Liz & Dick

Lifetime’s Liz & Dick, a chintzy biography of the tumultuous love affair between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, is easily one of the most talked about and high profile television movies in recent memory, if not in the history of the oft-maligned genre. But it would be a mistake to imagine that most of the folks anticipating it with crazed glee expect anything even vaguely resembling quality. No, the cult of Liz & Dick (and it’s a measure of the project’s weird notoriety that it seems to have a cult before it even aired) is largely composed of camp aficionados and schadenfreude enthusiasts delighted to see the perpetually struggling, eternally troubled Lindsay Lohan once again flamboyantly embarrass herself publicly, though in a strange twist, this time they’re excited to see her embarrass herself through her chosen trade and not her off-screen shenanigans.

Liz & Dick seems custom-made for the curious custom of “hate-watching”: deliberately watching campy junk or shows otherwise deemed annoyances for the purpose of mocking them, whether through live-Tweeting, viewing parties, or just cackling maniacally at moments that are supposed to be somber and filled with meaning. Liz & Dick arrives on the small screen with a giant “kick me” sign rooted both in Lohan’s tabloid infamy and the sad overreaching of trying to chronicle an epic love affair that unfolded across continents and decades on a tiny television movie budget.

The intense fascination surrounding Liz & Dick has a lot to do with the parallels between Elizabeth Taylor and Lohan’s lives. Both were child stars who grew into smoky sexpots whose stormy love lives and career foibles captivated the tabloid media and a voyeuristic public. In fact, the tabloid press might as well have been created specifically to document Burton and Taylor’s extra-marital fling on the set of 1963’s Cleopatra. Lohan’s life and career so eerily echo Taylor (minus, you know, the great films, Oscars, longevity, and extraordinary talent) that her performance in Liz & Dick reeks of clumsy self-parody even if, ironically, Lohan doesn’t really look or sound anything like Taylor.

Liz & Dick’s idiotic framing device has its stars dressed in all black like beatnik theater students and sitting in director chairs while talking about their love affair directly to the camera. This device consciously or unconsciously recalls the direct-to-camera confessionals of reality television, which, at root, isn’t a bad analogy. Liz & Dick posits Taylor and Burton as the first reality stars, shameless exhibitionists whose lives and love played out in a series of screaming tabloid headlines and public stunts. Judging by the film, the great stars lived their lives as if there was a camera pointed on them at all times, which wasn’t too far from the truth. And, like contemporary reality stars, Burton and Taylor screamed and whined and fought their way through a train wreck of a relationship in ways that dared audiences and an endlessly fascinated public to look away.

The titular twosome’s affair began on the set of Cleopatra while both were rather inconveniently married to other people. Burton (forgettably played by Grant Bowler) makes a stumbling first impression when he asks Tayor if anyone has ever told her she’s pretty. Taylor publicly mocks his oafishness, which prompts Burton to explain, “I said to [Taylor], ‘Has anyone ever told you you’re a very pretty girl?’ Then I paused, and she walked away, before I could add, ‘Well they would be a fool! You are not a pretty girl though you once were. You are now a beautiful woman, with the depths of the ocean in your violet eyes and the promise of a ripe plum in your soft firm lips and your spilling white-hot bosom.’”

I’m not sure anyone alive could deliver this deliciously over-heated purple prose about ripe plums and spilling white-hot bosoms naturally or convincingly. Hell, I’m not sure even Burton himself could. That points to a problem for any actor playing Burton: The Welsh legend was such an incorrigible ham that to match his theatricality would invite accusations of crazed overacting, but underplaying the role misses the essence of the man. Thankfully Lohan’s performance is such a train wreck that it takes the attention off Bowler.

Burton refers to Taylor as his “ocean” more than once, but given the relentlessly superficial nature of the film and everything in it, she feels more like the shallow end of a kiddie pool. Underneath the simmering contempt lies a raging geyser of sexual attraction, or at least it would if the filmmakers had cast leads with any kind of chemistry.

Soon Taylor and Burton are boldly flaunting their extramarital affair before a simultaneously shocked and titillated public. Liz & Dick leapfrogs clumsily through time, from one big moment in the couple’s fabled history to the next, tackling each milestone with a minimum of subtlety or sophistication. Lohan plays Taylor as a cross between a scheming gold digger and Lucy Ricardo, a greedy opportunist always eager to horn in on her husband’s professional life despite her own incredible success, fortune, and fame. Sometimes, it works the other way around, however. In a typically ham-fisted scene, Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf screenwriter Ernest Lehman pops up so Burton can tell him that he’s perfect for the male lead. (Taylor had already been cast in the female lead). Lehman at first asserts that Burton’s far too virile and masculine for the role of an emasculated husk of a man. Besides, Lehman adds in a statement groaning with clumsy historical irony, he can’t possibly imagine the two of them arguing the way the characters in Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf do. (He’s apparently the only person in Western civilization who hasn’t heard about epic fights between the couple so loud and public they can be heard from neighboring galaxies.) Burton and Taylor do 30 seconds of mock-bickering, and Lehman instantly changes his mind and gives the role to Burton less than a minute later.

Taylor and Burton here are like a (pseudo-) sexy version of Itchy and Scratchy. (They fight, and fight, and fight and fight and fight, drink, drink, drink, fight, fight, fight, The Taylor and Burton show!) There’s no elevation or deepening or pathos, just a whole lot of shrill arguments, tacky period clothing, and crucial moments dutifully marked off a checklist. Meanwhile, Lohan’s Taylor never seems to age or gain weight until the very end of the film, despite constant references to Taylor’s weight problems and wildly fluctuating appearance.

It’s been said that no one ever sets out to make a bad movie. Liz & Dick suggests that’s not true. It feels throughout like those behind it made a deliberately campy, dumb, over-the-top and wildly unconvincing film to satisfy the whims of an audience eager to laugh at, rather than with, it. Of course, nothing kills good camp like self-consciousness or cynical calculation. Liz & Dick has moments of dumb fun throughout its first act, but after a while, the campy fun dissipates and the misbegotten project becomes unbearably shrill and one-note.

It’s a testament to how badly Liz & Dick misses the mark that Taylor receiving news of Burton’s death inspires the film’s biggest unintentional guffaws. At least the actor has the release of being put out of his misery, a fate that should have befallen this misbegotten vanity project before shooting even began. Lohan might have embraced this project as her professional salvation. In a different, kinder universe, one where Lohan didn’t plummet from the A-list to the gutter, this might have been her Oscar role, a challenging opportunity to play a bona fide American icon. Instead, it feels like yet another low for the luckless actress. Liz & Dick is less a comeback vehicle than a career-killer. 

Stray observations

  • What the hell is Creed Bratton doing here, beyond being a distraction?
  • This is less likely to win Lohan an Emmy than the first-ever Golden Raspberry for a television movie.
  • How hilarious is Burton’s satanic beard?
  • This film really reduces the Hollywood couple of the 20th century to a pair of insufferable overgrown infants.
  • I admire Liz & Dick’s restraint in not actually having a wealthy dowager faint in horror at Taylor and Burton’s antics
  • “I’m bored! I’m so bored!” seems to be the film’s attempt at a “No more wire hangers ever!” catchphrase
  • Poor Lohan. She really did lose her way. Such a tragic figure in so many ways.