There was another movie I watched on TV when I was too sick to move, think, or, in this case, change channels: “Liz and Dick,” the infamous Lifetime Movie Network bio-pic starring Lindsay Lohan. Was it lousy? Sure it was lousy; there was no way such a film could have been anything but lousy. Lousy cable movies, however, are hardly news or uncommon, especially on LMN. Indeed, this one was probably in the upper 25% for the outfit that regular creates starring vehicles for the likes of Erika Eleniak and Kellie Martin. This one, however, was an ethics train wreck quite apart from its aesthetic flaws.
The whole project begins with a lie, albeit a popular and elaborately supported one, which is that Elizabeth Taylor was anything special as an actress. She was not. Taylor parlayed uncommon beauty, public sympathy, and later sexual notoriety into mega-celebrity status that drooling male movie critics disgracefully interpreted as genuine talent. She had a thin, unpleasant and brittle voice that made her already limited range even more so. She couldn’t play comedy, and didn’t have the chops for hard drama either. Contemporaries like Ingrid Bergman, Natalie Wood, Ava Gardner, Grace Kelly, and even Janet Leigh could act her under the table, but they lacked the violet eyes, the tragic romances, and most of all, the constant brushes with death. Taylor was Hollywood’s version of “the favorite child,” and it wove a reputation of imaginary acting prowess around her. Watch “Butterfield 8,” which won her an Academy Award. Is there anything remarkable about that performance? Wouldn’t the movie have been infinitely more interesting with a Charlize Theron, a young Jessica Lange, or a Michelle Pfeiffer in the role?
No question, Elizabeth Taylor was a great movie star. She created great images—Maggie the Cat in her slip is the classic example—rather than great performances. The other half of “Liz and Dick,” Richard Burton, didn’t even do that. His legacy as a screen actor is objectively horrible; a case could be made that of all the British stage legends who tried to translate their talents to celluloid, Burton was the most abject failure. But he arrived in Hollywood as a pre-packaged “brilliant actor,” and virtually no critics had the integrity or the guts to say (at least until the end, when Burton’s performances were embarrassing), “Hey, wait! This guy stinks!” Watching “The Longest Day” last week, I was struck again at how Burton’s two scenes strike the falsest notes in the movie, with him alone among the huge international cast seemingly convinced that the story of D-Day was really about how much scenery he could chew, and how s-l-o-w-l-y. The same critics who loved to slam John Wayne as a one-note lug would sing the praises of Burton, yet in “The Longest Day” Wayne is completely right, powerful and convincing in a central role as the real life U.S. paratrooper who continued leading his men for three weeks on a broken ankle, while Burton abuses a bit part by channeling Jon Lovitz with self-conscious and pompous “Acting!!!”
Of course, Liz and Dick separately were just over-rated; together, they were offensive. Their teaming amounted to a long-running series of infidelities, feuds, conspicuous consumption, and drunken brawls, all of which they were willing to exploit in stunt movie casting, as in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “The Taming of the Shrew.” Come see Liz and Dick fight! I guess that’s how you trick movie audiences into paying to watch Shakespeare and Edward Albee.
And if you want to trick TV audiences into watching a cheap cable movie, cast Lindsay Lohan as Elizabeth Taylor. Was this the inspiration of producers Kyle Clark and Robert G. Endara? Writer (and co-producer) Christopher Monger? Director Lloyd Kramer perhaps? Could it have been…Satan? A crueler, more cynical act is difficult to imagine. Here is Lohan, an addict, regarded in her industry as uninsurable and unreliable, surrounded by heartless sycophants and constantly being undermined by one of the worst father-mother pairings in show business history. This young woman is holding on to sanity by her fingernails, one misstep removed from jail and maybe two from the morgue. She needs a rescuer, and these guys throw her an anchor, a deliberately tawdry movie that will link her to the worst features of Taylor’s life–the drugs, the promiscuous sex, the instability, the corrupted child star—while guaranteeing that her portrayal will subject her to new rounds of ridicule and criticism. Will it push Lohan to a new crisis? The film-makers couldn’t care less. They knew that Lohan couldn’t resist—or afford to resist— a high profile project when she was begging for any work at all. After all, she has already stooped to the last-ditch Playboy bare-all tactic, usually the final stop for a has-been actress on the way to Palookaville. They knew that Lindsay, who obviously has no trustworthy advisors and isn’t the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree by anyone’s measure, would fall for the ego boost of being cast as Elizabeth Taylor. They knew that casting Lohan as Taylor guaranteed publicity, sponsors and viewers, even if they only tuned in to point and jeer. It was a carnival geek role, a paid-to-be-humiliated role.
Playing an entertainment icon is a fool’s game, doomed to failure, especially if the actor playing the role is well-known. It’s a survivable mistake, if the performer is sufficiently popular (Steve Martin’s foolish attempt to take on Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau), or the icon is sufficiently disliked (Chaplin, nicely impersonated but not captured by Robert Downey, Jr.), or the actor’s effort is viewed as especially benign (as with Jennifer Love Hewett’s fond but awful attempt to play Audrey Hepburn). Taylor, however, is still basking in the afterglow of her death as well as industry appreciation of her efforts on behalf of AIDS research. A Hollywood outcast and laughingstock is cast to play an industry saint: it wouldn’t take the Amazing Kreskin to divine the response. Indeed, the film-makers were counting on that response: “How dare she?”
Did Lohan know she was being exploited and set up to fail? Possibly. Watching her gamely try to wring some genuine drama out of the miserable script, I was reminded of the scene in “Ed Wood” where Bella Lugosi ( Martin Landau) does his best to look like he’s being killed by a ridiculous rubber octopus, because that’s what the idiotic script required, and he was a professional actor. I can imagine Lindsay thinking, “They expect me to fail, but I’ll show them. I’ll show everyone!” I can also imagine her being blinded by the “honor” of playing Taylor and not realizing what a mess the script was. In the end, it didn’t matter, and couldn’t matter.
It couldn’t matter because “Liz and Dick” is the perfect example of how bias can be inescapable. If a movie reviewer from Mars was imported to assess the film, having no idea who Taylor, Burton or Lohan were and possessing no pre-conceived opinions about them, what would he, or it, write about the film? He would write, I’m guessing, that “Liz and Dick” is a badly conceived, written, paced, directed, and produced piece of made-for-TV garbage that Meryl Streep, Daniel Day-Lewis or Zzypplt Gnn (the Martian Meryl Streep) at their best couldn’t make watchable. Since the reviewers were not from Mars, however, they approached their assignment…
- Enthralled with the legend of Taylor, and inclined to find anyone’s portrayal of her lacking, or
- Believing Taylor is over-rated, and thus questioning the validity of the project from the outset, or
- Hostile to Lohan as a spoiled Hollywood drama queen, and itching to eviscerate her latest thespian efforts, or
- Convinced that the casting of Lohan was a gimmick, and that the film was pre-ordained to be a camp classic.
Any of these mindsets led to the same result: trashing Lindsay Lohan. The few reviewers fair enough to recognize their biases had another one to deal with: the knowledge that any reviewer who was anything other than vicious regarding Lohan’s performance—regardless of the objective quality of that performance—would look like a fool, with all of his or her professional colleagues ripping at the disgraced actress’s carcass. So many biases were pushing critics to condemn Lohan’s performance that an objective review was literally impossible.
Was Lohan bad? Well, was Lugosi bad in “Bride of the Monster,” with that rubber octopus? Was Richard Burton bad in “Exorcist II: the Heretic,” confronting James Earl Jones dressed as a giant locust? Was Elizabeth Taylor bad as Fred Flintstone’s mother-in-law? Sure, they all were bad, and none of them had a chance of being otherwise. To read the cruel reviews from the real, live locusts known as entertainment critics, however, “Liz and Dick” was all Lohan’s fault. Cheap shots were the order of the day. Many reviews referenced Lohan’s “ruined” voice and how it was so unlike Taylor’s. I think Lohan’s voice, for acting purposes, is far superior to Taylor’s, and it isn’t “ruined” (the implication is that its rasp is the result of abuse from cigarettes, drugs, late nights and alcohol.) Nobody called Brittany Murphy’s’s voice “ruined,” or Demi Moore’s: Lohan had a smoky voice when she was ten, and her voice today is exactly what one would expect the grown up child actress to sound like, even if tobacco never touched her lips. I’ll be interested to read how many critics slam Sir Anthony Hopkins for not even making an effort to sound like Alfred Hitchcock in the soon-to-be-released film about the director, and Hopkins, a talented impressionist, could have duplicated Hitchcock’s famous vocal quirks if he had chosen to. Hopkins, however, is a great actor, so critics begin their assessment of his performances with that as the starting point. The starting point for reviewing Lindsay Lohan? She’s a joke.
If you can’t watch an actor playing a role without thinking about the real life of the actor, the performance is doomed. Saying that Lindsay Lohan can’t play Elizabeth Taylor is like saying that John Wayne wasn’t believable as Genghis Khan in “The Conqueror.” So the very reason Lohan was cast as Taylor in the first place guaranteed that she would fail. The film-makers didn’t care: they made their money. LMN got its ratings and sold their commercial spots. Critics had a free-for-all kicking a desperate young woman while she was down, and Lindsay Lohan’s career was moved a little closer oblivion.
Good work, everybody.