It’s the Lifetime Movies That Got Small

Liz and Dick isn’t half as weird, alas, as the actual Liz and Dick.

Grant Bowler and Lindsay Lohan in Liz & Dick.
Grant Bowler and Lindsay Lohan in Liz & Dick.

Photo by Jack Zeman © 2011/Lifetime.

Surprise, surprise: Liz and Dick, Sunday’s heavily hyped Lifetime movie starring jewel-hungry, scandal-prone former child star Lindsay Lohan as jewel-hungry, scandal-prone former child star Elizabeth Taylor, is not that good. The Hollywood Reporter’s Tim Goodman balked at what he suggests is incredulously contrived dialogue, such as when Grant Bowler’s Dick coos to a distraught Liz, “I will love you even if you get as fat as a hippo.” “Seriously,” snarks Goodman, “He says that.”

Yeah, well, seriously—the real Richard Burton said a lot of things, aloud and in his daily letters to Taylor, that were much nuttier, much more grandiose than that. If Liz and Dick is neither as fun nor as poignant as a dramatization of perhaps the greatest destined-but-doomed romance of the 20th century could or should be, the problem is not the not-quite-human performances or the sometimes over-the-top dialogue. If anything, Liz and Dick is too tasteful, too restrained; if anything, Lohan and Bowler do too good a job of approximating real people.

The real Burton and Taylor weren’t “real” people—they lived like something between gods and space aliens, as though the rules that governed mere mortals simply did not apply to them. Taylor survived countless brushes with death and overcame debilitating addictions to booze and pills; Burton attempted to comply with repeated doctors’ orders to quit drinking but could never stay dry for very long. Liz and Dick shows the couple drinking but rarely drunk, and both Burton’s health problems and Taylor’s Betty Ford Clinic stint are elided completely.

Liz and Dick depicts Burton and Taylor moving their blended family onto a yacht in the Mediterranean so they could avoid both the intrusion of the paparazzi and the burden of paying taxes, but it leaves out the fact that this retreat also allowed them to sit out the late 1960s blissfully unaware that the power balance, in Hollywood and in the larger American culture, had changed. They were so isolated that they had no idea how far removed from reality they had become. The couple returned to Los Angeles in 1970 for the Oscars (Burton was nominated for best actor for the stodgy Anne of a Thousand Days) to find that their type of larger-than-life stardom had become passé; minutes after Burton lost his prize, a stunned Elizabeth presented the best picture statue to the X-rated Midnight Cowboy. “The world has changed,” Burton wrote in his diary. “I’m afraid that we are temporarily out in the cold, and fallen stars.”

Even the way they spoke to each other and about each other was patently, totally nuts. Liz and Dick is bookended with mentions of the letters Burton wrote to Taylor, every day for two decades, whether they were apart or not. It never quotes from these missives, perhaps because they were just too weird and often too smutty; more than one describes, as Burton put it in a note dated April 18, 1972, “what it feels like to fuck you.”

If handwritten testament was one backbone of the Burton/Taylor relationship, jewelry was another. Liz and Dick documents the couple’s historic first trip to Bulgari in Rome and occasionally returns to the subject of jewelry as an example of the couple’s excessive spending and Liz’s shallow extravagance. Which is to say that Liz and Dick totally misses the point of Burton and Taylor’s shared jewel fetish. For her, near royalty, jewels were shining armor, tools for deflecting the gaze of onlookers from her face. For him, the Welsh son of a coal miner, there was an unmatchable thrill in being able to nestle priceless stones—symbols of his own earned wealth and status—on the hands and neck of the most beautiful woman in the world.

A great example of where the film doesn’t dare go as far as reality is the way the movie depicts the end of Taylor’s marriage to Eddie Fisher. In real life, as in the film, Burton really did demand that Taylor pick between him and Fisher, and she chose Burton—right in front of Fisher. In Liz and Dick, this scene marks the end of Taylor’s marriage to Fisher. In real life, though, the cuckolded Fisher hung on for quite a while longer. According to Furious Love, Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger’s incredible book on Burton and Taylor based on their diaries and letters, Fisher called Taylor’s villa days after the confrontation and Burton answered. “What are you doing in my house?” Fisher asked. “What do you think I’m doing?” Burton responded. “I’m fucking your wife.”

Of course, the actual Burton/Taylor relationship is not the only “real life” set of events that Liz and Dick references. The stunt casting of Lohan reflects a certain kind of brilliance on the part of the folks at Lifetime, who know there’s enough interest in the troubled actress’ “comeback” (her last screen credit was a small part in Robert Rodriguez’s 2010 Machete) to fuel, if not ratings gold, then definitely Twitter trending topic gold. At one point, Lohan’s Taylor gets on the phone and demands to be cast opposite Burton in The V.I.P.s: “You pay me and fire all your PR people. You’ll save money and have a huge hit!” It’s a rare moment of self-awareness (though a made-up one, as producer Anatole de Grunwald actually offered Taylor a salary twice Burton’s); the movie would have benefited from more directly and more frequently plumbing the camp potential of the casting.

But Liz and Dick is a Lifetime movie, and Lifetime movies rarely allow for such intentional archness. One of the keys to the network’s highly successful formula—along with comically oppressive scores and happy endings for every harried single mom—is a complete lack of subtext or irony. It’s extremely rare that anyone in a Lifetime movie ever says anything other than what they mean (unless they’re blatantly lying as part of a plot device), and they certainly don’t have thoughts or feelings that they don’t articulate out loud. There’s no room for complicated or ambiguous feelings, double meanings, or psychological implication. Even when the movies plumb real-life incidents for material, they inevitably flatten out messy pragmatics or moral shades to fit the template: Recall the Jennifer Love Hewitt vehicle The Client List, which turned an actual small-town prostitution scandal into fodder for the saucy adventures of a fictional, super-hot, struggling housewife.

I know what Lifetime movies are like because I genuinely enjoy watching them—particularly at this time of year, when the Christmas settings (never Hanukkah) add an extra layer of fairy dust to the proceedings. So I’m not surprised that there’s no room in Liz and Dick for the truly wild aspects of Liz and Dick’s real lives. The couple retains fascination 50 years after their initial coupling because they managed to be so many things at once: paparazzi-magnet stars and serious actors; epically gluttonous homewreckers who were devoted to their children and, in Taylor’s case, charity; the ultimate symbols of old-fashioned glamour who defied Hollywood’s rules and all arbiters of propriety (including the pope!) by living exactly as they wished, controversy be damned. Liz and Dick may be getting more attention than the average Lifetime movie (I don’t remember seeing billboards for the Rob Lowe-starring Drew Peterson: Untouchable), but it’s still a Lifetime movie, and the magic of the Lifetime movie lies in the way even the thorniest and most controversial issues and conundra are smoothed out into absolute equations for easy resolution. The real Liz and Dick forced their totally inappropriate, taboo and taste-defying behavior into public conversation. If you’re a Lifetime movie viewer, you’re never asked to confront the unfamiliar or challenge your own way of thinking—or even, like, think at all.