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Who's Afraid of Elizabeth Taylor?
Max Mosher: "The challenge of playing a famous person is to portray the person, not the fame"

Lindsay Lohan as Elizabeth Taylor 

Last night, you could divide the world in two–those who were watching the Grey Cup, and those who were watching the Lifetime TV movie Liz & Dick, train wreck comeback vehicle for Lindsay Lohan. I would have been in the latter camp, not out of love for Taylor but more from the tacky hubris of the whole thing. Alas, I don’t have a TV, so I followed it on twitter. Avid TV watchers were live-tweeting the film like it was a presidential election or a new episode of Boardwalk Empire.

“Is this movie going to feature Elizabeth Taylor’s role as Pearl Slaghoople in The Flintstones?” asked Hunter Lurie. Referring to Lohan’s ex–girlfriend, Kelly McClure of VICE Magazine tweeted, “I heard Samantha Ronson auditioned to play Michael Jackson in this.” Emily Nussbaum, TV critic for The New Yorker, asked if “It would be wrong to keep my 4 & 6 year old sons awake to watch Liz & Dick with me, right? I’m kidding, people. I’m not Joan Crawford.” If the casting of troubled tabloid staple Lohan was a stunt for attention, it definitely paid off.

It’s unsurprising that Nussbaum thought of Crawford: not since Faye Dunaway destroyed the star’s reputation, and her own career, by screeching “No more wire hangers!” in 1981′s Mommie Dearest has a movie so quickly been recognized as high camp. As soon as photographs of Lohan began appearing online (black wig, dusty eye shadow evoking those famous “violet eyes,” diamonds) people asked just who exactly Lohan thought she was. It takes chutzpah to pose as the star once thought the most beautiful woman in the world. By dressing like Taylor, but still failing to look like her, I’m reminded of the Herculean efforts of a drag queen.  

Instead of elevating Lohan’s celebrity by aligning her with retro glamour, it did the opposite. The chasm between the era of Taylor and our own seems as wide as the Egyptian desert. It doesn’t matter that Taylor was not a great actress, that, despite being a Brit, she had a weak, flat speaking voice, or that she produced, over her six decade career, only a handful of quality films. The golden glow of old Hollywood blurs imperfections with the soft focus of a studio portrait. Comparisons to Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, or Taylor only serve to cast stars of our era in harsh high definition.

And yet when classic star parts are offered, it’s almost impossible for young actresses to resist. Winona Ryder posed as a believable Taylor for makeup artist Kevyn Aucoin in his book Making Faces that also featured Calista Flockhart as Audrey Hepburn, Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis, and, ahem, Liza Minnelli as Marilyn Monroe. Ryder posed as Taylor again for Harper’s Bazaar last year, with Marc Jacobs as Richard Burton. Anne Hathaway has been cast as Judy Garland, in what will inevitably turn into Hathaway’s third ugly-duckling makeover movie. The TV show Smash is less about Broadway as it is about actresses romanticizing Monroe for Marilyn: The Musical (“She was not about sex–she was all about love!”). Dawson’s Creek alums Katie Holmes and Michelle Williams portrayed Jackie Kennedy and Monroe–alas not in the same picture, vying for JFK’s affection as they used to with James Van Der Beek.

Winona Ryder as Taylor, with Marc Jacobs as Richard Burton

Awards often follow such roles. With all the fantastic acting she has done, Cate Blanchett won her Oscar for her performance as Kate Hepburn in The Aviator. Without looking like her, Blanchett focused on capturing the actress’s fussy, mid-Atlantic accent, jutting out her chin while declaring “Golly!”

Of course, the awards don’t always come. Beyoncé Knowles (whose acting career has moved in fits and starts), played the tragic Etta James, the Diana Ross stand-in in Dream Girls, and is reportedly working on a fourth remake of A Star is Born, stepping into the part Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand played in the past. Knowles probably hopes the title will be prophetic.

By all accounts, Liz & Dick is not a quality movie. “Are you staring at my chest?” Liz asks Richard Burton, played by Grant Bowler. “Why not? It’s the very heart of you.” Perhaps the entire project was cursed by the ghosts of Taylor, Burton, and good taste. Even if it had been competently directed, actresses can only exceed when playing famous actresses if they are able to dig beneath the surface. Looking a bit like a star can be achieved with makeup and prosthetics, mimicking her voice with the help of a voice coach (even Drew Barrymore learned the flouncy accent of Little Edie Beale for the Grey Gardens TV movie).

But acting isn’t imitating. The challenge of playing a famous person is to portray the person, not the fame. Elizabeth Taylor and Lindsay Lohan were both child actors who have struggled with the dark sides of celebrity in adulthood (invasive paparazzi, legal troubles, substance abuse). If Lohan had really wanted this to be her comeback, she’d have to do some method acting and connect with Taylor emotionally. It’s not enough to have beautiful violet eyes–she had to figure out why they cried. 

____

Max Mosher writes about style for Toronto Standard. You can follow him on Twitter at @max_mosher_

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