Left, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton at their first wedding in 1964.… (William Lovelace / Getty…)
Larry A. Thompson has long been fascinated with celebrity couples who "fly so close to the sun." Sonny and Cher, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor are duos featured in several television movies developed by the veteran producer.
For years, he's wanted to create a movie around one of Hollywood's most famous and scandalous couples, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. He contends — and who could argue? — that the volcanic emotions fueling the courtship, marriages and breakups of the on- and off-screen couple gave birth to the obsessive celebrity culture that blossomed into the tsunami of today's tabloids, paparazzi and gossip websites: "They were the first Brangelina."
Thompson has finally realized his dream with "Liz & Dick," which premieres Sunday night on Lifetime 20 months after Taylor's death at 79. But dreams can have nightmare elements.
The executive producer of the film discovered the hard way that those developing projects about celebrities flying close to the sun can wind up getting a bit burned themselves — especially if their wingman is Lindsay Lohan, the troubled actress he cast to step into Taylor's shoes and jewelry. "Liz & Dick" is being touted as Lohan's comeback vehicle after years of substance abuse, run-ins with the law, rehab stints and antics that have all but shattered her once-promising career.
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"It sort of exploded in my face," the 68-year-old Thompson said quietly in his fashionable West Los Angeles home, his voice echoing the drawl he acquired growing up in the Mississippi Delta.
Some early reviews have roasted "Lindsay as Liz." The Hollywood Reporter called Lohan "woeful from start to finish." The Los Angeles Times' Mary McNamara called the movie "a wildly graceless biopic." Other critics have been more forgiving.
Lohan's notoriety and the concept of her portraying one of the most beloved actresses in film history are the X factors that Lifetime hopes will bring a massive audience to the film, which costars Grant Bowler as Richard Burton. The cable network, jointly owned by Disney and Hearst, has struck gold in previous years with female-oriented low-budget films about fashion maven Coco Chanel and "American Idol" winner Fantasia Barrino and has been heavily promoting the biopic.
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"Liz & Dick" starts from the perspective of Burton during the days before his death in 1984, as the actor reflects on his fiery relationship with Taylor. Their affair ignited on the set of "Cleopatra," the expensive 1963 epic that was a critical and financial disaster for 20th Century Fox. Both were major movie stars married to other people when the affair started, and their infidelity set off an international scandal.
Thompson's mother, who shared Taylor's birthday, Feb. 27, would tell him every year as he grew up that Taylor was special, "the most beautiful woman in the world." "I think my mother would be proud," he said of the TV project, choking up a bit.
But he acknowledged that he is reeling from how his vision collided with the seemingly constant chaos of Lohan's three-ring-circus life.While Lohan, 26, promised him before filming that she would not let him down, she did not totally keep her word.
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"As a producer, there were times that I would think to myself, 'Larry, you made the right decision to run this risk for this potential,'" he said. "But sometimes living with the right decision is more difficult than making it. Lindsay was living up to 100% of what she had promised me — I was never concerned about the level or depth of her performance. But some of her bad habits were harder to break, and that increased the level of challenge for both of us. There were certain behavior patterns that made the production problematic."
He was cautious about specific details of misconduct. Though they are on good terms, Thompson added with a chuckle, "We don't hang out together."
One low point came during a June 8 incident when Lohan's Porsche collided with the rear of a dump truck on Pacific Coast Highway. Although Lohan told authorities at the time that she was not driving, police say they have recently uncovered evidence that indicates she was lying.
Thompson sighed: "We had a contract that we would make a car and driver available to her every day and that she was required to use that car and driver. Then one morning she refused to get into the limo and drove her own car. She got into an accident, and paramedics were called to the set when she was unresponsive."