It takes guts for an actress to play Elizabeth Taylor -- guts, hubris, talent, empathy and a pretty generous capacity for risk. You'll have to draw your own conclusions about which of these drew Lindsay Lohan to the role but it's a pretty fair guess the last two figured most prominently.
Famed child actresses ... a difficult (ahem) maturation process from childhood to adulthood ... and the media's beyond insatiable -- bordering on insane -- appetite for their off-screen antics. Comparisons end there.
Taylor won an Academy Award for "Butterfield 8," even while "Cleopatra" -- a 1963 albatross that nearly scuttled 20th-Century Fox -- was in production. She was famous in a way that almost doesn't even exist anymore -- more famous than kings or queens, by far. A human goddess who walked the very planet -- and that was weird, too.
Then there's Lohan, famous for being infamous and out of work for pretty much longer than anyone can remember. But the overall problem that’s immediately apparent with "Liz & Dick," airing on Lifetime next Sunday -- is that Lohan's no Elizabeth Taylor.
No one is, of course, or ever could be. Taylor on screen, and doubtless off, exuded an earthy sensuality. Lohan doesn't. Taylor was a fine actress, occasionally a great one. Lohan's skills are rudimentary -- made rustier by a long absence from the screen. She delivers lines dutifully, competently,and at times woodenly, but she also looks like someone who has to think about what she has to say before she says it. That's usually called "sleepwalking through a role" instead of actually "occupying" one. Lohan is somewhere in-between most of the time, though closer to sleepwalking.
An example: "See, you have to understand, we enjoy fighting," says she when pitching for what would be one of Taylor's greatest roles ("Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.")
Undoubtedly that was true in real life (She and Richard Burton did divorce twice, after all) but there's no hint of that here. No hint of fire, of passion, of sparks, of love, of hate, of anything. (This, in other words, is a standard Lifetime biopic.)
Grant Bowler, meanwhile, hams up the role of Burton with so much bravado that it approaches parody at times. He's a good actor, but Burton was a huge, overwhelming presence, and like Taylor, much more than just an "actor:" son of a Welsh miner and one of the great stage figures of the time even before he set eyes on his dearly beloved Taylor years before the movie-that-nearly-sank-Fox was shot. (He left "Camelot" on Broadway for Rome and "Cleopatra.")
He was a famed swordsman too, and Taylor apparently matched him conquest for conquest. There's no one alive you can even compare them to -- Brangelina are bloodless and tame by comparison. They were wild, libidinous drunks, great talents, huger-than-life fixtures in the popular imagination who made their own rules, and broke their own rules -- over and over again.
Poor Linds doesn't and didn’t stand a chance.
The movie is set up as sort of a series of recollections, with Taylor and Burton on a dark set recalling the lurid past. Lohan's made up in dark red lipstick, light makeup and jet-black wig; it's a striking shot and in some ways the best part of this film. She's drained, weary and cynical -- almost bored with the story she's telling. But whatever sort of spell comes out of those fleeting scenes is shattered the moment the flashbacks begin.
Taylor first sees Burton across a crowded room, so to speak (actually, poolside at an LA party). She smirks. Next, he's on the set of "Cleopatra" and in a flashback says, "You were everything I ever wanted -- even when you looked at me with utter disdain, I thought you were luscious."
Or this, from Burton, who almost seems to be reviewing his own biopic here: "The performers know the lines...but they just keep coming out wrong..."
Yeah, these lines are laugh-out loud funny. But all told, will "Liz & Dick" be remembered as a joke or Lohan's long-awaited baby-step back toward professional respect? I'm going - perhaps generously - with the latter. "Liz & Dick" is not a complete disaster, nor entirely is Lohan. She is terribly rusty and miscast. She needed to occupy the role -- or as Simon Cowell might say -- "make it her own," and she doesn't begin even to scratch the surface. She almost seems like a kid thrown into an adult role. (In a sense she is.) But it's a first step, and that's better than no step at all.
Grade: C -