Warning: Spoiler Alert. This is a critical essay, not a review, so plot points are revealed for the purpose of discussion.
She’s at that awkward age. Seventies-era Elizabeth Taylor, that is. Starting out as an uncommonly pretty child actress, Taylor grew into a breathtakingly beautiful movie star who then became (with the assist of Eddie Fisher, Richard Burton, and “le scandale”) a world-class homewrecker and tabloid darling. Over time came the respect and legitimacy of two Academy Award wins (Butterfield 8, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), too soon supplanted by the undesired notoriety of being the star of several costly, eccentric flops. Come the ‘70s, Taylor seemed to settle into a kind of teetering-on-the-edge-of-irrelevance fame which cast her as the walking embodiment of movie star excess, symbol of fishbowl-celebrity victimization, and the near-obsessive object of keyhole journalism. She was a public figure noted more for her jewels, illnesses, and fluctuating waistline than for her talent as an actress.
|Elizabeth Taylor as Zee Blakeley|
|Michael Caine as Robert Blakeley|
|Susannah York as Stella|
But by 1972 Elizabeth Taylor had become an in-betweener. An eminent member of old-guard Hollywood too young to be nostalgically “hip” like Alexis Smith and Ruby Keeler (both of whom enjoyed brief career resurgences on Broadway in 1971: Follies and No, No Nanette, respectively); too big a star to go the put-out-to-pasture, weekly TV series route taken by Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart, and Shirley MacLaine (all starring in short-lived TV shows during the 1971-1972 season); and yet too old to be taken seriously in the "New Hollywood" which cast her (preposterously) as a mini-skirted Las Vegas showgirl(!) carrying on an affair with 5-years-younger Warren Beatty in The Only Game in Town (1970).
|Granted far too little screen time (but making the most of it in a see-through frock) the fabulous Margaret Leighton plays party-giving socialite, Gladys. She could be the prototype for Ab Fab's Patsy|
One of Taylor’s biggest drawbacks was that she looked like a movie star in an era valuing gritty naturalism and actors who more resembled regular folks. In a time when roles were written for people who looked like Karen Black, Elliot Gould, and Dustin Hoffman, Elizabeth Taylor stood out for all the wrong reasons. A de-glamorized Taylor tended to look matronly (something both her fans and detractors never let her forget), while an in-step-with-the-times Taylor (she was only 38 when X, Y & Zee began filming) came across like a trying-too-hard fashion trainwreck (something evident in most every frame of X, Y & Zee).
As for her film career: the all-encompassing scope of Taylor’s tabloid notoriety, spate of ill-advised self-referential movie roles (audiences treated every Taylor/Burton film pairing as a dramatized glimpse into the couple’s real life), and stunt-like TV guest appearances (on the daytime soap All My Children and Here’s Lucy ‒both in 1970), all conspired to make it next to impossible for audiences to accept her in a movie as anybody but herself.
What was a contemporary cinema demi-goddess to do?
Well, one solution – especially if one was as in need of a hit as Taylor at the time – was to give ‘em what they wanted. And to a large degree that’s exactly what X, Y & Zee does. Author Edna O’Brien’s original screenplay about a toxic romantic triangle among London’s tony set (originally titled Zee & Co.), is an acerbic black comedy-drama which appears to have been whittled and shaped to suit the talents and persona of its star. (O'Brien contends that as many as four writers tinkered with her script...even changing her original ending - reportedly involving a ménage à trois - to a lesbian conquest.)
As the younger other woman who has caught both Robert’s eye and exceedingly fickle heart, Stella exudes an intelligence and sensitivity making it difficult to understand what she sees in the lizard-eyed lothario - beyond the flattery of the ardency of his pursuit. As for Robert, it’s clear Stella represents an opportunity for a little peace and quiet and a little less fashion eye-strain.
|"I think she looks like a bag of bones."|
Zee and best friend Gordon (John Standing) size up the competition
What ensues I can only speculate was intended to be a three-pronged war of wills in which everyone’s desires are ultimately revealed to be selfish in nature and motivated by rescue, dependency, or escape. What is actually served up is a one-woman battle and full-on frontal assault waged by Zee against Robert and Stella (both hopelessly outmatched) as she resorts to every trick in the book—and a few no one had yet dared think of—to keep her man and assure that things remain as they are.
Screenwriter O’Brien, having fairly exhausted the whole "modern marriage under stress" topic in 1969’s dramatically more satisfying Three Into Two Won’t Go (where Rod Steiger’s uncooked pastry dough countenance strains the credibility of his being cast as the apex of a triangle) strives for a tone of sophisticated cynicism and candor in X, Y & Zee, a note or two of which is occasionally hit. But for the most part, Taylor & Co. seem content to merely capitalize on and exploit every ounce of self-referential humor and drama possible.
Taylor makes knowing, self-aware jokes about her weight-
Zee: “Real men don’t like skinny women. They only think they do because they’re supposed to look better in clothes. But what happens when the clothes come off and you climb between the sheets on a cold winter night? Then they like to know they’re with a real woman.”
Taylor turns critical barbs into self-directed comedy-
Robert: “She (Stella) suggests you open a fish store.”
Robert: “She (Stella) suggests you open a fish store.”
Taylor indulges her well-documented bawdy sense of humor-
Zee: "Frankly Scarlett, I don't give a shit!"
Taylor reprises Maggie the Cat-
Zee: (On phone to Stella)“Is my husband in your skinny, chicken-like arms?”
Taylor reprises Virginia Woolf's Martha-
Zee: “Come back here, you! I haven’t dismissed you yet!”
And, of course, with each scene of Taylor and Caine whaling on and wailing at one another between bouts of heated make-up sex, the tumultuous real-life Taylor/Burton union (which had about two more years to go) is evoked and (the audience hopes) reenacted.
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
I imagine the mental calisthenics a writer must perform in order to come up with something new to say about the romantic triangle are considerable. Edna O’Brien’s tack seems to be to examine what binds people together in an atmosphere of unbridled license. The Beautiful People populating X, Y & Zee are a rarefied set. Unlike the penniless, free-love hippies espousing freedom and “doing your own thing” in the atmosphere of the sexual revolution, the hedonistic individuals at the center of the film have both the wealth and autonomy to be truly free. And therein lies the problem.
Without the need to be tethered or tied to anyone, the whole idea of marriage and morality becomes confoundingly fluid. No one can be accused of cheating because cheating first presumes the existence of rules. And from what little we glean from this couple's past (Zee can’t have children and pets die on them with tragic regularity), like Albee's George and Martha, game-playing replaced rules for Zee and Robert long ago.
|Both Susannah York and Michael Caine give noteworthy performances|
THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Alas, quiet moments in X, Y & Zee are pretty hard to come by. As directed by Brian G. Hutton (Night Watch) X, Y & Zee is a crudely funny, visually flashy, magnificently photographed, and exceedingly noisy movie. Perhaps in an effort to better fashion O’Brien’s 3-character story into a star vehicle, X, Y & Zee not only tells the story from Zee’s perspective (which I can understand), but allows Zee’s aesthetics (loud music, loud clothing, and shrieking whenever possible) to become the film’s defining motif.
I'm aware that the '70s presents its own unique challenges if one's intention is to depict a character as vulgar and coarse, and it’s a great deal of campy fun having Elizabeth Taylor run full-throttle diva roughshod over every and all; but it does tend to unbalance the narrative, making it difficult for the dramatic sequences to hit their stride. As a huge fan of Mike Nichols’ poorly-received 2004 comedy-drama Closer (about two sets of couples endlessly circling one another), I think X, Y & Zee could have benefited from a similarly deft balancing of the serio with the comic.
As stated in previous posts, my respect for and appreciation of Elizabeth Taylor was rather late in coming, making me wonder what I would have made of X, Y & Zee had I seen it when it was released to theaters in January of 1972. Because it plays so strongly to what I once thought were her weaknesses (her voice, her sometimes too-knowing camp appeal) I don’t think I would have rated it very highly.
Today is a different story. Maybe it’s my own age (I’m 20 years older than Taylor in this film), maybe it’s nostalgia for the era (the ‘70’s never looked more Austin Powers-like), and most definitely it’s the dawning awareness that her like is nowhere to be found on movie screens today; but I think Taylor is damn good in this movie. As funny as she is in the first part (a broad performance not likely to win over detractors) she truly shines and is quite moving in the second half. I’ve seen X, Y and Zee several times, and while I find it to be uneven (I can understand Edna O'Brien's dissatisfaction with the script) I can't deny that I have - to quote the poster - an absolute ball watching it.
I especially like Susannah York. Her character doesn’t fully make sense to me, but York's performance is so natural and seems to come from a place of clear understanding on her part, I feel I'm always struggling to get up to speed. She draws me into her character in search of what I'm positive I'm missing. The scenes between Taylor and York are my favorites. The hospital scene being a real standout...both are just tremendously affecting together. In the buddy-film atmosphere of the ‘70s, not many big female stars were cast opposite other women, and I forever bemoan what was potentially lost in not having any women’s films comparable to the pairings of Redford and Newman.
THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Couldn't sign off on X, Y and Zee without commenting on two non-Elizabeth Taylor-related favorite things about the film. One is the luminous cinematography of Billy Williams (Women in Love, Night Watch). Maybe it's the pristine quality of the DVD, but I never noticed before how burnished everything (and everyone) looks. The garish '70s decor and fashions pop off the screen creating a glitzy world of numbing sensual overkill.
Second is the film's musical theme, the eloquent ballad, "Going in Circles" by Ted Myers & Jaianada. The lovely lyrical version played under the film's opening credits sets the tone for a film which doesn't arrive until about 45-minutes in, and the closing vocal version I can't reliably attribute to a singer. Internet sources cite Three Dog Night, but they recorded a cover version on an album which sounds nothing like the one in the film. Someone once told me it's Three Dog Night producer Richard (Harry) Podolor. Further confusing the issue, a friend who claims to have seen the film when it was originally released says that Three Dog Night sang over the closing credits originally, but when the film came to VHS and DVD they replaced their version (copyright issues?) with the one we now hear (who that is I still don't know). In any event, it's a graceful song and curiously ideal for this not very well-regarded little film that has become one of my favorite Elizabeth Taylor vehicles.
Zee: "He loves his little games. Do you play?"
Stella: "I’m afraid I don’t."
Zee: "Nor do I."
Copyright © Ken Anderson