It’s been a mini-Lifetime movie marathon over the last three weeks with both Grace of Monaco and The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe preceding today’s film. Where those latter two Lifetime features had the benefit of A) decades of written and filmed history to put us in perspective and B) money, we look back at where Lifetime took the biopic in the mid-1990s. It’s fitting that the movie is titled with the nickname Elizabeth Taylor hated being called, a fitting emotion for a movie she fought desperately to prevent being made. Yes, this is the rare biopic filmed while the subject was still alive and it suffers from that fact more than anything. Based on the biography by C. David Heymann, Liz: The Elizabeth Taylor Story is a dry, clinical examination of the star’s life, sanitized to within an inch of its life.
We follow the rise of Elizabeth Taylor (Sherilyn Fenn) as she becomes the Queen of Hollywood and amasses eight husbands.
The issues with telling the life story of a living person is inherent in that very phrase; the story is always going to be incomplete until the journey is over. Thus, there’s a beginning and a middle to this near three-hour film, but no satisfying conclusion. The movie has a checklist of movies to feature, suicide attempts and, most importantly, husbands to marry, so everything is in service of moving on to the things audiences readily know. And because audiences of the 1990s would have followed Taylor’s personal life in the tabloids the script doesn’t give any depth to anything.
The film starts with the introduction of Elizabeth and her mother Sara (Christine Healy). The way Sara pushes away Elizabeth’s father would imply a stage-mother a la Jean Harlow’s, but there’s no sign of pushiness other than that lone sequence. In fact, after Sara gets Liz to Hollywood, she’s a side character watching her daughter’s life play out with no input. That’s how most of the characters are here; after they’ve done their part contributing to Elizabeth’s success, they’re gone. Hedda Hopper (Katherine Helmond), who gave Liz her entry into Hollywood – something I didn’t know – disappears around the two-hour mark after reporting of Taylor’s affair with Eddie Fisher (Corey Parker).
Unlike the two previous Lifetime movies I reviewed, it’s hard figuring out what story the script wants to tell. For all Grace of Monaco’s faults, at least it wanted to get under the surface of its subject, showing us how the Hollywood facade was strictly that. Burr Douglas’ teleplay presents events in a straightforward style not unlike a report of Taylor’s life in a pre-Wikipedia era. It’s hard not to tune in and out of the film, helped with the commercial breaks of the time, and events move so predictably you can easily suss out time periods and events by certain movies or marriages alone.
I cannot stress the emphasis Taylor’s marriages play in this film. If you didn’t know anything about Taylor, this biopic does little more than mention she made a few movies…but boy did she love to get married! Because of how many husbands Taylor had, the movie never focuses too much on any one, aside from Richard Burton (Angus Macfadyn), which isn’t surprising as the Liz & Dick-era is far more colorful than the Warner or Fortensky years; Taylor was in the midst of her final marriage to Larry Fortensky, where the movie ends (the two would divorce a year after this film). Because the movie wishes to get through the husbands quickly all Taylor’s relationships play out like Marriage. Divorce. Repeat. There’s little explanation as to why she fell in love with them in the first place, and her lone scene of dissatisfaction in each plays out like fickleness. In the case of her marriage to John Warner (Charles Frank), random strangers mention why Warner married her, but it’s gossip; it’s as if the script didn’t have any proof from either party, and goes with tabloid fodder.
The husbands are boiled down to one or two basic traits. Nicky Hilton (Eric Gustavson) = violent. Eddie Fisher = homewrecker. Michael Wilding (Nigel Havers) = British. When the script does want to give us a husband Liz presumably loves to pieces, such as the doomed Mike Todd (Ray Wise), we get a scene of them together before his death. Hard to believe he’s the love of her life with barely a minute on-screen. And many of her marriages were knowingly tempestuous and violent, and characters mention “brawls,” but all the relationships look fairly boring. Taylor already hated this was being made, guess the screenwriter didn’t want to press his luck. The same shying away from controversy comes with Taylor’s substance abuse, handled with even friendlier kid gloves. We see her take pills and drink, but a brief foray into the Betty Ford Clinic has her coming out like a rose with nothing resembling withdrawal or anything easily confused with addiction. There is a maudlin moral about love being an addiction, and that’s why Taylor married so often. Guess that’s worse than drugs.
I can’t fault the acting, interestingly enough. Taylor herself praised Fenn’s acting, and I have no complaints. Fenn had come off success on Twin Peaks four years earlier and she’s nothing short of gorgeous! She certainly bears a passing resemblance to Taylor, and captures her tenacity and mannerisms well. It’s not a performance that requires a resemblance to pull it off – a la Marilyn – but more the personality, which Fenn possesses. She’s complimented by Macfadyn as Burton. Macfadyn has a stronger resemblance to Burton, but where he excels is with that Welsh brogue. The trajectory of their love is well-worn, but the two actors have a spark that the rest of the movie lacks. William McNamara as Montgomery Clift also does well with his role, and through the use of brilliant makeup, bears the profile of Clift both pre- and post-car wreck.
Praise for Liz: The Elizabeth Taylor Story rests at Fenn’s feet. If an actress with less polish and commitment to the role had played her – ahem, Lindsay Lohan – this three-hour film would have been torture. It’s definitely a rough sit, but the acting from our Liz & Dick and the side characters keeps you going. If the script hadn’t been interested in crossing off every important highlight or, sadly, had this been made after Taylor’s death, it would have had a road to travel as opposed to an aimless series of landmarks.
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.