truthfulness and particular brand of dark humor.[19] Tolentino summed up the movie as "...offensive, for sure—completely awful, really, and possibly deadly. It is also irreplaceable, hilarious, surprisingly tender, and lavishly, magnificently absurd."[19] The Guardian praised the film's "vicious indecency", describing it as "...trashy, wonderful, endlessly quotable, and...20 years ahead of its time."[18]

Adam White from The Independent praised the movie's radical departure from lighthearted teen movies of the late 90's, stating that it "was made for a generation of freaks and outsiders, whose ambitions, oddities, queerness and poverty were otherwise ignored by anything similarly mainstream or funny." He added that it was "acidic and truthful about beauty, class and ambition, satirised all-American moralism and blew up Denise Richards, then fresh from Wild Things, as she rode a giant paper-maché swan."[15] Alex Zaragoza of Teen Vogue echoed other reviews in praising the movie's appeal to outsiders and misfits, and departing from the teen rom-com tropes of other movies released that year like 10 Things I Hate About You and She's All That.[16] Zaragoza stated that the girls in Drop Dead Gorgeous "don't yearn to land their respective dream boy...they're too busy trying not to get clapped by a crazed mother-daughter duo... and striving to break out of the confines of their small town." He further described it as a "wild, absurdly portrayed story that's fundamentally about small-town struggles and overcoming the adversity of being born into a class that lacks opportunities to ultimately earn the life you've dreamed of for yourself. It's unabashed weirdness and mockumentary-style filmmaking made it an immediate cult classic..."[16]


Drop Dead Gorgeous:
Motion Picture Soundtrack
Soundtrack album by
Various Artists
ReleasedJuly 13, 1999 (1999-07-13)
Professional ratings
Review scores
Allmusic     [20]
1."400 Calories" (dialogue)Alexandra Holden (Mary Johanson)0:21
2."Number One"Lifeboy2:56
3."She"Sunday Suit2:50
4."Two Months Late" (dialogue)Amy Adams (Leslie Miller) and Thomas Lennon (the Documentarian)0:19
5."Love Is All Around" (Theme from The Mary Tyler Moore Show)Joan Jett2:20
6."Pressure Man"The Feelers4:29
7."FAQ" (dialogue)Michael McShane & Will Sasso (Harold & Hank Vilmes)0:10
8."Young Americans" (David Bowie cover)Everything3:40
9."Beautiful Dreamer"Mandy Barnett3:42
10."Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting"Elton John4:50
11."Number One" (dialogue)Janney (Loretta) and Kirsten Dunst (Amber Atkins)0:17
12."Girl That's Hip"Tim Carroll3:13
13."Lost Picasso"Hot Sauce Johnson3:16
14."Boat Show" (dialogue)Kirstie Alley (Gladys Leeman)0:09
15."Ballad of a Teenage Queen"Dale Watson2:26
17."Watch You Sleep"The Nevers5:23
18."Confessions"Mark Mothersbaugh2:37
19."Beauty Pageant Biz" (dialogue)Nora Dunn (Colleen Douglas)0:22
20."Devil's Triangle"Primitive Radio Gods2:06
21."9mm" (dialogue)Denise Richards (Rebecca Ann Leeman)0:16
22."Can't Take My Eyes Off You"Denise Richards (Rebecca Ann Leeman)2:02
23."Last Laugh" (dialogue)Brittany Murphy (Lisa Swenson)0:21


  1. ^ a b "Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999)". Box Office Mojo. IMDB. 2002-08-28. Retrieved 2012-02-14.
  2. ^ "Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999) - Financial Information". The Numbers.
  3. ^ Louis Peitzman (July 22, 2014). ""Jesus Loves Winners": How "Drop Dead Gorgeous" Found Cult Success As A Flop". BuzzFeed.
  4. ^ "FAST-US-1 Intro to American English Reference File". Archived from the original on 2012-02-12. Retrieved 2012-02-14.
  5. ^ "Drop Dead Gorgeous". Rotten Tomatoes.
  6. ^ "Drop Dead Gorgeous". Metacritic.
  7. ^ "Cinemascore". CinemaScore. Archived from the original on 2018-12-20.
  8. ^ Thomas, Kevin (1999-07-23). "Movie Review; 'Drop Dead Gorgeous' Wins Prize for Congeniality". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2010-12-13.
  9. ^ MARY ELIZABETH WILLIAMS (July 23, 1999). "Drop Dead Gorgeous". Salon. Archived from the original on 2011-01-30. Retrieved 2010-12-13.
  10. ^ a b Harvey, Dennis (1999-07-15). "Drop Dead Gorgeous". Variety. Retrieved 2019-09-09.
  11. ^ Roger Ebert (1999-07-23). "Drop Dead Gorgeous Movie Review (1999)". Chicago Sun-Times.
  12. ^ Jeff Vice (June 23, 1999). "Drop Dead Gorgeous". Deseret News.
  13. ^ EW Staff (July 16, 1999). "Drop Dead Gorgeous". Entertainment Weekly.
  14. ^ Harris, Will. "Random Roles: Allison Janney". The A.V. Club. Retrieved 2011-09-08.
  15. ^ a b Adam White (2019-07-23). "Drop Dead Gorgeous: The cult classic that defined 90's teen outsiders". The Independent. Retrieved 2019-07-24.
  16. ^ a b c Alex Zaragoza (2019-07-23). "Revisiting the Cult Classic "Drop Dead Gorgeous On Its 20th Anniversary"". Teen Vogue. Retrieved 2019-07-24.
  17. ^ Tierney Bricker (2019-07-23). "On-Set Feuds, Offended Audiences and a Box Office Disaster: 20 Secrets You Might Not Know About Drop Dead Gorgeous". E News. Retrieved 2019-07-24.
  18. ^ a b Rebecca Nicholson (2019-07-23). "Drop Dead Gorgeous at 20: how dark pageant comedy works better in 2019". The Guardian. Retrieved 2019-07-24.
  19. ^ a b Jia Tolentino (2019-07-05). ""Drop Dead Gorgeous," Which Is Finally Streaming, Is Possibly My Favorite Movie of All Time". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2019-07-24.
  20. ^ Phares, Heather. Drop Dead Gorgeous at AllMusic

External linksEdit