In the new Lifetime original movie “Lizzie Borden Took an Ax,” the protagonist’s name is uttered in full many times throughout the film’s 87 minutes. She isn’t called “Lizzie” or “Miss Borden” but “Lizzie Borden.” The notorious name strikes tactical blows on the viewer’s psyche, conjuring bits of legend, myth and contested story lines about the accused murderess’ storied life.
The movie, which airs Jan. 25, stars Christina Ricci, last seen on TV in the short-lived ABC series “Pan Am,” a 1960s period piece. In film she was most recently the voice of Vexy in “Smurfs 2.” She is also the voice of Yellow in the upcoming animated feature “The Hero of Color City” and is set to appear in writer-director Paul Duddridge’s “Mother’s Day,” which boasts an all-star cast including Sharon Stone and Susan Sarandon.
Playing Lizzie Borden, a historical figure firmly lodged in the pop culture canon, is a decidedly dark turn for Ricci. She says she was attracted to the role because of the interesting spin put on it by veteran TV director Nick Gomez (“Damages,” “Burn Notice,” “The Blacklist”).
“We wanted to come at it from the perspective of we know she’s guilty and this is the way she behaves afterward,” Ricci says over the phone from New York, adding that she believes Lizzie really did commit the crimes.
The real-life Lizzie Borden was acquitted of the murders of her father and stepmother, Andrew and Abby Borden, during a trial in 1893. Nonetheless, the sensational nature of the case — her father’s skull was crushed with 11 vicious whacks and her stepmother with 19 — and the national press spectacle it engendered, caused her to become an outcast in her hometown of Fall River, Mass.
Ricci’s Lizzie is rail thin, a look that makes her big eyes pop in her head in a spooky way. She is cunning and contained, and has a clearly sexualized relationship with her father. She even commits his murder in the nude. This bit of sensationalism is in keeping with the general feel of the movie, which uses modern rock ‘n’ roll as a somewhat jarring soundtrack a la Baz Luhrmann in “The Great Gatsby.”
To play the role, Ricci did quite a bit of historical research and glommed onto an idea that she felt made the most sense.
“One of the main theories is that the father was living for a long time with his two daughters as wives, so that was disrupted when the stepmother came in,” says Ricci. “With the amount of rage directed at her you have to wonder why. So the theory is that Lizzie hated her for replacing her role with her father, or that the stepmother came in and was happy to let the father continue and not be the savior that these girls needed.”
Lizzie’s sister, Emma, is played by Clea DuVall (“Argo”) and her lawyer by Billy Campbell (“The Killing”). Both roles are juicy, particularly because Emma seems to know what Lizzie did. The second half of the movie takes place in the courtroom where Campbell argues that it is inconceivable that a woman would be capable of committing such a heinous crime.
That argument is what stirs jurors the most when it comes to acquitting Lizzie, who is seen sneaking out of her house by oil lamp days before the murder to attend a raucous party.
“Aren’t you a Sunday school teacher?” asks one jealous girl.
“Only on Sundays,” Lizzie replies coyly.
This exchange reflects the overall tone of the dialogue, which is full of innuendo that Lizzie is not at all what she seems.
Even though Ricci plays Lizzie as a clear sociopath, she feels that the real Lizzie had good reason to be angry and violently disturbed. “I think if you look at the way she behaved in court, she very much seemed like a victim,” she says. “I think that’s the key. She saw herself as a victim and nobody would help her, so she finally helped herself.”
Although the truth may never come to light about what really happened on that exceptionally hot day in August 1892, “Lizzie Borden Took an Ax” helps ensure that future generations will continue to wonder — and to hum the eerie children’s rhyme that has been passed down for a century.
“Lizzie Borden took an ax and gave her mother 40 whacks; when she saw what she had done she gave her father 41.”