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In Defense of Lindsay as Liz

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When the news broke that Lindsay Lohan would play Elizabeth Taylor in a television biopic, there was a collective cry of grief and shock--at least among Hollywood insiders and gay men, which are often, but not always, the same thing: It can't be true! LiLo as Liz? All across the Internet, outrage was tapped out via billions of keystrokes: La Taylor must be turning in her grave! Elizabeth had more talent in her little toe than Lindsay has in her entire body! Taylor embodied class; Lohan is merely crass!

In the beginning, my reaction was equally melodramatic. Having written a book about Elizabeth -- I refuse to call her Liz, except in headlines, because she hated the nickname since it sounded like "lizard" -- I feel rather protective of her. Even as I wrote about her from a distance of some 50 years, I found it difficult to remain completely objective. The New York Times review of my book suggested I'd maybe fallen a bit in love with her. Guilty as charged. Elizabeth Taylor was gorgeous, fun, smart, kind, irreverent, witty, compassionate, bitchy. Most of all, she was authentic, always one of the rarest qualities in Hollywood. I had lots of empathy for all those husbands who left all those wives for her.

So my initial reaction to the Lohan news was that Elizabeth deserved better than stunt casting. And let's face it: that's what casting LiLo was, no matter the platitudes insisted upon by Lifetime, which called Lohan "one of the rare actresses who possesses the talent, beauty and intrigue to capture the spirit of such a provocative icon." I know Hollywood loves to dole out descriptors in press releases, but the "t," "b," and "i" words aren't usually ones used in connection with Lindsay Lohan. (At least not those particular "t," "b," and "i" words.) Taylor, yes, but Lohan not so much.

But that "p" word -- provocative -- does indeed describe them both. And that was what nudged me into reconsidering my initial reaction. By the time of Elizabeth's death last year at the age of 79, she had become a national treasure, extolled for her work on behalf of people with AIDS and as a symbol of a lost Hollywood glamour. She was held up, in fact, as the antithesis of the current crop of reality-television, flash-in-the-pan, famous-for-being-famous celebrities like the Kardashians, the Real Housewives, Paris Hilton, and yes, Lindsay Lohan.

What was often forgotten in all that exaltation was that Elizabeth wasn't always so beloved. She wasn't always pointed to as an example of fame at its best. Once upon a time, she was denounced by columnists and church groups for breaking up happy marriages (Eddie Fisher's and Richard Burton's), for showing too much skin, for using profanity, and for making "dirty" movies (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was one of the last nails in the coffin of the antiquated Production Code, much to the chagrin of bluenoses everywhere.) Old-time celebs like Joan Crawford lamented that the Elizabeth Taylors of the new generation were making a "mockery" of stardom.

In fact, as I learned writing my book, Elizabeth had glimpsed the future. As the old studio system broke down, she realized that it was up to her, and her alone, to keep her name in the papers and her face in the photographers' lenses. Elizabeth Taylor was the first star for whom an offscreen narrative was equally as important as an onscreen one. Her private life became as much of a driving force of her fame and success as any role she played in the movies. It was a lesson she'd learned during her first big career crisis: the scandal with Eddie Fisher, who was married to Debbie Reynolds when Elizabeth "stole" him away. (That Elizabeth didn't actually steal him, that the Fisher-Reynolds marriage was what their daughter Carrie would call one long "press release," is a whole other story.) In the wake of all the negative press she received from that move, Elizabeth was being encouraged by some of her handlers to follow the old Hollywood protocol, which would have required her to give Fisher up and ask the public for forgiveness. Instead she made a radical break with tradition, gambling that the seductive homewrecker image might actually give her a boost. The record-breaking box-office for her next picture, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, in which she played Maggie the sexy Cat, proved her right. From that point on, a new maxim was enshrined in the Hollywood playbook, courtesy of Elizabeth Taylor: "There is no such thing as bad publicity."

Unlike so many contemporary celebrities, however, Elizabeth didn't cynically manufacture scandal: she was far too honest for that. But she sure knew how to take advantage of every twist and turn of her epic life. In 1961, she transformed a hospital stay for pneumonia into a world-wide crisis that revved up enough sympathy that she won the Academy Award for Best Actress (for Butterfield 8) that year. In 1962, she went to Rome to make Cleopatra and fell in love with her costar, Richard Burton, and thereby created the global phenomenon known as "the paparazzi." In this way, Elizabeth Taylor laid down the blueprint for the business of fame that has been used ever since. Everyone who has come after her -- Madonna, Angelina, Britney, GaGa and the rest -- including Lohan -- has, knowingly or not, followed the Taylor template.

So maybe Lindsay playing The Violet-Eyed One isn't so far-fetched an idea. LiLo is, after all, the direct descendant of Elizabeth's fame, the end result of all those years spent on the covers of magazines and in the viewfinders of the paparazzi. Even at the very end of her life, Taylor still knew how to play the game. She was constantly on Twitter. She gave her last interview to Kim Kardashian of all people. And with the young woman who will now play her, she shared not a few attributes in common. Taylor and Lohan were both child stars. They both broke rules when it came to love and sex (Elizabeth went after married men; Lindsay went after another woman.) They both struggled with addiction. They both were known to give annoying photographers the middle finger.

But as the years have gone on, there's been one important lesson lost in Elizabeth's teachings of how to be a movie star. Her heirs have learned all too well the game of fame, but have mostly missed the part about art. Taylor understood that fame should be an exchange with the public, that for every headline, for every million dollars made, there needed to be something given in return. True, part of that return was the sheer entertainment value of those headlines: the stolen kisses with Burton on his yacht, the arrival at some party flashing diamonds and cleavage. But Elizabeth strongly believed that an even more critical part was the mastery of her craft: for every magazine cover, she made sure we also got Virginia Woolf. Or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Or A Place in the Sun. Or Giant. Even when the film didn't quite work -- like Taylor's turns in A Little Night Music or Sweet Bird of Youth -- we knew it was still a gallant attempt on her part. It's such gallantry that is sorely missing from today's crop of would-be Taylors.

Yet maybe Lohan has gotten that message. Let's give her a chance. Maybe she'll do OK in this. No one can compare to Elizabeth Taylor, of course, but maybe there will be something LiLo can bring to a depiction of life in the fishbowl. If you doubt she's up to the task, let's remember that when George Stevens cast the 17 year-old Taylor in A Place in the Sun, many scoffed at the idea that the pretty little pampered princess from MGM could ever give a performance of depth. (I know this is far from a George Stevens production, but still, it's 2012, we're lucky anything narrative and not dressed in superhero lycra is being made.) Maybe after this, Lindsay will go on making movies instead of -- or at least in addition to -- making headlines. Let's hope. After all, as Elizabeth once said, "You gotta dream, baby." And so we shall.