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Classic Recordings
Robert Altman Week

Monday
Dec032012

« In Which Lindsay Lohan Is Almost Preternaturally Alive »

The Lindsay Lohan Problem

by ALICE BOLIN

The internet’s collective anticipation of the Lifetime network’s Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton biopic Liz & Dick was palpable — it was meant to be Lifetime’s culminating achievement in low-budget ill-considered melodramatic crap cinema, with the grand and legendary movie star Taylor played by bedraggled former child actor and tabloid train wreck du jour Lindsay Lohan. The incongruity was sublime, and viewers were eager for the failure that Liz & Dick would be.

Sure enough, Liz & Dick did serve up some of Lifetime’s signature camp. It begins with a title card that reads “The Last Day of Richard Burton’s Life,” and its plot is scaffolded by interludes in which Taylor and Burton, sitting in director’s chairs and dressed all in black, reminisce about and explain the movie’s action, an expository device that is supposedly taking place in the dying Burton’s mind. It ends with a title reading “Elizabeth Taylor kept Richard Burton’s letters for the remainder of her life,” choosing to leave off on a “no duh” note.

Along the way it chronicles Taylor and Burton’s epically obnoxious love affair. “I’m sleeping with your wife,” a drunk Burton, played by Grant Bowler, shouts at Taylor’s husband Eddie Fisher after she and Burton begin their affair. “You do know I’m shagging him senseless, don’t you?” Taylor says to a hotel employee, randomly. In a triumphant curtain call after his successful performance in Hamlet, Burton brings Taylor up on stage. “In the words of the immortal bard: there will be no more marriages!” he says. A producer pitches Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to Taylor at a party but says Burton wouldn’t be right for the male lead because he can’t picture them fighting — so naturally they make a scene staging a mock fight to convince him. They really are insufferable.

And the script clunks along nicely. Toward the beginning of the film, Burton tells Taylor he can’t leave his family for her, and she is beside herself. “I don’t loathe you,” Taylor says. “I hate you.” Later, he calls her “miss pudgy digits” in a fight, and she has a fit, staring angrily at her hands. “They are fat! And they’re pudgy!” she screams. Of course, subtlety was never a hallmark of the biopic genre. “We were meant for each other,” Burton tells his brother shortly after the affair begins. “That’s what she said to Conrad Hilton, Michael Wilding, Mike Todd, and Eddie bloody Fisher!” his brother replies. If I understand all of this statement’s implications correctly, Elizabeth Taylor was married many times.

Still: Liz & Dick looks lovely. It is set mostly in Switzerland and along the coast of Italy, and its sets are adequately luxe. Lohan has had some unfortunate plastic surgery, but her styling was good — at many moments she looks genuinely fierce. And her and Bowler’s performances are low-energy, but not ridiculous. Comedians took to Twitter the night Liz & Dick premiered, giddy to live-tweet this televised disaster, but many of their tones turned grudging quickly after the movie began. Sure, they got shots in when Lohan, portraying 1984-vintage Taylor, dons an absurd salt-and-pepper wig and enormous glasses, but for the most part the fun Twitter had with the film seemed halfhearted. Liz & Dick was ultimately a disappointment. As Alessandra Stanley of the New York Times noted, “The film’s real failure is that it’s not terrible enough.” It could have been worse, and when viewers are expecting so-bad-it’s-good, that is a grave fault.  

Liz & Dick’s failure as a failure was surprisingly frustrating. Its mediocrity was so dissatisfying because it disrupted the narrative — Lohan’s descent through eating disorders and substance abuse and jail time from the accomplished ingénue she once was. And she was certainly set up for a monumental fall from grace. When she starred in the remake of The Parent Trap at the age of twelve and the remake of Freaky Friday at seventeen, she was favorably compared to Hayley Mills and Jodie Foster. The Parent Trap’s director Danette Meyers likened her to a young Diane Keaton.

The praise for Lohan’s acting ability continued so profuse that one might have begun to sense some hyperbole. Meryl Streep, her co-star in Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion, said, “She is very present and alive, almost preternaturally alive, on camera.” Tina Fey said of Mean Girls, “I would watch Lindsay to learn what it is to be a film actor.” Around the same time, her father, Michael Lohan, an abusive cocaine addict who had been arrested multiple times for assault, began to seek the media spotlight. She wrote a hit song about him, “Confessions of a Broken Heart (Daughter to Father),” which Tommy Mottola described as “one of the best I’ve heard in my career.”

By 2006, when she was nineteen, the train wreck narrative was already beginning, as her heavy partying and dramatic weight loss made her a constant figure in the tabloid media. She gave an interview with Evgenia Peretz in which she may have admitted to having an eating disorder — though she later claimed she was misquoted. Lohan and her management were outraged by how she was portrayed in the Vanity Fair article, but reading it now, its take on her is remarkably positive and optimistic.

“She may be the most compelling and charismatic and real of all the actresses on the very young A-List,” Peretz wrote, and also called Lohan “a serious and emotional young woman” who “clearly has great reserves of strength.” This was around when Lohan began several years of living in hotels, and Peretz spun this wholesomely as well, calling her “the Eloise of Chateau Marmont.” Lohan talked about how she had a quiet dinner with some friends for her nineteenth birthday — “That’s how much I’ve changed,” she said. “When I turned 18, I had a party at Avalon with an ‘I'm a Slave 4 You’ theme.” The Peretz article thinks it’s telling the story of a star who has made missteps, but is ultimately back on the right track.

The next year Lohan had two DUIs and the first three of her four stints in rehab. She had cocaine either on her or in her system during both of her DUIs — a drug she had denied that she was ever involved with, sensitive because of her father’s history with it. “It’s a sore subject,” she said about cocaine in the Peretz article. For Lohan the four years following have mostly been violated probation, car accidents, shoplifting, jail time and community service, and getting dropped from one movie after another.

Despite all this, people want to believe that there is something brilliant about her, if only to make her current situation appear even more dismal. Many still buy into the narrative of her potential — Richard Brody called her performance in Liz & Dick “thrillingly immediate.” The myth of her prodigious talent has played a part in enabling her destructive behavior. As Ken Tucker says in his review of Liz & Dick, Lohan has “been cut so many breaks, it’s difficult to root for her anymore.” Her entitled attitude is clear, with stories of her being constantly late to movie sets, skipping court dates and community service, even stealing a necklace from a jewelry store. “I think the root of the problem,” said an anonymous source in Nancy Jo Sales’ 2010 Vanity Fair story about Lohan, “was every single person telling her how amazing she is, kissing her ass all the time.”

In 2007, an executive on Lohan’s film Georgia Rule wrote a cranky open letter to Lohan about her behavior onset. “We are well aware that your ongoing all night heavy partying is the real reason for our so-called ‘exhaustion,’” he wrote. “You have acted like a spoiled child.” This is probably a realistic assessment of Lohan — she is someone who got too much money, fame, and praise too young, who has never been expected to grow up in any meaningful way. After Robert Altman died in 2006, Lohan wrote a long, strange tribute to the director, filled with spelling and grammatical errors. “He left us with a legend that all of us have the ability to do,” she wrote, and concluded bizarrely with the closing phrase “Be adequite.”

The letter revealed Lohan not as a movie star of rare talent or as a legendarily troubled public figure, but as a young woman who had been making movies while she should have been going to school. But this picture of Lohan — as an undereducated and spoiled party girl — doesn’t wash with what she had been set up for, with what she was supposed to become. After her film work post-Prairie Home Companion did not live up to the hype surrounding her talent, the story couldn’t just be that she had disappointed. She had to have disappointed because of some darkness in her soul — if her life wasn’t going to be a legendary success, it had to be a legendary tragedy.

This is where the “old Hollywood” connections start coming in. Lohan has done photo-shoots re-creating ones done by her idol Marilyn Monroe twice — one for Playboy that was inspired by Monroe’s nude pictorial from the magazine’s first issue, and the other for New York that was a re-creation of the last photo-shoot Monroe did before committing suicide. It’s as if it is already decided: Lohan will lead a sad, destructive life before facing a tragic and untimely death — and she’s complicit, helping to create this narrative.

And this is where Lohan playing Elizabeth Taylor starts to take on significance. Lifetime was most likely trying to cash in on the similarities between Lohan and Taylor’s lives — and they do have points in common. Both were promising child actors with controlling stage mothers. Federico Fellini invented the term “paparazzi” to describe the photographers who followed Taylor, and Lohan has been continually hounded by the paparazzi for nearly ten years. But their stories are more different than they are alike. At the time that Liz & Dick begins in 1963, Taylor was twenty-nine years old, had been married three times, and had three children and one Academy Award. Importantly, Taylor was the rare child actor to become a genuine adult movie star, which Lohan so far is not.

Even in her scandals, Taylor was in different league from Lohan. The boozing and shouting and bottle-throwing portrayed in Liz & Dick are endlessly more dignified than the weird, sordid situations Lohan’s gotten herself into recently. She is known for being so unreliable that a producer on Liz & Dick described her as “the most insured actress ever to set foot on a Hollywood sound stage.” She has hosted slumber parties at the Chateau Marmont with Lady Gaga and Lana Del Rey where they “watched old movies and played board games,” which is a euphemism for I don’t know what. Charlie Sheen, whom she became friends with when they worked together on Scary Movie 5, reportedly gave her $100,000 to settle a tax debt. And she was recently arrested for punching a woman in a club after attending a Justin Bieber concert.

Lohan was an incredible talent whose personal demons have turned her into a Hollywood tragedy — that is what many people want to be see as the scenario. Instead, she may just be another child actor whom the system permanently fucked up. When Lohan hosted Saturday Night Live in 2005, Amy Poehler posed as Lohan’s future self during the opening monologue — she came with a message of warning, cautioning Lohan to stop partying and drinking so much Red Bull.

When Lohan asked what movies she would do in the future, Poehler responded with weird accuracy: “Well, let me see. We did Herbie: Fully Loaded, then we did Mean Girls 2, that was a suck bomb, then we did National Lampoon’s Jamaican Vacation, and then we did like eight Lifetime movies, and now we host a Cinemax show called Night Passions.” Lohan’s future was predictable because we’ve heard her story so many times before — not in Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, but in Corey Haim, Gary Coleman, and Danny Bonaduce. Lohan’s life and Liz & Dick are not the epic catastrophes they were meant to be. They’re just run-of-the-mill messes, which makes them even sadder.

Alice Bolin is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Missoula.. She last wrote in these pages about Taylor Swift. She tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

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