That was Elizabeth Taylor at her raging, ribald best in the movie “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” Although the Edward Albee dialogue had not been written for Taylor, that line flamboyantly expressed Elizabeth Taylor’s hold on the world’s imagination. Even when Taylor herself flopped, it was with such magnitude she still seemed beyond mere mortals. And of course, she always came back, stronger than ever, a deep-cleavaged phoenix, forever rising from the ashes. She commanded the gods to do her bidding, and the world stood back, agog.
There’s been much chat about Elizabeth Taylor in the weeks leading up to Sunday’s airing of Lindsay Lohan’s “Liz and Dick” TV movie. All of that chat positive. Those who feared that Lifetime’s nickel and dime version of Taylor would somehow devalue the original, were silly. If anything, Taylor has gone up in public estimation, because Lohan has driven her own image so far into the ground. (No woman in Hollywood is as negatively perceived as Lindsay, with the exception of Halle Berry. The public, at least the part of it represented in cyberspace, does not seem to be on Berry’s side, through any of her traumas.)
“Liz and Dick” was a clever publicity stunt. It put Lindsay out there as a working actress, attempting to impersonate the star of stars, La Liz. The results (her performance) didn’t matter so much as the fact of it; that she could go on TV interviews and cite her similarities to Elizabeth — appealing child star, robbed of a normal growing up, who developed an astonishing bosom at the age of 14. (That’s about where the similarities end.)
I keep hearing that “Elizabeth must be turning in her grave.” I doubt it. The casting of Lindsay probably wouldn’t have bothered ET. In fact, she might have felt compassion for the long-troubled LL, and even given her a tip or two. Taylor would have loathed the title, “Liz and Dick” (Neither of the Burtons cared for the diminutive of their given names.)
And Elizabeth would have fought anything that put Richard in a bad light. Elizabeth knew who she was, and she knew we knew. (She did battle NBC over a TV movie about her life back in 1982, but it wasn’t fear of exposure. Elizabeth sued on the grounds that as an active working actress, any impersonation would affect her finances negatively. She won. Years later, as her health declined rapidly — no longer working — she didn’t bother fighting an ABC TV movie. It came and went without harming Taylor’s iconic status.)
Oh, and that reminds me — how was “Liz and Dick?” Some critics said it was not bad enough to be good campy fun. I must disagree. It was hilarious. Right up there with “The Bad Seed,” “Valley of the Dolls,” “Body of Evidence,” “Showgirls,” etc. I won’t even say Lindsay was “miscast” because I think anybody would be. Elizabeth’s mannerisms were subtle — except for that bawdy cackle of a laugh. She was no easily-imitated Bette or Tallulah or Marilyn or Kate.
So the minute Lindsay opened her mouth, with that deep, raspy voice, and began flailing about with terrible posture, it became comic. Not that Lohan didn’t give it her all. She threw tantrums and vases and guzzled from vodka bottles as if she’d been doing it all her life. (Pause to discreetly clear throat.)
The script was execrable. The sets and Miss Lohan’s many costumes and wigs were Velveeta. Factual inaccuracies abounded. And apparently, because Miss Taylor was a great star, the writers seemed to imagine she would naturally be a bitch to her own and everybody elses’ staff. (In fact, the MGM-trained Elizabeth had exquisite manners, and did not abuse those who served her. Quite the opposite.)
The brief bit of Lindsay playing Albee’s Martha was particularly giggle-inducing. In the “narrative” sections, with Lindsay and her co-star Grant Bowler mulling their life together — from heaven? — she is actually rather good. (Bowler has Burton’s voice down but not his commanding character.)
Don’t get my criticism wrong. I’m still on Lindsay’s side. I hope she is pulling herself together, and that this “event of the television season” was just a way for the actress to get her sea legs back, prove she could finish a project without too many close calls, and become a reliable, insurable performer, so regarded by the industry. I wish her good luck.
As for the real life Elizabeth and Richard, they remain ablaze in my mind and heart, Elizabeth especially, whom I knew better. “Liz and Dick?” Well, when you could follow its disconnected plot amid Lifetime’s constant intruding commercials — it was what it was. Not a patch on Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
Miss Taylor was the earth mother, and in the power of her presence we were all flops. And we wouldn’t have had it any other way.
This column originally appeared on NYSocialDiary.com on 11/27/12