A bad Cleopatra wig is never a good start.
By SARA SMITH
The Kansas City Star
Lindsay Lohan sweeps onto the re-created set of Cleopatra looking lovely but not much like the actress shes portraying. Her black hairpiece is several inches longer than it appears in the 1963 movie. No attempt has been made to hide those prominent freckles.
Then she speaks, and her raspy, Valley Girl up-talking strips away any suspension of disbelief. Good thing, too it makes it easier to hold onto the memory of the real Elizabeth Taylor in the outsized role.
Lifetimes Liz & Dick begins on the set of Cleopatra, as did Taylors volatile romance with Richard Burton, played here by Grant Bowler of True Blood. The adultery, suicide attempts, paparazzi and wretched excess play out in exotic settings that provide visual relief while Liz & Dick does its best to make its subjects as loathsome as possible.
Because Liz & Dick (thats what the tabloids called them) doesnt bother with backstory for either actor, their selfish, reckless behavior at the start of their affair is instantly off-putting. If theres a good reason why two already-married-with-kids adults couldnt resist flaunting their ardor in public, this movie doesnt provide it.
Its hard to be jealous of their early passion on any level, really: If screenwriter Kyle Clark has the facts straight, Burton wormed his way into Taylors heart by calling her fat and humiliating her in public. And thats before the screaming and boozing began in earnest. Dozens of vodka bottles lost their lives during filming.
To their credit, the supporting cast vividly conveys the exasperated disgust of those forced to deal with the actors co-dependent lust. The strained relationship between Burton and his brother Ifor (David Hunt) is more compelling than the Taylor-Burton mess, as Ifor tries to keep Burton from making the worst possible choices, to no avail. Ifor scolds Burton for refusing to celebrate with Taylor after she won her second Academy Award, running off to pout because he hadnt won for Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf? alongside his wife.
Bowlers work as Burton is the strongest part of the project. His petty envy is maddening, his desperate grief palpable. Lohan herself has a few evocative moments in which she mourns her lost youth and looks, crying Im a joke! But the structure of Liz & Dick makes it hard to relate to either of them.
Lohan and Bowler narrate the story in character from directors chairs in a dark room, telling rather than showing how things went wrong in the dozen years they were together. The timeline is compressed so densely marriage No. 2 is crammed into the final five minutes that the film devolves into a string of dizzying vignettes.
Theyre living on a boat. Hes buying her emeralds. Now theyre in Mexico. Shes jealous of Sophia Loren? He makes her cry about her weight again. Holy cow, look at that million-dollar ring! Shes still jealous of Raquel Welch? Look, now hes buying her a plane!
Although Taylor deserves a better vehicle to refresh her memory, whats most inexcusable about Liz & Dick is its wink-wink, aw-shucks depiction of Burtons alcoholism and how he took Taylor along for the ride. When he makes fun of what his wife sounds like when she vomits from drink, are we supposed to laugh, too?
To begin to understand couples like Taylor and Burton, check out their chemistry in Franco Zeffirellis The Taming of the Shrew. If youd just like to watch dysfunctional addicts abuse each other for a few hours, Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is the best place to see it done properly.
Actresses playing actresses
Lindsay Lohan isnt the only actress who has taken on the task of depicting a screen legend far from it. Some notable performances:
• Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice in 1968s Funny Girl (Oscar winner).
• Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford in 1981s Mommie Dearest.
• Jessica Lange as Frances Farmer in 1982s Frances (Oscar nominee).
• Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn in 2004s The Aviator (Oscar winner), alongside Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner.
• Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe in 2011s My Week With Marilyn (Oscar nominee).
• Coming up: Scarlett Johannson as Janet Leigh in Hitchcock (opening Dec. 7 in Kansas City) and Nicole Kidman as Grace Kelly in Grace of Monaco, now filming.
To reach Sara Smith, send email to email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter: @sarawatchesKC