Remember “Liz & Dick”? Oh, maybe you don’t, and that is entirely forgivable. It was that tepid, sudsy Lifetime movie about the on-again-off-again-on-again-whatever romance of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Not even a year later, its only real relevance is twofold. One is its inability to deliver that comeback Lindsay Lohan still so desperately requires, and two is in giving critics like me a convenient comparison point for the BBC America’s take on this epic romance, “Burton and Taylor” (airing tonight at 9:00 p.m.). Lifetime set a low bar, but the good news is that “Burton and Taylor” makes it abundantly clear how this story, unwieldy and ridiculous in the wrong hands, should actually be told.
One important element, of course, is the cast. Dominic West, while younger than Burton in the time period portrayed in the movie, ably captures the actor’s heartbreak and struggle, while leaving the bombast we associate with Burton for the few scenes that take place on stage. Of course, as it was in real life, Burton was always overshadowed by the show pony that was Taylor, and to some degree that’s the case here.
I was initially surprised that Helena Bonham-Carter was cast in the role of Taylor, simply because I associate her with quirky Tim Burton fare and period dramas. Taylor was such a memorable sexpot I wasn’t sure I could see Bonham-Carter oozing sex in a negligee. Ironically, it was the one thing I expected Lindsay Lohan to deliver in “”Liz & Dick,” but even then she seemed like a kid prancing around in her mom’s sexy underwear.
Luckily, that isn’t the Taylor we get in this movie anyway. “Burton and Taylor” wisely picks the most poignant part of the story and hones in on a short time frame in order to get it right. While “Liz & Dick” tried for epic sweep and ended up cobbling together cliches and pointless recreations of movie scenes, “Burton and Taylor” assumes we know the characters and their backstory, then digs into the deeper stuff.
The story revolves around Burton and Taylor coming together after five years for a Broadway run of Noel Coward’s “Private Lives.” It’s a bald attempt by Taylor to reconnect, an idea both enticing and repellant to Burton. It’s easy to see how Elizabeth Taylor in real life could be a handful; needy, manipulative, loyal, funny and acutely aware of how to make an audience happy. Burton was clearly troubled in his own way, a slave to his addictions and conflicted about fame. At this point in his life, he seems to have made peace with his problems — he’s found a new girlfriend, stopped drinking (more or less) and is focusing on a production of “King Lear” — but Taylor, just by being Taylor, could easily destroy his fragile sense of balance.
We don’t need a lot of flashbacks to see why these two love one another passionately — and we don’t need a lot of blustery dialogue to understand why Burton can’t stay. What might be most remarkable about Bonham-Carter’s performance and “Burton and Taylor”‘s script is how it subtly shows us Taylor’s loneliness. Taylor’s not sitting in a room alone, watching TV and slinging back cocktails (though yes, there are many cocktails slung in this movie). It’s in countless small details that add up to a crushing sense that the former child star whom audiences still adore has an aching hole in her heart, one she desperately hopes Burton can fill. When she angrily asks him, “Where’s my Antony?” it speaks to how much she wants to live in the couple’s past, white hot (and ultimately toxic) passion, and how Burton is slowly understanding he’s grown past it.
It may be kicking Lindsay Lohan while she’s down to compare these two movies, but I hope Hollywood (or at least Lifetime) does it, if only to get a clear picture as to what works in a TV biopic and what doesn’t. Somehow “Liz & Dick” covered more of this relationship and showed less, threw suds at the audience and delivered less drama, and hit plot points with a hammer when only a gentle tap was needed. Biopics by their very nature are problematic; we know the ending, and we know too much. But somehow “Burton and Taylor” delivered surprises and careful insights, and whether or not any of it was technically true (though I’m sure it was), it didn’t matter. At the end of the day, as a story about two people we thought we knew, it worked.
Are you going to watch “Burton and Taylor”?
Follow Liane Bonin Starr on Twitter @HitFixLiane