An epic love story, like a good horror movie, relies more on possibility than actuality. Surprise and anticipation, of what is to come and what it might mean, are what draw viewers in, binding them in fetters of pleasure and pain. Subtlety and nuance create the space between word and glance, between shadow and revelation, where imagination digs in and magnificence blooms.
None of which happens, in any way, shape or form, during Lifetime’s television event “Liz & Dick,” a wildly graceless biopic that careens through the decades-long relationship between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton with more petulance than passion, knocking down gin bottles and rumpling silk sheets for no better reason than that’s what it says to do in the script.
It would be easy to blame Lindsay Lohan, who plays Elizabeth Taylor, for the film’s failure, if only because Lifetime has gone out of its way to market the movie as Lohan’s comeback picture and to play up the similarities between the two women. These are, as far as one can tell, limited to them both having been child actresses and afflicted with addiction issues. Alas, Lohan is not at all convincing as Taylor but in her defense it is difficult to imagine why anyone actually thought she would be.
Playing a well-known person is always difficult (hence all those biopic Oscars) but Elizabeth Taylor is in the K2 range. Famously contradictory — so ethereal on film, so bawdy in real life, inevitably self-destructive yet inarguably generous — she wasn’t just beautiful, she was radiant, and that is a tough quality to evoke, particularly if you haven’t got it yourself. Which Lohan does not.
When not in mug-shot mode, Lohan is certainly lovely, but she has never really played a full-grown woman on film and they don’t come any more full-grown than Taylor. Even in “Lassie Come Home,” Elizabeth Taylor projected a maturity beyond her years; as an adult, she all but defined “womanly.” It would be tough for many contemporary actresses to pull off that mink hat, but even in the trademark slip, Lohan too often seems like a teenager playing dress up.
And she’s not just playing Taylor, she’s playing Taylor in Love. At least, technically that’s what she’s playing. Unfortunately Lohan and co-star Grant Bowler have about as much sexual chemistry as Kermit and Miss Piggy and none of that couple’s tenderness.
The film is loosely structured around a conceit that could be called Liz and Dick, Dead at the Actors Studio. Youthful and dressed in black, with Liz smoking like a chimney, the two sit against a black backdrop in directors chairs and discuss their life together. It’s narratively absurd, but during these scenes one does see a glimpse of what Lohan might have been able to do if screenwriter Christopher Monger hadn’t decided to do it all.
Because the real problem with “Liz & Dick” is that it attempts to tell the whole story of the couple’s relationship, from trite beginning (Burton falling for Taylor across a crowded pool party) to melodramatic end (Taylor prostrate on Burton’s grave.) In between there’s “Cleopatra,” a lot of kissing, drinking, crying and bottle throwing, breakups, breakdowns, suicide attempts, reconciliations, more drinking, more crying, more bottle throwing, two divorces, money troubles, paparazzi troubles, yacht issues, diamond ring issues, Oscar drama, the displeasure of the pope, the death of Burton’s brother, more drinking, more kissing and more crying. Then, finally, Taylor in that big ‘80s hair.
It’s exhausting just writing about it, so pity the poor actors who had to bounce along from scene to scene, hitting all the well-known notes without a moment of stillness in which to breathe and gaze and make the audience believe that their characters are experiencing not just passion, but a love that defied (if not quite conquered) the individual insecurities and narcissism (not to mention alcoholism) the two clearly shared.
Bowler easily steals the film; he’s good and Lohan makes him look better. Although his face lapses more into lines of worry than anguish or passion, he does seem like a man besotted and often sloshed. He certainly has Burton’s voice down, which is more than half the battle, a battle Lohan never comes close to winning.
Her Taylor always seems one tic away from saying something like “Oh my God, Mom, like I care” and the prodigious amounts of alcohol she consumes do little more than make her cry like a jilted prom queen. Which is just embarrassing — you’re Elizabeth Taylor for God’s sake.
Scenes of obligatory passion are followed by scenes of obligatory rage/sorrow, rinsed with Scotch and repeated. Rather than pay homage to one of the most famous romances of the 20th century, “Liz & Dick” manages to make it boring.
Which may be one of the few sins that Liz and Dick never got around to committing.