A bad Cleopatra wig is never a good start.
Lindsay Lohan sweeps onto the re-created set of “Cleopatra” looking lovely but not much like the actress she’s 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.
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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.
Lifetime’s “Liz Dick” begins on the set of “Cleopatra,” as did Taylor’s 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” (that’s what the tabloids called them) doesn’t bother with backstory for either actor, their selfish, reckless behavior at the start of their affair is instantly off-putting. If there’s a good reason why two already-married-with-kids adults couldn’t resist flaunting their ardor in public, this movie doesn’t provide it.
It’s 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 Taylor’s heart by calling her fat and humiliating her in public. And that’s 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 hadn’t won for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” alongside his wife.
Bowler’s 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 “I’m 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 director’s 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.
They’re living on a boat. He’s buying her emeralds. Now they’re in Mexico. She’s jealous of Sophia Loren? He makes her cry about her weight again. Holy cow, look at that million-dollar ring! She’s still jealous of Raquel Welch? Look, now he’s buying her a plane!
Although Taylor deserves a better vehicle to refresh her memory, what’s most inexcusable about “Liz Dick” is its wink-wink, aw-shucks depiction of Burton’s 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 Zeffirelli’s “The Taming of the Shrew.” If you’d just like to watch dysfunctional addicts abuse each other for a few hours, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is the best place to see it done properly.
Actresses playing actresses
Lindsay Lohan isn’t 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 1968’s “Funny Girl” (Oscar winner).
• Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford in 1981’s “Mommie Dearest.”
• Jessica Lange as Frances Farmer in 1982’s “Frances” (Oscar nominee).
• Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn in 2004’s “The Aviator” (Oscar winner), alongside Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner.
• Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe in 2011’s “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.