She broke into “the business” before she was 10, grew up too quickly onscreen and off, had many lovers and a shameless stage mom. Myriad health issues — some self-inflicted, some not. Oddball friendships and associations. And a loyal inner circle who swear to her heart of gold.
So is she Elizabeth Taylor? Or Lindsay Lohan, the talented but troubled starlet who plays the violet-eyed movie star in Liz & Dick, Lifetime’s much-discussed biopic produced by telefilm whiz Larry A. Thompson (Amish Grace, Lucy and Desi: Before the Laughter) and penned by award-winning Temple Grandin scribe Christopher Monger?
By now you’ve figured out that the answer is both. And that, says Thompson, is why he believed Lohan — on Lifetime’s short list of talent who could lure a younger audience to the film — would lend “magic” to his opulent production that chronicles “le scandale,” Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s illicit international love affair and the rabid media coverage that led famed director Federico Fellini to first use the term “paparazzi” (Italian for the buzz of an insect) to describe it.
“Listen, I knew it was a risk,” says the affable Thompson, who has also managed more than 200 stars in his 40-plus-year career, including Joan Rivers, David Hasselhoff, Linda Lovelace and Richard Pryor. “I knew I was complicating my life. I knew this production required an enormous amount of detail, notwithstanding whatever actress might be hired. But it was almost that Lindsay was born to play this role at this time because, at the height of her flashbulb existence, we could create a movie about the people who created the flashbulb existence — and people would be able to relate to it much easier than if we only had a good actress.”
Still, Thompson says, he was cautious in inking the deal, meeting with Lohan on multiple occasions before offering her the role.
“The first time she met with me, she was 30 minutes late. That scared me,” he admits, noting that legal and insurance issues ultimately led to “pages and pages and pages of what-ifs” in Lohan’s contract. “The second time she met with me, she was five minutes early. And the third time we met, she looked me in the eyes and said, ‘I’ve been doing nothing but reading and studying and watching everything Elizabeth Taylor has ever done, and nobody can play this more than me. Nobody understands her life at this time more than me. I won’t let you down.’”
With Lohan onboard, Thompson tackled the job of finding what he hoped would be a Welsh actor who could not only embody one of Hollywood’s most legendary leading men, but also stand up to the Lohan hype.
“Once we had Lindsay, we already had a high-profile project that now went into some kind of paparazzi/media hyperspace that was similar to the hyperspace that Liz and Dick were in when they were at the height of their fame,” says Thompson, who finally found his Burton in dashing New Zealand native Grant Bowler (True Blood). “[We] put him in a room with Lindsay and the sexual chemistry just exploded in your face as soon as they started reading together. And once we sensed that we had the chemistry between the two actors, we realized that we could make a movie where Liz and Dick could live again.”
And live again in the Hollywood atmosphere the duo created — where studios and PR machines are no longer able to carefully craft personas for their talent, shielding them from the fallout of their own egos, infallibilities and a 24/7 media presence.
“Part of our story is that, as this affair is taking place, the entire Hollywood system breaks down because of them, which gives birth to the paparazzi and the invasion of privacy and the celebrity that we now know,” Thompson explains. “Meaning that you’re going to see in our movie that Liz and Dick were the first Brangelina. They were the first notorious international couple whereby the studios lost control of being able to protect their assets from the media. You will see that when they’re in Rome and gallivanting in public, [20th Century Fox chief] Darryl Zanuck is in L.A. trying to stop all these Italian photographers running around on little Vespa scooters taking candid photos of Liz and Dick. And his publicity department tells him, ‘Listen, we can’t stop it!’”
Half a century later, Thompson found himself making a movie that was notorious before it even filmed a scene, in a Twitter-fueled era where the show that goes on offscreen is a bigger moneymaker than any finished product, reality stars have as much clout as movie stars and a picture is worth a million followers.
“The first three days of the shoot were on a yacht in Marina del Rey, which doubles for Portofino and Monte Carlo,” Thompson explains, “and we had paparazzi on other boats and hanging out of trees, following us around on motorcycles and acting as if they worked for the caterers — all shooting photos, while we were trying to prevent them from shooting photos. So we had the actors playing Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor on the boat. We had the actors playing our paparazzi taking pictures of them. And we had real paparazzi taking pictures of our paparazzi. We were in a surreal, Kafkaesque world of art and life and delicate emotional personalities.”
Which is exactly the lesson Thompson hopes that all generations of viewers will glean from Liz & Dick.
“These two people were involved in an impossible love affair,” he says. “And as their relationship falls apart because of the excess and the drinking stupors and the disregard for people’s feelings, it comes to roost for them in the price they paid for this love. On a very pop culture level, our movie gives you a hint, a clue, a glimmer of the celebrity-crazed world we live in now and explains to you how it started, how it’s evolved and the impossibility for famous people to live in such a bubble yet have a normal life. … It’s life imitating art and art imitating life and the circle that continues with it.”
But, says Thompson, the No. 1 reason to tune in to the film?
“Grant Bowler as Richard Burton will steal your heart, and Lindsay Lohan as Elizabeth Taylor will break it!”