You likely opened this review expecting me to call Liz and Dick the worst TV movie of the year. I cannot do that. There are SyFy Saturday-night movies I haven’t watched, and cable public-access productions, and industrial-safety videos.
But Liz and Dick is possibly the worst TV movie of the year, and therefore probably the most successful. Mind you, I don’t know if Lifetime intended its Elizabeth Taylor / Richard Burton biopic to be a must-watch disaster from the beginning. But it must have cast Lindsay Lohan knowing the rubbernecking attention she would get. Also, its executives have eyes; they’ve seen the movie and released it to critics anyway.
Hate-watching counts as much in the ratings as watching, and we each have our role to play in this. The Hollywood press must churn out Lohan articles, you must call up your friends for viewing parties, and critics must dutifully warn you of what you are about to enjoy / suffer through/ live-tweet on Sunday.
[Cracks knuckles.] Fine. Let’s do this thing.
The first thing you notice in Liz and Dick is its star—not Lohan, but the makeup mole on her right cheek. It’s strategically positioned in a black-and-white photo montage behind the credits; it’s the first thing the camera catches as we see Taylor lounging by a pool the first time Burton (Grant Bowler) lays eyes on her.
That mole does more to establish Lohan credibly as Taylor than 90 minutes’ performance (though hair styling and violet-eye effects play important supporting roles). When Lohan is made up and still—slinking in a doorway, glowering into a mirror—the illusion is nearly complete.
But when she opens her mouth, it’s all over. Lohan simply never becomes another person the length of the movie: whether she’s meant to be showing spunk or pique or passion, she gives nearly every line the flat delivery of the first read-through of a high-school play. Even when she hurls a bottle at Bowler during a fight, it’s lackadaisical, as if she expects the wall to catch it.
We’re meant to see Taylor, who we meet with Burton at the filming of Cleopatra, as a former child star who has blossomed into formidable womanhood. Scratch that—as Burton holds forth floridly, she’s “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.”
* In her hilarious review at Buzzfeed, Kate Aurthur renders this word as “foam.” We discussed the discrepancy, we both listened to Bowler’s inpenetrable Welsh “f–m” countless times and we concluded that neither of us is entirely sure what he said (film? flume?). But either word makes about as much sense in the context of a ripe plum (or is it a plume?).
The camera does make sure we get the white-hot bosom. But everything else, from Lohan’s bored affect to her overcompensating boo-hoo-ing, screams Girl Playing Dressup. A warning: do not play a drinking game of any kind during Liz and Dick. By the time Lohan is playing a 52-year-old Taylor, hair enflamed in a mid-’80s mane and falling to her knees beside Burton’s grave, you too will be killed by alcohol.
Credit where due, however: Lindsay Lohan cannot make a movie this bad by herself. There’s an ample assist from the screenwriting, which strings together soap-opera lines (“I won’t live without you!” “No more LIES!” “You haven’t lost me, I’ve lost you”) into a production you might expect to see Jenna Maroney in on 30 Rock.
Bowler is bound to come off better in comparison as the drunken, hyperbolic Burton, but his delivery sometimes swings from passion to Sideshow Bob bluster. Between Lohan’s flatness and Bowler’s laboring, their coupling is like a gender-reversed equivalent of Anne Hathaway and James Franco co-hosting the Oscars, him overstraining to drag her performance along. There’s no chemistry between them, only gravity.
And that’s pretty much the ballgame, since the point of Liz and Dick, such as it is, is that the two of them together were dangerous magic, bad for each other but irresistible on screen, in the tabloid pages and in bed. The script walks them through their meeting—each already married—and their courtship, first chronicled during the Cleopatra shoot by the Italian paparazzi.
It’s a simple story, but the script holds our hands through it anyway. Burton and Taylor occasionally break the fourth wall to talk to us while sitting in director’s chairs, as if in their own DVD commentary. Thus we see Taylor stalk off from Burton on first meeting him on Cleopatra, then cut to her telling us “No, I didn’t like him right away.” A flash-forward scene to an older Burton early in the movie ends with the Monty Pythonesque screen title: “The last day of Richard Burton’s life.” Later, when a Taylor reads that Burton’s been shagging a co-star, here’s her emotional journey: in literally ten seconds she sobs, tosses two glass objects, then picks up the hotel phone and says “Yes, get me Aristotle Onassis,” ordering a revenge courtship like room service.
But the script isn’t why you’re watching this movie, is it? Like the duo’s casting in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—of which we see a brief, hilarious re-enactment with Lohan sneering, “You make me puke!”—Liz and Dick is meant partly to trade on the meta real-life resonance of its star’s biography. Virginia Woolf got buzz because its couple’s ugly fights and jealousies mirrored Burton and Taylor’s tabloid ones; and Liz and Dick shamelessly invites us to watch one troubled former child actress playing another.
That’s the point where Liz and Dick, if you stop to think about it, becomes a little less fun to gawk at. Lifetime’s publicity for the movie hasn’t been subtle about the parallels, standing a sultry Lohan next to, in block letters, “CONTROVERSIAL… PROVOCATIVE… SCANDAL.”
Hollywood history plays first as tragedy and second as farce. The second time, with Lohan, it involved Herbie: Fully Loaded, not National Velvet; rehab and shoplifting, not sexy carousing in swinging Europe; and a mom with a reality-TV show, not a brooding, free-spending Welsh thespian. All of it capped off, here, with a basic-cable network casting her in a role she’s plainly unsuited for, to add ripped-from-the-headlines buzz to a so-bad-ya-gotta-see-it biopic.
That story, though, is affecting and sympathetic in its own way. In fact, it’d make a good movie someday. I hope they get someone better to play her.