It was Liz & Dick and…… ?
Did Eddie Fisher even get a line? The first half was heavy on the two spouses Liz and Dick each had when they met on the Cleopatra set and how scandalous it was that he was in love with her!!!!!!! It is briefly mentioned in some lightning speed exposition dialogue that the fact she was ending her fourth marriage before turning 30 but why was Burton’s wife devastated by this affair as the film refers to him as “the Welsh Don Juan”? Was it the reality that this was for real as opposed to merely bedding a co-star (the stuff going on with Burton and the likes Claire Bloom and Susan Strasberg before he ever met Liz are incredibly steamy in the details)? No idea, we never get inside her head or see her in any other emotion besides anger and grief.
The closest to a three-dimensional character, and that is putting it kindly considering how under-served the two leads are and act, is Richard Burton’s brother Ifor Jenkins who cares deeply about his brother’s career and family but a turn in illness and eventual death puts Richard on a guilt trip. David Hunt (for me best known as the ‘Bazooka Gum’ Jaguar guy in this past season’s Mad Men and to others best known as Mr. Patricia Heaton) comes off like roses in this turd sandwich as Jenkins.
Where was Montgomery Clift? Where was Rock Hudson? Where were Liz’s friends? Why did it appear she was only talked to her mother this whole time? Was the film implying that she was all alone because she alienated all women from her man-eating ways (a theory that some people lend credence to by those who have met her)? Neither Clift nor Hudson were threats to Burton and really, one of the reasons people watch these kind of cheesy made-for-TV movies of classic Hollywood is to see people briefly appear as Hollywood legends. Instead we just get those two and no offense, Creed Bratton as Darryl Zanuck and whatshisface as Joseph Mankiewicz does not do the trick for me.
The film where these two meet, Cleopatra, was total Hollywood notorious before it even entered theaters and some even think the affair was just icing on the cake. But you wouldn’t know it.
Cleopatra was a feared flop for the ages. Up there with Griffith’s Intolerance and Heaven’s Gate before Heaven’s Gate. 20th Century Fox budgeted it at $2 million, its final budget was $44 million. Think about it. Going over budget by 2,200%. In today’s money, it would be costlier than Avatar. Think about it.
The film’s director, Joseph Mankiewicz, was in constant battle over run-time with 20th Century Fox. He wanted a long, sprawling epic. He even suggested two films (which aptly describes the first and second half of Cleopatra) be produced separately to keep in the parts he wanted. Mankiewicz was actually the film’s second director, replacing Rouben Mamoulian who got fired. Does the film mention this? Hell, it does not even talk about how the first act of that film was Taylor and the much older Rex Harrison as Julius Caesar. Burton just shows up and Liz, who apparently does not read scripts or a history book, is shocked she has to film love scenes with him as Marc Anthony.
Taylor, who ended up with a cool $7 million by the end of the film, had various health ailments that go back to her getting that ‘pity’ Oscar for BUtterfield 8. That pushed back scheduling and costs went up. There was not so much as a cough and if there was a reference to her health, it went over my head.
The affair is front and center. I have no problem with that but how it helped keep Cleopatra from going into the annals of notoriety as a celluloid turkey because of the buzz around their relationship was something I was wondering how it would be covered in the film. It was not. Even the exasperated reactions of the crew for the last shot of the film did not do justice to the back-story of this film.
The entire budget was blown on its fabulous wardrobe.
Seriously. If for anything else, it was at least nice to look at even with the terrible green screens and the set of Cleopatra looking like it was shot at Caesars in Vegas.
When weighing the options of being either trashy fun or being serious, choose the former.
The movie felt like it was in an identity crisis. The Liz and Dick dynamic seemed nothing but bickering, talking about drinking, fighting, then love making, rinse and repeat.
The film covered the periods of Cleopatra, The VIPs, and then Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? followed by the dissolution of their first marriage. They made other films together, most notably— in terms of cinematic trashy fun— Boom! that really if you want to show the beginning of the end, in terms of both their star and marriage dependent on the films they shared roles in, it is that film and the making of it. Why this was ignored for them to be fleeing countries to tax-havens such as yachts and Switzerland seems strange. I would rather see them drunk with Noel Coward and Joseph Losey, personally.
Lohan’s own performance could have been served greatly being a sassy drunk. Somehow I think she gets greater self-awareness when there are moments of no self-awareness involved in the role. Her small part in Machete had me hoping this was the direction of the film. The brief moments when she throws shade in those humongous sunglasses actually made me smile and later feel a bit saddened that nobody thought that would better serve the entire film. Instead we got serious talk, wearing all black, smoking in heaven(????) interludes of these two together.
A little context goes a long way.
Liz & Dick had potential to be a parable to a time of the star explosion in Hollywood only to end in endless notoriety while Hollywood moved on to auteurs and maverick filmmakers who dared to be authentic rather than lush. Karina Longworth nails it with this little anecdote on the Burton & Taylor return to Hollywood during the Academy Awards:
… 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.”
That sounds like an actor smacked with the reality of his industry rather than a man of constant sorrow stewing over his brother’s death. There was nothing on how Hollywood changed. Hell, to start with them meeting under a film under the names of Zanuck and Mankiewicz to having their career highlights to be by a film directed by a first-time director, who was then best known as a comedian, in Mike Nichols already spoke to a changing Hollywood. None of this is addressed.
Why these two were stars and why, even if their movies were no longer financial successes, still made headlines seem to need no explanation. The script accepted the current form of celebrity being the reason when that form of celebrity still did not exist when they met. They invented it. Not some vague La Dolce Vita reference about paparazzi would do that justice.
I also did not enjoy how little context was served about Liz’s weight and acting. Sorry, I cannot accept the ‘hippo’ comment. Firstly, she was totally game about gaining weight for Virginia Woolf. Secondly, that role cast both of them against type from the Broadway originals. The film showed the glory and glamor as well as the downside of paparazzi but did not show why Taylor, who up to Cleopatra had an incredible five picture run that included four consecutive Oscar nominations, could still be believed in when her ‘assets’ would be under a completely different scope.
It made something so simple be so complicated.
Again with these interludes but wow, was this script terrible. The tunnel vision toward Liz and Dick, with complete blinders just kept plowing through stuff left and right without any breathing room. This sort of goes back to the courtship via trailer trysts on the Cleopatra sets that took forever and completely messed with the pace and run-time for the rest. After that, it was a whiplash of ignoring real facts and speeding through the facts shown without any real care for the significance of those moments, such as Burton’s jealousy over Liz winning for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.
I am convinced just skimming Liz Taylor or Burton’s Wikipedia page was more enlightening on their significance to cinema and celebrity than this film. You have this half-baked idea of Liz and Dick doing interviews (from whom?) in a black backdrop while wearing black, both apparently meet each other after death, that is just pure pretense and conceit that never takes off from the moment it starts. Just the straight up biopic a la the actually good Liz Taylor TV movie with Sherilyn Fenn would have been good enough. Actually even if the acting was one hand stilted, one hand hammy, it could have been passable with a different script that actually made people get invested in the retelling of this relationship. Instead it just failed at every other level that seemed beyond saving but it could have been uprooted into some trashy fun. It was just bad and a master class in all the things you can do wrong in a script.
Obligatory LiLo as Liz gif: