Why 'Beetlejuice' Character Delia Deetz Is So Much More Than A "Wicked Stepmother"
A fan favorite and cult classic, Tim Burton's Beetlejuice, celebrated its 30th anniversary on March 30. And like with many classic films, not everything about the movie has aged well — like the character of Delia Deetz (Catherine O'Hara). The wife of Charles (Jeffrey Jones), and stepmother to the goth heroine Lydia Deetz (the glorious Winona Ryder), Delia is supposed to be one of the "villains" of Beetlejuice. But revisiting the movie today, it's only time that we give Delia a little more respect and not dismiss her as the "shrew" she was depicted to be back in 1988.
Beetlejuice stars Michael Keaton, in his most bizarre role ever, as a "bio-exorcist," a ghost who's made a freelance career out of scaring the living crap out of the living. He's accidentally hired by Barbara and Adam Maitland (Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin), a married couple who have found themselves suddenly dead, their home taken over by the very much still alive and annoying Deetz family. The Maitlands want their house back, and Beetlejuice can help. But his mischievous ways and unconventional methods, even for someone who's dead, cause a little more chaos than the Maitlands expected. For viewers, though, the chaos from the world of the undead invading that of the living is exactly what makes Beetlejuice so fun.
But we need to take a harder look at the "wicked stepmother" role that Delia Deetz embodies in the movie. The character is a sculpture from New York City, and her husband Charles, a retired real estate mogul, bought the Maitlands house to get the family out of the city and into country living. Delia wants to modernize the house and spruce it up, but she comes across as a snob who feels she's totally "above" living in the suburbs. Re-examining her from a new angle, though, makes it clear that she doesn't deserve all of the grief that she's been dealt over the years.
Think of the scenario from her perspective. Delia is a career woman who has made a serious name for herself in the art and business world. She's tough and demanding, and back in the '80s, that might have been viewed as aggressive and snide. Today, though, it's clear that Delia is just trying to succeed in her job and in her marriage. When Charles uproots her entire life and asks that she give up everything she knows so that he can have some time out in the country, it's no wonder that Delia takes some time to get used to the whole situation. She's dealing with a lot.
Delia's fraught relationship with Lydia also unjustly makes O'Hara's character come off as unlikable. The mother and daughter pair are set up as two opposing forces who will never get along, but they're actually very much alike. They're both artistic, sensitive, and fashionable women who occasionally dip into dramatics and aren't the idea of moving out into the 'burbs. It's a wonder why Beetlejuice didn't bring Lydia and Delia closer together, but anyone who was once a teenager will tell you that it's not always easy to get along with your parental figures at that age. Truly, Delia is trying just as hard as Lydia to make a place for herself in the new world Charles has created for them.
Whether or not you see Delia as a bitter character or a misunderstood feminist hero, one thing that's for sure is that O'Hara's portrayal is total perfection. The actor's comedic timing and the expressiveness of her face should be taught in acting masterclasses, and her wacky, out there performance in Beetlejuice will always be legendary.
Beetlejuice is one of those films that was embraced by the goth kids of the '90s and is now fondly beloved by those same kids all grown up. It's a Halloween staple, and a cult-classic for anyone who's a fan of the creepy, darkly comic genre in which Burton solidly resides. But if you haven't seen Beetlejuice in years, do yourself a favor and check it out again — and when you do, cut Delia some slack. She's just trying to survive in this super wacky world, and really, aren't we all?