Gorgeous Sherilyn Fenn looks and sounds like Taylor. Softness and vulnerability are her strong suits, volatility and depth — necessary to sustain a staid (no sex, few emotional intimacies) four-hour rendering — are less apparent.
Writer Burr Douglas assumes familiarity with the major events in the star’s life but refrains from offering any commentary except to spin things in Taylor’s favor. It’s a sympathetic portrait of a woman searching for love. Loyalty and motherly instincts are highlighted. This Liz is hedonistic, occasionally witty and often selfish, but never truly bitchy. Her biggest faults are not taking responsibility and avoiding confrontation.
Director Kevin Connor hasn’t done much to shape the material, so it’s flat and all on one level. With the exception of her relationship with Mike Todd (Ray Wise), nothing sticks.
Mother (Christine Healy) pushes Liz into pictures with Hedda Hopper’s (Katherine Helmond in a nice turn) help. Not that she’s unwilling. A brilliant audition with a mop wins her her first role in a “Lassie” pic. Falling off a horse while filming “National Velvet” results in a lifelong addiction to painkillers.
Jump to the 17-year-old meeting and instantly falling in love with Montgomery Clift (William McNamara) on the set of “A Place in the Sun.”
Rebounding from Monty — who’s gay but becomes her best friend — she marries Nicky Hilton (Eric Gustavson), depicted as a total goon. Jealous of her stardom, he punches Liz in the belly on their honeymoon. She exits the marriage pronto.
Nigel Havers brings some class and an authentic English accent as husband Michael Wilding, the older actor who has two children with Liz and is eventually eclipsed. They stick with it long enough to host the party that precedes Monty’s disfiguring car wreck.
Wise gives an overblown perf as hubby No. 3, producer Todd. They’re genuinely and boisterously in love; it’s not a dress rehearsal for Burton. The 413-day marriage ends tragically when he dies in a plane crash. It’s the most affecting part of the mini.
Liz recovers quickly enough though, marrying her friend Debbie Reynolds’ husband, singer Eddie Fisher (Corey Parker), who’s in way over his head. The slant given this enormous scandal favors Liz. Debbie makes sure Hedda puts all the blame on Liz in her column.
On a lark she asks for $ 1 million against 10% of the gross from the first dollar for “Cleopatra”– and gets it. Told she’ll play opposite Richard Burton (Angus MacFadyen), Liz asks, “Who?” and night one ends with she and Burton prepping for “Cleopatra.”
Arguably, the success of the project rests on this relationship, which unfortunately doesn’t ring true. MacFadyen looks uncannily like Burton but delivers a caricature, reducing the thesp to just a Welsh windbag and drunk. There’s little chemistry between the two and the rows are phony.
Their divorce, remarriage and divorce are covered only in newspaper headlines.
Marriage to Virginia’s Sen. John Warner (Charles Frank) is a fiasco and Liz aggressively turns to pills, booze and food. We get a brief glimpse of a swollen Taylor holed up in her rural Virginia bedroom; the obesity makeup looks like an allergic reaction to a bee sting.
Burton refers to Liz as a “deep, vast, terrifying ocean,” but this Taylor is shallow. The part and performance improve as she ages, but she’s simply not a force. Fenn’s finest moment might be mopping the kitchen floor at the Betty Ford Clinic in purple pumps.
The last 10 years are rushed through, with Taylor’s work for AIDS charities duly noted. The appeal of Larry Fortensky (Michael McGrady) seems to be eating in greasy spoons and a sense of normalcy. Cheesy ending has Taylor, Fortensky and assorted family members around the pool in Bel-Air in 1992. Teleplay amounts to a whirlwind economy tour and has lots of dead ends.
Production values improve in part two when crew isn’t stretching for period flavor. Clumsy indications of time and place are used in addition to screen titles, including countless directors’ chairs bearing the names of pictures and aerial shots of studio buildings. File footage is used erratically and to no great effect.
“Liz” ends with Fortensky uttering the cliche, “There’s only one Elizabeth Taylor.” She should hope this won’t be the only dramatization of her life. That would be cheating posterity.