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This story first appeared in the Nov. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Lifetime plans to release screeners to the press of Liz & Dick, its Elizabeth Taylor biopic, on Nov. 16, a week ahead of its airdate. Already I can hear the rasp of knives being sharpened. Lindsay Lohan will play Taylor, a controversial casting decision that might prove smarter than Lohan’s detractors hope — especially if critics, bloggers and then the public can give her a fair shake.
This is not because Lohan is “the new Taylor,” as Lifetime suggests. No contemporary star can be as big as Taylor. Many platforms compete for the public’s attention, and neighborhoods no longer have one big theater with one big screen filled with one big star’s one big face.
But people should give Lohan a chance because she has so much in common with Taylor. And because after a few bumpy, party-girl years, Taylor evolved at the dawn of the AIDS crisis into one of the great moral voices of the 20th century. In the 1970s, when Taylor’s principal interests appeared to be bourbon, Demerol and Studio 54, she seemed as unlikely a candidate for moral leadership as Lohan does now. Yet Taylor grew and triumphed, which is why I beg you not to write off Lohan.
Both Taylor and Lohan were child stars — robbed of innocence and a proper education by the Hollywood machine. Taylor felt linked to Michael Jackson, she said, because neither had a childhood; this suggests she might also have empathized with Lohan. Both stars have had serious drug problems. And they were magnets for snark: Jezebel.com calls Lohan’s world “a snow globe filled with vodka and cocaine.” Radar.com says her lips are “like a pair of kielbasa.” These blogs, however, are minnows compared to the sharks that attacked Taylor: Joan Rivers made a career in the ’80s ridiculing Taylor’s weight. And when Taylor left husband Eddie Fisher for Richard Burton in 1962, the Vatican’s newspaper accused her of “erotic vagrancy.”
In my mind, Taylor and Lohan will always be linked because their breakthrough movies, National Velvet (1944) and Mean Girls (2004), were shockingly feminist — the sort of movies every young woman must see to make her way confidently in the world. The heroine of each film faces gender discrimination and prevails. In National Velvet, Taylor’s young character is banned from an important horse race because she is a girl. She then poses as a male jockey and wins — exposing the bigotry of the exclusion.
In Mean Girls, Lohan’s character defeats gender bias in science and math. She stars as Cady, a brilliant teenager who, in pursuit of popularity, hides her intelligence — until she is reluctantly drafted onto her school’s math team. When the state championship ends in a tie, the teams have to pick one player from the opposition for a sudden-death round. Predictably, each team selects the player it believes will be weakest: the token woman. Cady struggles: The question she must answer was taught the same day her boyfriend got a haircut, which distracted her. But in the final seconds, she answers correctly, securing her team’s victory and belying the idea — advanced by the likes of former Harvard President Lawrence Summers — that women can’t do higher math.
What’s also striking is how beautiful Lohan was in 2004 at age 18. Her indigo eyes recall Taylor’s violet ones. I’ll always see her as Cady — a sensitive math geek trapped in the body of a dissipated It girl.
Few in the Taylor camp are pleased with the casting of Lohan in Liz & Dick, which premieres Nov. 25. “Selling LL as ET is like trying to sell used toilet paper as a silk handkerchief,” Firooz Zahedi, a longtime Taylor friend and Vanity Fair contributing photographer, e-mailed me. Taylor’s daughter Liza Todd is also unhappy, confides Vicky Tiel, a Paris-based dress designer who was Taylor’s closest friend during the Burton years. Tiel describes a recent dinner where Todd professed horror at the idea of Lohan as her mother. “But Liza calmed down,” says Tiel, “when people pointed out: It’s only TV.” (In 2011, when Martin Scorsese announced plans for a Taylor-Burton film based on the book Furious Love, the names of tonier actresses Angelina Jolie and Natalie Portman were tossed around. The project remains in development.)
Tiel, though, shares my belief that Lohan is not beyond redemption — and might be more on the ball than people think. “She’s a hot babe,” says Tiel, which in Tiel’s universe is the ultimate achievement. And despite the alleged haze of controlled substances around her in the past, Lohan — or at least her stylist — was sharp enough to spot vintage Tiel dresses at L.A. boutiques and be photographed in them years before she was cast in the telefilm.
Tiel doubts that Taylor would have slammed Lohan. “I never heard Elizabeth put any actor down. Because acting is such a hard job,” she says.
Taylor also earned a reputation for supporting the underdog — a category into which Lohan certainly falls. Tiel benefited from this in 1968, when, after legendary fashion designer Valentino suggested that Taylor back his business, she decided instead to invest in Tiel and her design partner, Mia Fonssagrives, who merely were recent Parsons grads in micro-miniskirts.
The risk paid off. “Vicky,” Burton wrote in his newly published diaries, “is certainly the only one of our friends who ever paid anything back.” And she was able to: For more than 40 years, Tiel maintained a boutique in Paris, sold high-end dresses at Bergdorf Goodman and has even launched a line for the Home Shopping Network.
Tiel and Ron Berkeley, Tiel’s eventual husband and the Burtons’ longtime makeup artist, appear throughout Burton’s diaries, usually drinking. But unlike Lohan, the Burtons and their entourage mostly misbehaved in private. They devised the strategy to elude paparazzi, but it also avoided trouble with the law.
My friends — who have often heard me equate National Velvet with Mean Girls — assume I will be appalled by the portrayal of Taylor in the Lifetime movie. In fact, I love it — or at least the trailer. Full of wrestling and drinking, it reminds me of Burton and Taylor’s physical comedy in Franco Zeffirelli‘s The Taming of the Shrew.
I never expected to find myself defending Lohan — and recently, when she came out in support of Mitt Romney, I was prepared to walk away from the task. Yet that wacky endorsement, I realized, also linked her to Taylor, whose flirtation with Republicanism corresponded with the bleakest years of her life.
In 1976, after her second divorce from Burton, she married Sen. John Warner, whom cartoonist Garry Trudeau termed a “dim dilettante who managed to buy, marry and luck his way into the U.S. Senate.” After exploiting Taylor’s fame, Warner went his own way in 1982. Taylor went to the refrigerator, gaining 50 pounds and embracing bad, boozy ways. Finally, she entered the Betty Ford Center in 1983.
Because they worked full time as children, neither Taylor nor Lohan had much formal education. But Taylor, I think, learned from her roles, taking aspects of her characters away with her. In 1956’s Giant, she portrayed Leslie Benedict, a courageous woman similar to the AIDS activist Taylor would become. In defiance of her racist Texas cattle-baron husband, played by Rock Hudson, Leslie obtains medical care for the child of one of her husband’s Mexican workers. Until Leslie speaks up, the ranchers’ doctors would treat only the privileged community.
Likewise, at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, Taylor didn’t turn away from her gay friends like Hudson, who had the disease. She forced a skittish, judgmental public — and medical establishment — to recognize the humanity and suffering of AIDS patients.
Could playing a woman of Taylor’s late-in-life stature turn Lohan around? “A good rehab could turn her around.” says Tiel. “Of course, we — Elizabeth and I — didn’t get into rehab until our 40s.” What advice would Tiel — and, by extension, Taylor — give to Lohan? “Get a driver!” exclaims Tiel. “You cannot have Champagne for breakfast and drive your own car.”
Hollywood is a brutal place. Fifty years ago, it devoured Marilyn Monroe. More recently, it claimed Heath Ledger. Taylor’s greatest legacy may not be her Oscar-winning performances or her grand passion with Burton or the businesses she founded or even her AIDS work. It may be simply that she survived. She survived brain tumors and substance abuse and Joan Rivers and the Vatican. And if Lohan models herself on Taylor, she, too, might survive.
This won’t be easy for Lohan. She will have to take rehab as seriously as Taylor did. She may have to lose some of her bad-influence friends. And maybe start hanging around with some classy, smart people — like, say, Tina Fey, the genius who wrote Mean Girls.
I can picture a sober Lohan reconnecting with the part of herself that played Cady. Perhaps Lohan could take the reins of the late Sally Ride‘s foundation and advocate for girls in science and math. And if Samantha Ronson is indeed Lohan’s Burton, I hope Lohan comes to realize this.
Somewhat to my astonishment, Lohan looks convincing in Lifetime’s trailer. And stranger things have happened.
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