Liz: The Elizabeth Taylor Story (1995)

In the years leading up to her death in 2011, Elizabeth Taylor said over and over she hated the idea of a movie being made of her life.  As ideal as a movie of the world’s greatest movie star (notice I didn’t say actress, even Liz wouldn’t have claimed that) would be, given the marriages, the money, the scandals, the drugs, the weight, the friendships, the years in the limelight and, of course, Larry Fortensky, Elizabeth Taylor refused to allow it.

The only problem is that she seems to have forgotten there already had been a movie made of her life. That would be “Liz: The Elizabeth Taylor Story.”  No, to be honest, the miniseries is fairly forgettable, and Elizabeth Taylor probably did’t give it ten minutes of thought even in 1995, but it exists and now I’ve waited a respectable amount of time since her death to dive into it.

Actually, if you want the truth, this was at the top of my pile when Elizabeth Taylor died and I thought it in bad taste to exploit the coincidence.  I didn’t feel that the great Elizabeth Taylor deserved to be remembered through the rather questionable merits and demerits of “Liz: The Elizabeth Taylor Story” at that moment in history.  Her own bad movies were being noted endlessly (and there are so many of them!) and even she giggled about them.

In 1995, Elizabeth Taylor was going through a very good time in her life: substance free, healthy, devoted to her AIDS charities and minting money from her fragrances.  Thus, the miniseries is highly sympathetic, to the point of gooey. It’s declawed and toothless, which is why the real Elizabeth Taylor probably feared what would happen if a bunch of talented people with the real story got together and filmed her life, proverbial warts and all.  Even at Liz’s basest moments here, she’s still a goddess.

As a little girl, Elizabeth is caught between two squabbling parents, her pushy mother and her silent father.  Mother Sara (Christine Healy) wants to whip the young British lass off to Hollywood to make a star out of her.  When asked if she wants to be one, an uncommonly mature Elizabeth has this to say about not being a movie star: “I want to be an actress.  Actresses make people believe anything.”  Sara clamps down on that one.  “Yes, well, actress go hungry.  I saw enough of them when I tried for a career in the theater…but movie starts have everything!”

And that sets up the entire movie right there.  Elizabeth wanted more than to be the most beautiful woman in the world, the consummate “movie star,” someone with talent.  Well, she had her moments on film, some great ones, but as great actress, only in fits and spurts.

Wearing a signature gigantic hat, Hedda Hopper (Katherine Helmond) doesn’t seem much potential in Elizabeth while she’s singing a ditty (something she wouldn’t do again until the film version of “A Little Night Music” in the 1970s and that one had the ears of Sondheim fans bleeding), but when Elizabeth talks to Hedda’s dog, Hedda sees something worthwhile in the child.  Hedda sweeps Elizabeth Taylor off to the audition for “Lassie Come Home,” where she uses a broom to step in for a the dog (in three scenes, we’ve had three dogs already) and BAM, Elizabeth gets the role.

Hedda and Sara disagree with Elizabeth’s desire to do “National Velvet,” because she’s too young, so we get a montage of Elizabeth aging while balancing books on her head to pass the time until she is old enough (they held the filming just for her?).  She takes a huge fall during one scene and insists they continue, with a speech to her mother about loving being a movie star that sounds like idiotic poetry.

At age 17, Sherilyn Fenn steps into play Elizabeth Taylor as she does the first of one of her most famous famous photo shoots.  Uncomfortable with her body (that wouldn’t last long), she is told by the photographer, “you have bosoms, so stick them out!”  Ready to burst her bubble is Montgomery Clift (William McNamara), who tells her, “this is Hollywood, even the ugly people are beautiful.”  The two have an instant rapport, based on studio-provide drugs, Elizabeth’s mothering instincts and Monty’s insecurities, but this friendship would last until the day he died.  They film “A Place in the Sun,” where Elizabeth was at her most ravishing and only then realizes he’s gay (the presence of another man doesn’t hurt), and she’s wonderfully supportive, “telling him “Mama will always be here for you.”  To be fair to Elizabeth Taylor, her lifelong support of homosexual friends and the community at large was real.

Out at a nightclub with pal Debbie Reynolds (Judith Jones), exhorting her to act like the teenage she still is and have fun, Elizabeth sees Nicky Hilton (Eric Gustavson).  Upon hearing herself called “Liz Taylor,” she says “I hate that name,” to which he replies, “Liz? Or Taylor?  I can change one of them.” Wow, if Nicky Hilton is given a clunker like that, I can’t wait to see how John Warner will romance her!

After securing Monty’s blessing, Elizabeth marries Nicky in 1950.  Things are sour from the start, as Nicky has no sense of romance, a hot temper and is downright rude.  He punches her on their honeymoon and she files for divorce.  One down.

In 1951, filming “Ivanhoe” in London, Elizabeth is not having a good time of it, until she’s introduced to suave Michael Wilding (Nigel Havers).  He’s witty, intelligent and speaks like he’s reading from a dictionary of quotes, all of which appeals to her.  She returns to MGM, demanding he be put under contract and she gets pregnant, ultimately having two kids with Michael.  Things unravel when Michael can’t stand the scripts he’s being sent.  “Dignity doesn’t pay the bills,” she reminds him of a Hollywood truth, “I do, as in four dreadful films back-to-back.”  She wants him to participate.

Then comes “Giant,” which gets a hoot of a set-up.  Liz arrives to greet Rock Hudson (Daniel McVicar), who gives us all straight-man wooden, and James Dean, who can’t be bothered to speak to anyone.  Old friend and director George Stevens (Eugene Roche) tells her, “until you get rid of that phony MGM veneer, you’ll never be an actress,” so she storms into her trailer.  She emerges dressed down and without any veneer, charming the cast and crew with a water pistol and immediately everyone’s favorite.  Drunk and enjoying themselves, Elizabeth and Rock bond, but it’s then that Michael shows up, poodle under each arm.  He assumes there’s something going on between the two (and their was, a great friendship), hurls the poodles at her and his end rapidly approaches.

Actually, Monty sympathizes with Michael’s plight, at least until the fateful accident.  Leaving Elizabeth’s home drunk, Clift lost control of his car.  By all accounts, including this one, LIz rushed to the scene of the accident, pulled his teeth from his throat and saved his life.  He would continue on for a number of years in Hollywood, his face scarred and his spirit broken.  “I’ve missed you, you sweet old disaster,” Elizabeth coos to Monty in the hospital.  Without even bothering to ask him how he is, she rhapsodizes over meeting MIchael Todd.  Goodbye Michael Wilding.

Mike Todd (Ray Wide) is everything Elizabeth is not.  He’s not at all cultured or sophisticated, direct and crass.  He invites her to a meeting at the studio, where he’s late, and then launches into a ramble about his assets, ending with his promise to marry her.  She’s turned off by his bulldog ways, but when she returns to film “Raintree Country” with a broken Monty, Mike Todd shows up with flowers.  “Roses, how perfectly ordinary,” Liz snaps, then producing a ring, playing to her lifelong adoration of jewels.  “You’ve been married to a kid and an old man.  Time you took a mate…sure, I roar, you roar back!” he tells her and she’s in love again, even converting to Judaism to marry him, with old pal Debbie and her husband Eddie Fisher (Corey Parker) in attendance.  Mike does big weddings, with an insane fireworks display over Acapulco.

Theirs is a comically volatile relationship.  Having dinner with the Fishers, they launch into a gigantic physical scrape, but when Debbie tries to stop them, she’s called “square” as the Todds as “is there dessert?”  They even manage time for a baby.

The two are supposed to fly to New York City where Mike is getting an award, but Elizabeth has a fever and cannot fly with him.  When Mike doesn’t call at a designated time, Elizabeth worries, and of course her premonitions are correct.  The next morning, Debbie brings the bad news.  Debbie is a rock of support.  Eddie, a rock of a different sort.  Carrie Fisher describes that hullabaloo best, certainly better than this stodgy movie, where she falls for him out of loneliness, saying “I feel like half a pair of scissors without him.”  Not the most romantic metaphor, but Eddie was pretty dim, so he doesn’t comment.  “I think Mike would want you to get on with your life,” Eddie replies.  Resistant to going back to work, she (and her manipulative director) decides going back to work will be the tonic she needs.

Eddie invites Liz to his Vegas opening, where Debbie is sure not to be.  Eddie confesses to Liz that he’s fallen in love with her and in 1958, they are together, thus starting the most enduring scandal of Elizabeth Taylor’s life.  Gossip-hounding Hedda interviews Debbie and then Elizabeth, bringing different hats to each interview.  Hedda warns Elizabeth against the negative publicity.  “Mike’s dead!  I’m alive.  What do you expect me to do, sleep alone?” Elizabeth snaps, in one of her less well-planned outbursts.

Dr. Feelgood Max Jacobson has prescribed medication for Eddie, which Liz finds horrifying.  “My medications are prescribed by a real doctor,” she snaps.  When the folks making “Cleopatra” call, she jokingly demands $1 million against the gross of the first dollar and they accept!  However, she has to do “Butterfield 8” before “Cleopatra” and she refuses.  MGM stands its ground and could kill her career if she’d doesn’t do it.  “You can make me do it, but you can’t make me act it,” she rails, and history (though not the Academy) would prove that right!  Oh, and she insists that Eddie play the male lead, which he does, incredibly badly (and if you believe this version, even coaching from Monty Clift doesn’t help, though something tells me Monty wouldn’t have bothered with a no-talent like Eddie).

This movie is not exactly subtle and one can see the end of a Liz Taylor marriage when the currently husband is asked to hold the dogs.  By 1961, Eddie is holding the dogs.  Liz is doing pills and weak-willing Eddie complains about his dying career.  “Every man I’ve ever know has either died or abandoned me,” Liz says at what is clearly the least inappropriate time for such a speech, followed as it is by Liz’s bronchial trouble that landed her in the hospital with the first of her truly major near-death experiences.  “Everyone loves you,” Eddie now gets to say, the tide having finally turned in her favor.  The marriage troubles aren’t helped by Liz rasping to her mother that she saw Mike Todd when she “died” and he’s waiting for her.

Believe history or believe gossip, Elizabeth Taylor wins her first Oscar for “Butterfield 8,” giving the performance of a lifetime in her acceptance speech.  It’s at the Oscars she learns that Richard Burton will be playing Antony in Cleopatra.  “Who?” she asks.

Richard Burton (Angus MacFadyen) is everything studio-trained Elizabeth is not, as shown by the dramatic finale to the first part of the miniseries, where Richard is quoting Shakespeare and drinking, Elizabeth being made up in the infamous Cleopatra make-up, which would set the tone for an entire decade.

There are sparks from the onset, double entendres, nasty barbs, and lines like this from Burton on creating their characters: “people can’t fall in love without actually falling in love a little.”  “You’ll notice I never marry my leading men,” she retorts.  In actuality, it’s Burton who is out of his element here.  Liz is the true movie star, with nearly two decades of filming experience under her belt, while Burton is exceedingly nervous and drunk.

Elizabeth’s solution to marriage problems and an unsettling life is to adopt a baby, one with a malformed hip.  “I told you, she’d need me,” Liz tells Eddie, having done it for all the wrong reasons.  The on-set barbs with Burton get wittier (or stupider, if you ask me), a surefire way to prove they are falling in love.  Then character kissing goes on too long.  The director and producer carp that at least he gets her to the set on time and she likes him because she adores bad boys.  With Sybil Burton and Eddie Fisher looking on helplessly and unhappily, the Burton-Taylor romance builds in full public view.  Elizabeth seems charmed by Richard’s insane desire to speak every line with wild overacting, even off the set.  When they escape to a private Italian villa, Elizabeth launches into her age-old boo-hoo on never being able to find love because she’s been too busy (Liz always considered her love for Todd very real, before, during and after Burton, so it’s merely bad dialogue.

What is real is the outrageous banter flung between them, the romance lived publicly and loudly, and the delays that caused on “Cleopatra.”  The only person not encouraging the Burton-Taylor romance (which has been good publicity), is poor dumb Eddie, who tries his best to escape.  “Sybil and Elizabeth are both my girls,” drunken Richard exclaims, showing up comically drunk at a party.  “Come here and kiss me,” he tells her, which she does, as a dinner party of extras and, most importantly, Eddie, look on.  Elizabeth believes in their romance, but Richard refuses to leave his family, causing more drinking and drugging by Liz, accompanied by another trip to the hospital.  But, on the bright side, Liz is denounced by the Vatican.  Not everyone can claim that.  “Can you sue the Pope?” she wonders aloud.

With “Cleopatra” finally filmed, Elizabeth asks where they go now, leading to the worst line of the entire movie.  Burton replies, “someplace terrifying, like reality.”  Liz is not in the mood for wit, as the end of every movie brings up her abandonment issues (which, according to the movie don’t technically exist as her father is still around, he ditched three out of four husbands and only one died on her).

Richard turns up at Elizabeth’s Swiss chalet with the script to “The VIPs,” the most satisfying of their movies because it’s the goofiest and cheesiest.  Unfortunately, since the movie wants the Burton-Taylor romance to be the center of the movie, we have to suffer through more unbearable dialogue that makes up more unbearable scenes, such as when Liz offers to be Richard’s mistress, publicly.  If he would stop speaking in quotes, it might be less annoying.  Endlessly, he’s drunk, they fight, they make up, he gives her jewelry, he drinks, he drinks, he drinks…

And then comes this exchange, after Richard was supposed to inform his wife he proposed to Elizabeth:
“You can have a wife and a mistress, but you cannot have a wife and a fiancee.”
“Why not?”
“Because I’m the fiancee.”

Now that’s snappy!  Unfortunately, that’s the only snap in over two hours of canned dialogue.

After his Broadway triumph in “Hamlet,” it’s off to “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” where Liz starts to live the harridan role a bit too much (including porking up), though Richard drinks just like George would.  The arguments turn funny, at least to observe.  Even Fenn and MacFayden don’t deserve to utter such crap.  “I hate our games,” Elizabeth says after one particularly awful row.  But they don’t stop.  There are still a ton of movies to make.  It’s turing “Taming of the Shrew” that Montgomery Clift dies and Elizabeth is inconsolable, though Richard has little sympathy for “the broken heart.”  How did he die?  “A life overdose,” Liz says.

Elizabeth wins an Oscar, but she’s upset because Richard doesn’t.  After 13 days of sobriety, Richard gets so drunk we have to skip ahead to 1972 since nothing happened in the meantime except more of the same.  He does buy her the Krupp Diamond, quipping to a dowager, “that’s the way we like it, diamonds on the front page, bad reviews on the back.”

The marriage unravels, and we know that because Richard has started hauling around the dogs.  Since she’s the heroine, we skip over her drinking, and suddenly Richard is just a sad aging creature dragging them down.  She breaks up with him by sending the press a note.  But, they do get married again.  And then quickly divorced.  Exit Burton (for now).

In 1976, Liz is in Washington, DC, attending a gala with Senator John Warner (Charles Frank), the further thing from a Hollywood leading man Liz has known since, well, ever.  She’s there to celebrate the Bicentennial with the Virginia politician, whose farm and love of animals delights her.  “This is my childhood. I feel like I’m back in England,” she says, though that would be somewhat of a lie.  Worse is a bizarre piece of incorrect dialogue when she tells Warner, “I’ve had five husbands and five divorces.” Well, not quite.  She’s had six husbands by that point (including Burton twice) and the marriage to Todd ended in death.  I admit, getting this far in the film hasn’t been easy, but even if you just started, you would know that line to be completely false.

She marries Warner basically because he’s the opposite of anything she’s ever known, and just in time to campaign for him as he runs for Senate.  She’s a great asset, but Fenn has to do it in a fat suit because these were Elizabeth Taylor’s chunky years.  Warner is against women in the military and the ERA, which brings him into public disagreement with Liz, a lifelong Democrat.  So, she continues to eat.

After he wins, she gets ridiculously plump, not to mention bored.  And the Warner marriages bites the dust, though he’s spared the indignity of having to carry any dogs.

It’s back to Burton for an ill-conceived Broadway revival of “Private Lives” (her triumphant Broadway debut in “The Little Foxes” is ignored), where Burton is noticeably ailing.  She’s thinner, but now addicted to pills.  The movie also fails to note that the show was a bomb, barely eking out its Broadway run and giving up its tour prematurely.

When Liz ends up in the hospital, her family stages an intervention and Liz helps put the Betty Ford Clinic on the map, mopping floors in her high heels.  She makes it through recovery (this time), but Burton dies, alcohol crystals scraped from his spine, but has to go to his grave alone at the family’s request.

“I’m a survivor, it’s in the genes,” she tells a very sick Rock Hudson when finding him withering away from AIDS, sympathetic and loving, as she would be for the rest of her life to everyone affected by the epidemic.  A stately (and thin) Liz becomes the face of AIDS awareness, possibly giving up acting for the cause, though early on, it wasn’t easy for Elizabeth to enlist famous friends for the cause.

Unfortunately, she ends up back in rehab.  This time, she meets Larry Fortensky (Michael McGrady), who helps remind her of who she is and what she has accomplished.  In less than 10 seconds, she also decides to start a perfume empire (and name it).

The make-up artists go all out as Liz turns 60, when she was so thin, her head threatened to topple her body.  Sitting with her mother by the pool, she says, “I’ve known great love.”  “And you’ve given great love,” Sara says, without a trace of irony.  There, surrounded by her family, the movie ends.

Frankly, Elizabeth Taylor deserves a better retelling of her life.  This one is so white-washed, and it needn’t have been.  Especially after her stints in rehab, Elizabeth Taylor was the first one to laugh at herself, right up until the end.  She would joke about her past, joke about her status as an actress and her many loves, the only topic off limits to even her saucy sense of humor being her work for AIDS.  She lived grandly and loved it.  According to this movie, she lived a bit recklessly and didn’t have a whole lot of fun.  Since Elizabeth Taylor said she did not want a movie made of her life (having forgotten this one), I suppose inevitably that means someone will ignore the request, so let’s hope they dive into it with the same élan Elizabeth displayed her entire life.

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Categories: Historical Miniseries

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