Liz & Dick was a peculiar, drab, damp little TV-movie indeed, wasn’t it? The opening seconds flashed a “based on a true story” message across the screen. But the “story” – that is, the life that Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton shared, chronicled here primarily during the 1960s, after meeting during the making of Cleopatra (1963) – was so much richer in reality than it was in this dinky, tin-eared production. Instead, the primary interest in watching Liz & Dick was to behold Lindsay Lohan trying, with varying, wobbly degrees of effort, to make her own career comeback.
In other words, when it came to Lohan “doing” Liz: She done her wrong.
Lohan, who has squandered years of promise and talent as a sullen-faced party-girl and irregular arrestee, has been cut so many breaks, it’s difficult to root for her anymore. (I more or less gave up after she arrogantly botched her opportunity working with Robert Altman in A Prairie Home Companion.) But there’s still a vulnerable quality to her, the same sensitive-soul aspect to her gaze that’s been there since she starred in The Parent Trap (1998), that keeps one’s hope alive.
There was a chance that she’d connect with Taylor – like Lohan, a former child star who grew up to be an adult with a tumultuous private life, stalked by paparazzi. But from the moment she and Grant Bowler, as Burton, sat side by side facing the camera in some mock-interview about their lives, a wall went up between Lohan and us: Is it years of ducking tabloid photographers that has frozen her face into a blank stare? When she opens her mouth, Lohan doesn’t speak in the high-register, almost girlish voice that Taylor was using well into her 20s – instead, we heard the raspy rattle familiar to anyone who’s seen Lohan on TMZ or in the ABC Family movie Labor Pains. No effort seems to have gone into Lohan’s preparation other than to have her eyes tinted Liz-violet. Nothing rings true visually: When we were shown a Taylor upset that she’d put on some pounds (the “CLEO-FAT-ARA” was inspired yellow-journalism headline writing), one suspected that La Lohan had declined with vehemence to put on a little padding so that the scene might achieve minimal verisimilitude.
Not that Bowler was much better; it’s just that he was more diffident and modest – qualities that don’t work in portraying someone as protean as Burton. Where Burton combined a debonair swagger with Welsh working-man burliness, Bowler’s take on him was squishy – his Burton didn’t so much rumble eloquently as brood self-pityingly. And no matter how many scenes showed him holding a book, it was impossible to think of Bowler’s Burton as not only well-read but also a very good writer, a diarist of high quality.
Poor writer Christopher Monger and director Lloyd Kramer – they had a juicy biopic right up the Lifetime channel’s alley. Liz and Dick-as-inseparable-soul-mates – Taylurton? – were pioneers of celeb coupledom. But Liz & Dick just seesawed back and forth between their true-romance squabbles and drab recreations of the movies in which they co-starred. (The best performance of all here may have been the brief scene of The Office’s Creed Bratton as sputtering studio head Daryl Zanuck.) Taylor and Burton deserved better, and Lohan should have shed her protective shell and made an effort to try and understand a psyche other than her own.