And yet the troubled, talented 25-year-old actress is currently playing Taylor in Lifetime’s made-for-TV movie Liz & Dick, about the tumultuous romance between Taylor and her costar/husband Richard Burton (played here by True Blood’s Grant Bowler).
Lohan is once again making headlines with her off-screen behavior—so perhaps she’s perfect as Taylor, after all. Just last week, Lohan allegedly crashed a rented Porsche into an 18-wheeler on Malibu’s Pacific Coast Highway. Lohan’s accident occurred as she was filming Liz & Dick, which hails from writer Christopher Monger (Temple Grandin) and director Lloyd Kramer (The Five People You Meet in Heaven) and depicts Burton and Taylor’s brief encounter at a 1954 pool party, their first full-fledged meeting on the set of 1963’s Cleopatra, their headlines-grabbing romance, and Burton’s death in 1984.
The Daily Beast obtained a production draft of Monger’s script for the project, dated April 3, 2012. Unlike most of the schlocky Lifetime telepics (to wit: the fast-tracked William & Kate movie), Monger’s script isn’t terrible; however, a production draft can change significantly during the shooting of a film and the success or failure of Lifetime’s take on Taylor and Burton will rely a great deal on how well Lohan and Bowler can inhabit the Hollywood icons’ personas.
Monger, however, has a good grasp on the alchemy between Taylor and Burton, as well as their rowdy romance and their low points, though he speeds through their relationship at a sometimes alarming pace, particularly at the end of the script, when the two remarry in Botswana after their divorce. Their reunion is brought about after Taylor’s colon-cancer scare and he rushes to her hospital where she is upside-down in traction; the two remarry, but then suddenly they’re not together, time has passed, Burton is himself remarried (to Sally Hay) and Burton dies after writing Liz a letter from his deathbed. (And then there’s the “ethereal sound-stage” framework that Monger repeatedly returns to throughout the script. But I’ll get to that in a bit.)
What follows are eight of the most shocking moments in the script for Liz & Dick.
Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor’s initial first meeting on the set of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra is anything but a meet-cute, as she takes instant umbrage to his “Has anyone told you that you’re a very pretty girl” line and then they later viciously insult each other from side-by-side tables at a restaurant. We’re meant to see both the venom and the passion here, something summed up by the cruel bon mots each tosses to the other like verbal grenades. Despite the seeming animosity, the two quickly fall into a torrid romance, even though both are married: he to Welsh actress Sybil Williams and she to actor Eddie Fisher.
When Fisher returns to Rome from New York—where he had been appearing in a show—he discovers a party in full swing, with Liz and Dick ruling over the revelers. It’s here that Burton casually tells Fisher that he’s sleeping with Taylor (“Oh, I’m sleeping with your wife.”) and, in front of the entire party, he forces Taylor to choose between him and Fisher. Not surprisingly, Taylor proclaims her love for Burton. The viewer is encouraged to see this as perhaps spontaneous and romantic, but it is jaw-dropping for the public nature of the declaration and the matter-of-fact way Burton informs Fisher of his wife’s infidelity. (The very public Burton-Taylor-Fisher triangle is the precursor—as Eddie Fisher’s daughter, Carrie Fisher, has suggested in her show, Wishful Drinking—for the modern-day battle between Brangelina and Jennifer Aniston, another romantic imbroglio that has churned out endless headlines.)
Intoxicated with post-coital bliss, Taylor and Burton head for a pool surrounded by cypress trees at a crumbling Italian villa near the sea. Alone, they jump into the pool completely naked and are startled by the appearance of dozens of paparazzi taking pictures of them from the trees. Taylor, furious, screams at the photographers, railing that politicians are ruining the world, children are starving, and “spaceships are circling the planet.” Huh? She then turns her back on the paparazzi and—wait for it—moons them.
While it’s the only time she bares her bottom for photographers, Taylor screams and carries on a lot throughout the script, in fact. So much so that it’s difficult to remain sympathetic toward Taylor at times. After Taylor and Burton are snubbed by society for their illicit romance, she screams at everyone at the Café Royale, calling them “hypocrites” and laying into an old man dining with his much younger lover. At another point, jealous that Burton will film The V.I.P.s with Sophia Loren, she screams at director Anthony Asquith on the phone until he drops Loren (“Sophia? Have you heard her mangle English?”) from the film and hires her instead.
Realizing that she can never have Burton for herself, his wife Sybil attempts suicide, and Burton rushes to her side, later trying to break it off with Taylor when he sees the effect their affair is having on his family. But after Burton tells her this news, Taylor then tries to kill herself, washing town an entire vial of pills with a bottle of vodka. “I’m removing myself,” Taylor slurs. “I don’t want to be ‘a responsibility.’” It’s all very melodramatic, particularly as Burton rushes her to the hospital, carrying her through the corridor and banging her head on a door in the process. But when they return to work on Cleopatra, it’s almost as though neither suicide attempt had occurred.
The Vatican makes a pronouncement against Burton and Taylor’s extramarital affair, with the pope declaring them to be guilty of “erotic vagrancy” and further that their relationship is “a danger to the very institution of marriage.” While it’s played up here as a backseat conversation between the two lovers when Burton sees the news in a paper, the condemnation did actually occur in real life. Even more unbelievable but equally true: a member of Congress tried to have them banned from returning to the United States.
The pope’s public condemnation of the stars’ affair finally led to Taylor formally dissolving her marriage to Eddie Fisher. The script depicts Taylor making one final demand before she signed the divorce papers: she wants Fisher prohibited from continuing to perform “Cleo the Nympho of The Nile” in his act and further states that he can’t write a word about their marriage for 20 years.
A close presence in Burton’s life was his brother, Ifor Jenkins, 20 years his senior. While Ifor works directly for Burton, he is also a surrogate father of sorts as well, and someone who deeply cares for Burton, and later, Taylor as well. To this day, mystery surrounds what happened to Ifor Jenkins the night of his accident, one that left him paralyzed and never able to walk again. In Monger’s script, Burton and Ifor travel to Céligny, Switzerland, in order to open up the house for the family to celebrate Christmas (Burton, Taylor, and their kids have been living on an enormous yacht at this point). At a local bar, the two brothers drink heavily and engage in a bitter argument. Ifor ends up traveling to the house on his own and falls down the basement stairs, breaking his neck. Burton, feeling guilty, is heartbroken by Ifor’s accident and begins drinking even more heavily.
Other accounts of the accident offer differing variations on Ifor’s fall. In Michael Munn’s biography, Richard Burton: Prince of Players, Burton confidante Brook “Brookie” Williams recounted that the two brothers were in Switzerland to attend the funeral of their Céligny estate gardener, André Besançon, who had committed suicide. “Ifor decided he’d go and open the house,” Williams told Munn. “But he was very drunk and he caught his foot in a grille. He tripped and fell against a window ledge and broke his neck. For the rest of his life he was confined to a wheelchair, and for the rest of his life Rich felt it was somehow his fault.”
A controversial December 2011 Welsh film, Burton: Y Gyfrinach (The Secret), meanwhile, accused Burton (Richard Harrington) of paralyzing Ifor (Dafydd Hywel) by throwing him to the floor after an epic drinking bout. “The film attempts to recreate the lost hours and get to the truth behind the secret,” the film’s director, Dylan Richards, told Wales Online. “It attempts to provide answers but it also raises more questions. We can only imagine what happened between the brothers that day.”
A drunk Burton throws a radio overboard when Taylor and her guests refuse to turn down the music as he reads a script for Bluebeard. When the two begin a nasty fight, Burton accuses Taylor of being a “witch” and murderously chases her around their yacht, threatening to drown or kill her. Liz hides in a closet and then locks Burton in a cabin until he sobers up. In portraying Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’s George and Martha, the acrimony in their own marriage came to the fore. At one point, Taylor throws a bottle of alcohol at Burton in a hotel room, narrowly missing him, which recalls a scene from the film. On another occasion, Burton expressed jealousy over the 18-year-old Italian photographer whom Taylor invited to stay on their boat. When Burton says that Taylor is fat (“You’d all but flatten him”), she threatens to kill him and punches him in the chest (“Feel my fat pudgy hands now!”). She then demands a big ring from Burton … to make her hands appear smaller.
Richard drunkenly flaunts his relationship with Nathalie Delon on the set of Bluebeard, leading Liz to engage in a fling with Aristotle Onassis, which makes the front page of the papers. They file for divorce, only to remarry in Botswana and then divorce again a year later. The Onassis connection grows deeper still: in the script, Burton pays $1,050,000 for a 69-carat pear-shaped diamond for Taylor, beating out bidder Aristotle Onassis at an auction.
Through out the script, Monger makes use of a narrative framework device he refers to as the “ethereal sound stage,” first introduced on Page 2. It’s here that a perpetually young Taylor and Burton (each said to be at their “peak”) work out their issues, share stories, argue, and make up… as well as speak directly to the audience, breaking the fourth wall. It’s odd and a little creepy, an empty space that’s filled with “ethereal light,” while Burton and Taylor sit in director’s chairs. It’s quite disconcerting to interpret this “not ‘real’” space as something approximating either heaven or an Inside the Actor’s Studio-themed purgatory. Or, perhaps even a private psychic space within Burton’s own mind. The last time the sound stage is seen is right before Burton’s death, as he tells Taylor, “I suddenly feel so very tired, would you mind if I lie down a moment.” Glancing at the Everyman’s Library books that Taylor had given him years before, he dies alone in his bedroom, his body discovered by his wife, Sally Hay.