A couple of weeks ago, I read a post on the Go Fug Yourself site about how the film Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999) was now old enough to buy booze. In other words, happy 21st anniversary of the premiere of this cult classic! I first saw this movie years ago, and I remembered three main things about it: (1) it is a teen comedy, but it goes a LOT darker then you would expect, (2) this film is super quotable, and (3) it features a reel librarian! This last reason is why you’re here, right? 😉 So let’s get to it!
If you haven’t seen Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999) in a while, the film’s tagline will get you up to speed: “A small-town beauty pageant turns deadly as it becomes clear that someone will go to any lengths to win.” The plot includes murder, a huge swan float engulfed in flames, beauty pageant contestants upchucking contaminated seafood, and so much more!
The film is very well-cast, starring: Kirsten Dunst, Denise Richards, Brittany Murphy (RIP), Amy Adams (I had totally forgotten she was in this movie!), Allison Janney, Kirstie Alley (I had *not* forgotten about her scene-stealing her way through this film!), and Ellen Barkin, among many others. Here’s a trailer:
The reel librarian shows up in two short cameos, but each time, she is very memorable.
Librarian scene #1: “Didn’t even get to keep my damn tiara.”
Claudia Wilkens plays Iona Hildebrandt, who gets introduced as the local pageant winner in 1945, the first year of the Sarah Rose Miss Teenage Princess pageant. And that first beauty pageant winner grew up to be… the local public librarian! Does it blow the audience’s mind that the movie’s title could also include the librarian?!
Below is a side-by-side comparison of Iona in ’45 versus 54 years later. It’s interesting to note that however else she has changed physically, Iona still wears her hair in a similar style, with rolls of hair on either side of a middle part.
She reveals that she had to give up her crown for scrap because of World War II. And she utters one of my favorite lines in the film:
“Didn’t even get to keep my damn tiara.”
You can tell she is STILL upset about this, 54 years later. Which is even funnier as the actress says all this in the driest, most deadpan voice and intonation.
The words “library” or “librarian” are never uttered, so we only know that this character is a reel librarian because of the physical props and setting. The library background behind her includes a desk, stacks of books, old lamps, bookcases, files, and tall windows. All those stacks of books give the library a fairly messy look, and the setting is all about the inanimate objects. There are no other people in this library.
The reel librarian’s personal props include a book and a due date stamp. She is dressed very plainly and conservatively, in a brown dress with long sleeves and a high neck. I am rather shocked that they did NOT add glasses on a chain to her look!
Here’s a clip of this brief scene, which lasts 15 seconds:
Librarian scene #2: “It’s best with lots of butter.“
Librarian shows up again briefly, this time to explain lutefisk, a culinary detail that immediately reinforces the film’s setting in the Upper Midwest, where many Nordic immigrants settled in the U.S.
What is lutefisk, you may wonder? The librarian is back to explain:
“Lutefisk is codfish that’s been salted and soaked in lye for a week or so.”
She pauses, and then states:
“It’s best with lots of butter.”
Yeah, lutefisk is… an acquired taste. (My mom, a real-life librarian, once had a shirt that read: “Just say no to lutefisk!“)
Almost everything in this scene looks the same as the first library scene. The librarian still has a library stamp in her hands — although this time, she’s sitting at her desk instead of standing in front of it — and she’s wearing the same dress and hairstyle.
This final scene with the reel librarian lasts less than 10 seconds total.
The reel librarian’s role
What is the purpose of this reel librarian’s role in Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999)? Although she is quite informative — first embodying the origins of the beauty pageant and then explaining what lutefisk is, with devastating efficiency — she primarily serves the role of Comic Relief in this Class IV film. This reel librarian is like the straight (wo)man in a comedy routine.
The comedy in these librarian cameos are all about juxtapositions, including hearing a librarian cuss and seeing how this beautiful young woman, the first winner of the local beauty pageant, turns into a sour-faced librarian.
Ahhhhhhh, the comedic irony! The upending of expectations! Or wait… is this really a cautionary tale of what awaits beauty pageant winners?! Discuss. 😉
- Cocks, Heather. “Drop Dead Gorgeous Can Now Legally Buy Booze in the U.S.” Go Fug Yourself, 23 July 2020.
- Drop Dead Gorgeous. Dir. Michael Patrick Jann. Perf. Kirsten Dunst, Kirstie Alley, Denise Richards, Ellen Barkin, Allison Janney. New Line Cinema, 1999.