The Liz and Dick Show Still Charms Even if “Liz & Dick” Doesn’t

Not even a mediocre film can erase the allure of the great romance of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Daphne Merkin on Lindsay Lohan’s star turn as ‘Liz.’

Adam Taylor, Lifetime / AP Photo

A large part of the enduring fascination of great romances, as Lifetime’s Liz & Dick makes eminently clear, lies in their inherent unknowability. What did he, a classically trained actor and bibliophile, really see in her? And she, a spoiled Hollywood film star with a yen for big jewels, in him? Beyond the dazzling sexual attraction and the joint enjoyment of being a couple freeze-framed in flashbulbs, what was the glue that held Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor together for as long as it did—12 years of courtship and marriage, followed by a brief retry, and then a lingering soulful attachment that seems to have ended only with Burton’s premature death at age 58? The wonder of it is not that this 90-minute made-for-TV effort, starring Lindsay Lohan as Taylor and Grant Bowler as Burton, gets at so little, but that—despite its missteps and underlying whiff of cheesiness—it gets at as much as it does. Capably written by Christopher Monger, who is also a coproducer, Liz & Dick is much stronger on the period of private enchantment and public scandal—none less than the pope himself accused the adulterous couple of being guilty of “erotic vagrancy”—that led up to their decision to marry than it is on the marriage itself and its disintegration. This skewed focus ends up being something of in inadvertent virtue, since it allows us to comprehend not only the forces that were against this improbable union from the very start but the tenacity on both sides that got them to the altar.

The production opens with Dean Martin singing “Just in Time” over the credits (why this song, of all songs, one wonders, when the romance honored no timing?) accompanied by the clicking of cameras and a series of black-and-white stills of Lohan and Bowler as The Couple. The modest attribution “based on a true story” appears on screen: we could be in Anybiopic, Anywhere. Then, in an instant, a flashback transports us to the fateful beginning, to the colorful specifics of this love story, when Burton first spotted a disdainful Taylor lounging poolside two years before the maelstrom of Cleopatra. Lohan, sporting a pair of sunglasses and a straw hat and looking very much like Sue Lyon in the opening of Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita, flips desultorily through a magazine, while across the way Bowler, making idle conversation as his eyes zero in on her, recollects in a voice-over: “I fell for you the moment I saw you, all those years ago at a party in Hollywood. You were everything I ever wanted.”

From there we flash-forward more than two decades to August 1984, to what we are helpfully—and a bit mysteriously (since he looks perfectly healthy)—told is the “Last Day of Richard Burton’s Life,” in Céligny, Switzerland. He is seen in his book-lined bedroom, writing a letter to Taylor, asserting his “undying love.” (We later learn that he wrote her a letter a day for the last 20 years of his life.) The arc of the narrative has been established less than five minutes into the film; now all that remains to be seen is how much of the complicated, tempestuous goings-on between these two bookended moments will be caught and made proximate sense of for the viewer.

The couple’s second meeting on the set of Cleopatra, when lightning struck them mutually, is worked up to very well, showing an ill-at-ease Burton—referred to as a “young upstart” by the film’s director, Joe Mankiewicz—trying to conquer an unimpressed, regal Taylor with his usual womanizing charms. In these early scenes, although she successfully emulates Taylor’s slightly tinny voice and now-you-hear it, now-you-don’t British inflection, Lohan seems to be play-acting her way into the role more than she does later on, when she touchingly conveys some of Taylor’s fragile aspects. She isn’t helped by the fact that she is all but cosmetically impaired by a pair of inflated eyebrows worthy of Groucho Marx—which, thankfully, subside as she ages. In any event, Lohan doesn’t look like the young Taylor so much as suggest her opulent, smoldering presence; for one thing, her features are a bit coarser and although her eyes are a pretty silvery blue, they are not quite the lush trademark violet blue of Taylor’s.

But it is Grant Bowler (whom I, for one, had never heard of), burdened with small, close-set eyes and a retroussé nose, who I think is faced with the harder task of channeling Burton, with his electric gaze and extraordinary, basso profundo, diction-perfect voice. Perhaps it was because I had only recently been reading Burton’s mesmerizing diaries and rewatching him act with Taylor in any number of forgettable vehicles like The VIPs and The Sandpiper, where he still managed to cast a large shadow, that I wanted more of Burton’s complex inwardness conveyed than Bowler seems up to. That said, he is good at getting across the heated quality of their intimacy—“We love to fight!” Lohan happily announces—whether it be in the form of snuggled endearments (“I will love you even if you get fat as a hippo”) or ripe insults (“That’s my gal, the very essence of a frumpy fishwife”). Bowler is better altogether at suggesting Burton’s masked vulnerability—when he fails to win an Oscar, for instance, for The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, or when he angrily tells his brother, Ivor, “Can’t you see I’m afraid I’m not enough for her?”—than he is at invoking the actor’s power. The result is that too often we feel Burton to be Taylor’s transfixed, puppylike swain when the truth was that she probably was the more smitten initially, the one who tried to commit suicide when it looked for awhile as if the affair wouldn’t fly. Although we do get a sense of Taylor’s desperation after she has dumped Eddie Fisher and Burton appears too guilt-ridden to leave his wife and girls, most of the time, at least in this version, she seems to have the upper hand.

There is, undoubtedly and perhaps necessarily, a hurried quality to this enterprise. (One early viewer described Liz & Dick to me as “around the world in 80 days with the Taylors.”) Once the couple swear their troth, the script charges its way so quickly through a few trans-European mini-scenes—set at parties, at auctions, and on their yacht—meant to indicate the rising financial and psychological cost of their lives, that the film becomes harder to follow for those not well-versed in the backstory. He fails to win a first and then a second Oscar and wonders why he has abandoned the stage only to take on rubbishy projects like Bluebeard to fund their extravagances; she turns 40 and insists that she’s become a joke in Hollywood and that he has his eye once again on the ladies, like the “big-boobed” Raquel Welch; Burton’s beloved brother, Ivor (“the only man I ever admired”), dies. “Run along, go home, play with your jewelry,” Burton instructs her, as he embarks on an affair with his Bluebeard costar Nathalie Delon. Taylor retaliates by taking up briefly with Aristotle Onassis—and suddenly they’re on their way to a divorce: it’s all, as I said, a bit rushed.

One of the more intelligent decisions of this production was to intercut the scenes that establish the unfolding drama with a kind of ongoing twilight dialogue in which an older, chastened Taylor and Burton, sitting in director’s chairs, discuss the vicissitudes of their relationship with an unseen interviewer. Both Lohan and Bowler rise to the introspective mood of these scenes; Lohan, especially, seems to grow in front of our eyes into a disillusioned but still captivated Taylor, while Bowler captures Burton’s weary bravado. We get a fleeting sense of what they might have done for each other, provided a space where all posturing (and they were both such talented posturers!) could be set aside, where the curtain could finally come down on the Liz ’n’ Dick show—“They love! They drink! They fight! They fornicate! They marry! They divorce! They marry again!”—and an unspectatored life could begin a run of its own.

Then again, what’s never been clear to me is how well and for what length of time this couple—who were the first true international media stars, with a level of coverage even more unrelentingly than the unceasing reports of Lohan’s latest missteps—actually managed in private before they required a fresh infusion of paparazzi (a term coined by Fellini, according to this script). But that would require another kind of story telling than Liz & Dick really goes in for. For now we have this partial glimpse, which doesn’t do a half-bad job, pace the round of snickering it’s sure to elicit, of reminding us of those palmy days off the coast of Portofino, when Taylor and Burton simmered under the sun.