At age 26, Elizabeth Taylor's third marriage ended (with Michael Todd’s death in a plane crash) as she solidified her legend on the big screen – and in the gossip pages.
At age 26, Lindsay Lohan is, well, playing Elizabeth Taylor.
The almost cruel stunt casting aside, the coming of "Liz & Dick" on Lifetime Sunday, spotlights surface similarities and stark differences between the two star-crossed actresses. But they are linked, beyond the TV movie: Lohan is, in varying respects, a creation, beneficiary and victim of the modern celebrity culture that Taylor helped fuel and was nearly consumed by during her nearly seven decades in the public eye.
There's a huge divergence from there – by the time she was Lohan's age, Taylor had managed to channel her demons into explosive performances in the likes of "Giant" and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."
Lohan, of course, hasn’t begun to approach Taylor’s stature as an actress and movie superstar, though it's too easy to dismiss her as a Reality TV-like figure famous for being famous, or more often infamous. She’s shown glimmers of talent, particularly as a comedic actress in 2004’s "Mean Girls."
There's a sad and almost comic made-for-TV irony in Lohan tackling perhaps the most tempestuous period of Taylor’s life: her two marriages to Richard Burton. The pairing brought Taylor’s most pronounced public highs and lows, personally and professionally (cheesy “Cleopatra” vs. powerful “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?”), as celebrity watching began morphing into blood sport in the 1960s. Taylor’s career never quite recovered after her years with Burton.
Judging from early reviews, “Liz & Dick” doesn’t seem destined to instantly revive Lohan’s career. The Hollywood Reporter called the Lifetime flick an “instant classic of unintentional hilarity” and likened it to “a lost 'Saturday Night Live' skit.” That’s a particularly apt comparison, considering the enduring image of John Belushi’s 1978 “Weekend Update” imitation of Taylor as an aging, obese, chicken-chomping glutton.
Taylor outlasted Belushi, and eventually regained much of her luster, even if she basked largely in the afterglow of past achievements. She died last year at age 79, never far from the now-online celebrity news machine that records Lohan’s every misstep, but with obituary recountings of her movie prowess a horse-length ahead of scandal rehashes. Playing Taylor, even to unintended laughs, hopefully will give Lohan a lesson on how to go from news stories portraying her as train wreck to rebuilding her image as a still-young actress trying to get back on track.
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Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.