Tuesday, April 26, 2016

X, Y & ZEE 1972

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 became known (with the assistance of Eddie Fisher, Richard Burton, and "le scandale") as a world-class homewrecker and tabloid darling. Over time came the respect and legitimacy of two Academy Award wins (Butterfield 8, Who'sAfraid 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 that cast her as the walking embodiment of movie star excess. A 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 
I was 15 in 1972, and had you asked me then to name an actress, I would have said Glenda Jackson, Jane Fonda, or Faye Dunaway. If you'd asked me to name a movie star, in a heartbeat, I'd have said Elizabeth Taylor. She was in a different category altogether. Why? Certainly not because I was so familiar with her work. No, at age fifteen, I had only seen Taylor in a couple of movies on The Late Late Show, and on the big screen, only Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Secret Ceremony. The reason Elizabeth Taylor represented and defined movie stardom for me was that, for as long as I could remember and as far back as memory served, there had not been a single month in the entirety of my childhood that didn't find Elizabeth Taylor's face gracing the cover of a magazine, newspaper, or scandal-sheet. She was famous to me before I even knew what famous was.

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 a party-giving socialite named Gladys.
She could be the prototype for Ab Fab's Patsy

One of Taylor's most significant drawbacks was that she still looked like a movie star in an era that had turned its attention to gritty naturalism and actors who looked like 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). Yet at the same time, 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).
Seventies youth-oriented fashions were unique in that they seemed to come with built-in lie-detectors; they invariably made those who sought to appropriate the look of the "now" generation look infinitely older, not younger. Elizabeth Taylor's short stature and curvy figure (so fetching in the hourglass silhouettes of the '50s and '60s) was ill-served by the bright colors and form-fitting cut of mod clothes and hippie chic. When she wasn't looking like a Technicolor butterfly in blowsy caftans and height-reducing ponchos, she was encased and cocooned in trendy synthetics that appeared as uncomfortable as they were unflattering. 
As for her film career: the all-encompassing scope of Taylor's tabloid notoriety, a 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 (in the daytime soap All My Children and on Lucille Ball's sitcom 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 precisely 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 that 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.)
Elizabeth Taylor portrays Zee Blakeley, the coarse, overdressed vulgarian wife of shout-talk architect Robert Blakeley (Michael Caine). Theirs is a sophisticated open marriage. A decidedly rocky one, however, sustained by constant bickering, wicked parry and thrust verbal matches, and relentless game-playing of the sexual one-upmanship sort. This dysfunctional breakup-to-makeup cycle is disrupted when Robert meets and instantly falls in love with the serene Stella (the lovely Susannah York sporting the most astoundingly-constructed 70s shag), a widowed dress designer with twin boys and a fashion boutique named...appropriately enough...Kaftan.
As the younger "other woman" who has caught both Robert's eye and exceedingly fickle heart, Stella exudes such intelligence and sensitivity that it's rather difficult to understand what she sees in the lizard-eyed lothario...beyond, perhaps, 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

I can only speculate that what ensues was initially intended to be a three-pronged war of wills in which everyone's desires are ultimately revealed to be selfish and motivated by rescue, dependency, or escape. However, 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 may have exhausted the whole "modern marriage under stress" topic in 1969's more dramatically satisfying Three Into Two Won't Go (in which Rod Steiger's uncooked pastry dough countenance strains credibility as the fought-over commodity in a romantic triangle featuring real-life wife Claire Bloom, and Judy Geeson). A similar tone of sophisticated cynicism and candor is strived for in X, Y & Zee, but only the occasional spark note is ever actually hit. No problem, for Taylor & Co. seem content to coast on personality and fireworks, capitalizing on and exploiting every ounce of the script's self-referential humor and second-hand Albee melodrama.
The result: Elizabeth Taylor's Zee, balancing on the brink of self-parody and frequently leaping headlong into camp, is less a character than a burlesque amalgam of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? 's Martha; Leonora, the scatterbrained chatterbox from Reflections in a Golden Eye; the claws-out Maggie from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; and snatch-and-grab bits culled from years of Taylor's press clippings.

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 well-known critical barbs into self-directed comedy-
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 the 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.
Taylor, while balancing an enormous mane of Medusa hair, drowning in a fashion parade of gaudy, sail-like caftans, and risking violet eye-shadow poisoning, gives a performance that is by turns unsubtle, nuanced, hilarious, knowing, touching, and assured 

I imagine that 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.
The introduction of Stella into the middle of this duo is significant. Stella, unlike Zee, is a working woman, and Robert, a self-made man, is wealthy but proud of his humble beginnings. Stella—calm in the face of Zee's excitability, soft-spoken to Zee's shrillness—also wears around her neck a Quran case amulet (an Islamic protective talisman which plays an important but subtle role in the film's conclusion) suggesting a spirituality and connection to something outside of herself…another attribute lacking in Zee. Add to this the fact that Stella also has two children with whom Robert immediately develops a rapport, and we come to understand why Zee recognizes in Stella, no ordinary rival.

Both Susannah York and Michael Caine give noteworthy performances
This is the core conflict in X, Y & Zee, and while not earth-shatteringly profound stuff, it makes for compelling human drama and (in the film's quieter moments) is exceptionally well-played by the cast

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. 
In Richard Burton's published diary, he wrote of how there was a genuine belief on his part that X, Y and Zee would be the much-needed boxoffice hit for Elizabeth. Alas, it proved to be just the latest in a lengthening string of underperforming films that came to characterize her latter-day career. Taylor never stopped being a star, but she never again rose to the heights of her '60s film popularity. 

I especially like Susannah York. Her character doesn't entirely 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.
X, Y and Zee's meta credentials don't stop with allusions to Taylor's previous roles as overbearing shrews. Susannah York's casting (her part was said to have first been offered to Julie Christie) harkens back to her controversial role in 1968s The Killing of Sister George

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.
X, Y and Zee goes for every "sophisticated" and "adult" credit it can get by having two featured gay characters. Michael Cashman is Gavin, an employee at Stella's shop. Cashman, whose character Zee mordantly describes as a "poncy little fag" is, in real life, currently a member of British Parliament and the Labour Party's special envoy on LGBT issues worldwide. So shove it, Zee!  

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 movie that doesn't arrive until about 45 minutes in. And a terrific vocal version is heard over the closing credits, but the singer's identity is hard to reliably confirm. 
Internet sources cite Three Dog Night, but they recorded a cover version on an album that sounds nothing like the one in the film. Another source claims the vocalist is Richard (Harry) Podolor, the manager of Three Dog Night. Further confusing the issue, a friend who claims to have seen the film when it was initially 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."

As a possible solution to the above quandary, I found this online poster image containing a sticker promoting Three Dog Night singing "Going in Circles" in the film. (click on poster to enlarge)

One of my favorite Elizabeth Taylor clips: Taylor presenting at the 1981 Tony Awards. She's really adorable and infectiously hilarious.

Copyright © Ken Anderson   2009 - 2016


  1. Hi Ken, this post is a pleasant surprise! Usually, writers who post on Cinema of the Latter Day Liz focus on her work with Huston, Losey, Stevens, or Zefferelli! Hutton was a good director for a latter day actress, the way Vincent Sherman was for Joan Crawford ; )

    Interesting how most of the reviews at the time for X, Y & Zee were brutal...yet Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert had no problem with Zee being informed by Taylor's off-screen image. They both gave her raves.

    I always thought it was a shame, especially after Elizabeth showed her flair for humor in "Virginia Woolf," that Taylor wasn't offered more flat-out humorous roles. Though in "Reflections in a Golden Eye" and "Boom," Liz got to toss some bitchily humorous barbs. Liz' "Lucy" appearance, with the famous diamond stuck on Ball's finger is a ton of fun!

    Far from being one of her worst, I think "Zee" is one of Taylor's best latter day vehicles. And just to confound everyone, Elizabeth appeared restrained, sympathetic, appealing, slim, and beautifully dressed and made up in "Ash Wednesday" just a mere two years after "Zee." It's pure soap, but Elizabeth proves once again that she can carry a lesser vehicle...the true mark of a great star!

    I loved that you included the Tony clip...that was a delightful moment, in the midst of her "Little Foxes" triumph!


    1. Hi Rick
      I of course agree with your assessment of latter-day Liz. Having been around during this time and remembering how critics responded to it, I tend to think movies fall victim to whatever is going on in the career of the star at the time. Like Brando, Taylor was one of those stars some factions of the public never forgave for "abusing" their beauty and "throwing away" their talent.
      So much was projected upon and expected of Taylor that few ever reviewed the movies themselves; they reviewed "how the mighty had fallen." In doing so they blinded themselves to what you note; That Liz was a gifted comic actress. Disappointed that she didn't go the "Great Lady" route of so many other Hollywood stars (Lana Turner, Stanwyck) I don't think a lot of people appreciated what an eclectic delight some of her films were.
      Now that she's gone, a bit of objectivity can be applied, I think. Personally, with the blander than bland stars we have today (Jennifer Anniston???Channing Tatum??!?) and their boring, market-sanctioned film choices; I appreciate Taylor's loony aesthetics even more.
      I STILL have yet to see "Ash Wednesday"!
      Thanks so much, Rick! You always impress me with how much you know about film!

  2. Great essay about what I consider "latter-day Liz." She made some interesting choices in the late 1960s and early 1970s--perhaps the kind of "arty movies" that take a few years (or decades) for their better elements to float to the surface. I enjoy almost everything she did from VIRGINIA WOOLF through DIVORCE HIS/HERS. She was a consummate pro who brought all her glamour and star power to the roles she chose--and she seemed to accept with good grace the fact that she couldn't play Maggie the Cat forever.

    I know I mentioned it before in your post about books, but I strongly recommend Sam Kashner's FURIOUS LOVE, which is about the Taylor-Burton marriage and how, because they spent the better part of the 1960s secreted away on yachts and in villas, they missed the seismic shift in in the culture and when they re-emerged in the late 1960s their style and over-the-top glamour seemed terribly dated.

    1. Hi Deb
      I keep forgetting to tell you I picked up a copy of Furious Love after you recommended it and I ripped through it. Just loved it! Thank you for recommending it.
      They really lived such an oddly cocooned existence, I think that's a great observation about how they remained somewhat out of touch with the changing tastes.

      Also, I think you're right about some of her more unusual film choices coming off a bit better with the passage of time. I'm just glad she kept her eccentricity. When she went for "crowd pleasing" stuff like The Flintstones, the results were dire.

  3. Hi Ken,

    70s Taylor fascinates me. Under Milk Wood? Hammersmith is Out? The Driver's Seat? The Bluebird? Here's Lucy? This and Night Watch are among my favorites although The Driver's Seat has some memorably nutty moments. The clothes! The hair! The sunglasses! Madness!

    As for the song "Going in Circles", when I watched the new DVD of this, I hauled out my old VHS tape afterwards. The original TDN version is actually on the VHS tape as well. Like you say, it must be copyright issues.

    At least removing the ghastly end vocal of Night Watch for the DVD was a blessing. That can still be heard as well on the VHS if anyone dares.

    And thanks for the giggly Tony clip. I absolutely love that. When the sold-out Little Foxes was on Broadway, a friend and I tried to "second act" it, loitering around the standing-room area with pilfered programs.
    It was very Lucy and Ethel and we were promptly booted out.

    Thanks Ken!

    1. Hi Max
      Thanks for clearing up the Three Dog Night song thing. I use the internet for a lot of research, but it seems I mistrust it as much as I rely on it.
      I am fascinated by Taylor's late career movie choices too. Pragmatic biographers would have us believe her choices were primarily based on what film offered the biggest paycheck, best tax-dodge, or most exotic filming location; but while I these were considerations, I just sense they don't tell the whole story. These days i think she deserves kudos for not going the Ross Hunter embalmed-while-alive route, or taking on roles in so-called "sure fire" crowd pleasers.
      Thanks too for jogging my memory about that awful song at the end of "Night Watch." Now if only someone could do something about the equally terrible end-credits song in Hepburn's "Wait Until Dark"!
      Lastly, congratulations for TRYING to see "The Little Foxes" in such a sitcom-y way! I really love it. That's what youth is for; taking chances and winding up with funny anecdotes!
      Thanks, Max!

  4. Your writing and observations are sensational. I came here via the Liz Smith piece, as I'm sure others did, and I'm sure glad I did. Next, after a decent interval, please tackle "Hammersmith Is Out." A rotten gem worth experiencing.

    1. Greetings Joe
      And what super-nice way to say hello! I'm always pleased whenever anyone discovers and enjoys my blog, but I'm forever overwhelmed when someone takes the time and trouble to pass on so nice a compliment when it's so easy to read something,bookmark the page, and just move on. It's a generosity of spirit I hope I never take for granted (and I seek to have it inspire me when I visit other blogs and think "Oh, they don't need to hear from me").
      Thank you very much, happy you've found the site, and I hope you stick around a while. At least until I actually SEE "Hammersmith is Out"! I'm way behind on my Taylor resume.

  5. Great essay, Ken. Liz seemed to play Liz, whether her name was Martha/Leonora/Zee/Fran/Gloria/Laura, etc. Her roles never strayed far from the manipulative, controlling sl#t. Her particular beauty did not wear well in the 70's. Hard living was written all over that gorgeous face, at least until she had it lifted.

    I don't think Zee would have been friends with any woman. They all would have been competition on some level. Even the hospital scene - I think Zee quickly realized she had found an emotional crack in Stella and went in for the kill.

    1. Hi Bella
      Thank you! Glad you enjoyed it!
      What you say about Taylor always playing some version of Taylor is what I find so fascinating about the whole star system thing in Hollywood. There were actors around, to be sure, but the stars go to be stars (by and large) because they were able to appear in many different films without straying far from whatever that magic "something" was that made audiences come back time and time again.
      So many of them did this by keeping their private selves locked behind an image (like Cary Grant) but Taylor was unique in that she started out as one thing (a glamorous ingenue type), but after Cleopatra, her private self and screen self became more indistinguishable.
      And I agree about Taylor's beauty. A reader of the blog commented to me how surprised they were to find Taylor was only 38/39 in this film, for while she looks great, she looks much older.

      And you're so right, I can't see Zee being friends with many women unless they are so old (like Gladys) she doesn't see them as competition. I have four sisters, and as much as I goon about loving films from the 60s and 70s, my sisters always relate to me how seldom they ever saw a movie in which women were allowed to get along (I guess that why the "troublemakers" friendship in "The Trouble With Angels" always remained a favorite of theirs).
      Thanks for the great observations, Bella!

  6. In my world, Elizabeth Taylor is in an exalted class all of her own. Had she never made a film, she might have achieved that status, from her AIDS work alone. In 1992, via ACT UP, my late partner and I worked on a project in Amsterdam that involved Miss Taylor and AMFAR. The topic was the Reagan-Bush policy barring HIV+ persons from entering the U.S. It was her only appearance with ACT UP and she delivered as only she could. She did so because she felt so strongly on the matter. Her involvement took the work we were doing and sent it around the world.

    A few weeks after his death in 1994, I opened the mail box to find a violet colored envelope; a condolence note from Elizabeth Taylor. We had only met for one afternoon, several years before. But once again, when her help was needed, she delivered. I still appreciate her recognition of that wonderful man, as well as her kindness in reaching out to me at that awful time. Her star power was tremendous, but her humanity was even greater.

    She was at the peak of her beauty in the 1950's. Josh Logan has written that she was considered for the role of Nellie Forbush in the film of South Pacific. She would have been great. It was just the right time in her life to play the young nurse. And, IMHO, her short 1950's hair styles were the most flattering. After her hair got big, really big, and her eye make-up went with it... the result was not worthy of her considerable beauty. Perhaps she could have let go of the Glam, but she knew its power. Indeed, for Liz, as for Norma, it was the pictures that got small. So she took her personal Glam and moved it to an industry that still appreciated it. And she made far more money in cosmetics than she ever got out of Hollywood.

    She is the best. Even when her eye-make up was not.

    1. Thanks for sharing such a beautiful and fitting tribute to Elizabeth Taylor! She was truly a lone-standing heroine and crusader long before clueless celebrities started adorning red ribbons for PR reason and championing gay causes for record sales.
      I admire the hell out of her for bucking the Reagan/Bush era ignorance, and indeed for that alone, she's a gold-standard award winner in my book as well.
      So sorry to hear of your loss, or course, but I'm heartened to read of Taylor's thoughtfulness. What a heart that woman must have had!
      Annyhow, as with Audrey Hepburn and her late-life work for UNICEF, I always think the beauty of these women, preserved onscreen, is only a tiny manifestation of their beautiful souls.
      Again, thank you for sharing such a touching memory.

  7. Hi Ken,

    I enjoyed your recap of this cinematic miasma far more than I did the actual film.

    Why the world at large took a collective hiatus from good taste and understatement in fashion for the entirety of the 70's is a question for the psychologists, but take it they did. This film is a time capsule snapshot of some of the worst. Poor Liz takes the brunt, you're so right that her particular body type was the enemy of the popular styles. Like many Golden Age stars she didn't seem to understand what worked well for her when left to her own devises. Plus arriving at the age when the latest fashions are too young for her and matronly clothes aren't an option yet, though in her case they never would be, she's managed to look awful in practically everything. The wildly teased hair certainly didn't help! I laughed out loud at your reference to her risking violet eye shadow poisoning.

    Then there's the shag!! Ugh was there ever a less becoming hairstyle? It worked on exactly one person, Jane Fonda who popularized it in Klute and even she abandoned it pretty quickly. Poor Susannah York looks like she was halfway through a haircut when she had to bolt out of the chair, leaving her with something that looks like a blonde hunting cap with the flaps down.

    As for the film as a whole the best I can say for it is that it brought me one closer to seeing Elizabeth's full filmography and it's not as appallingly awful as The Driver's Seat, what could be, but it was a one and done for me.

    LOVED that clip of her presenting at the Tonys, it showed a great deal of her famed charisma.

    1. Hi Joel
      For me, the 70s will never be as grotesque as the 80s (all that fried, permed hair & shoulder pads), but movies like this capture the absolute weirdness of the 70s perfectly. The Austin Powers mod Sixties bled awkwardly into the emerging, free-flow gypsy style of the 70s and the results are gasp-inducing.
      I remember when Judy Carne and Donna Mills went around in a 70s shag, and I agree with you, Jane Fonda was the only one able to pull it off. (Your description of York's distractingly layered and intricate hairdo is hilarious).
      As stated, I'm not sure this film would have been a favorite of mine had I seen it in the actual 70s, but seeing it now, it really is one of my favorites of Liz's late-career curiosities. I can't say Michael Caine is a very interesting actor to watch (not here, anyway), but I find endless delight is both York's and Taylor's performances on repeat viewings (with the sound muted somewhat due to all that yelling).
      I am overdue for a look at "The Driver's Seat' I haven't seen it in years - not since my re-assessment of Taylor.
      And yes, that clip. With that laugh of hers and self deprecating sense of humor...she could get away with murder. What a charmer!
      Thanks, Joel!

  8. Hi Ken, a few more thoughts on the LeCinema of LaLiz!

    When people lament the film choices Liz was making during the late '60s and early-to-mid '70s, they forget this was an all-time low for women in films, except for the chosen few. Taylor's fellow box-office favorites from the late '50s and early '60s had either retired early from the big screen (Doris Day, Audrey Hepburn, Natalie Wood) or were making film oddities or bombs of their own (Shirley MacLaine, Sophia Loren, Debbie Reynolds).

    Isn't it interesting that Ellen Burstyn introduces Elizabeth at the Tonys? She is the same age as Elizabeth and Shirley MacLaine, but was a late-blooming "realistic" looking star. I'd say she scooped up several roles Shirley could have played, though I don't know if MacLaine would have wanted to do the The Exorcist, after putting up with decades of urban legend that it was based on her daughter!

    If Taylor had been more of a careerist like Crawford, Davis, and Hepburn...what might have she done during that time period? I think, as MacLaine later proved, it was possible for a '50s & '60s female star to flourish in middle age, and Liz could have done it too...had she cared. People forget when she was cast in "Virginia Woolf," the general reaction was derision. But ET proved naysayers wrong, and I feel, afterward, that she had nothing left to prove.

    As for "Zee," Liz seems to be having fun sending up her tabloid image, and to me, that's highly entertaining to watch!


    1. Hi Rick
      Wonderful points made throughout! Whenever people criticize Liz's odd choices, I too remain grateful she at least never made one of those awful (for me, anyway) overlit 60s sex comedies like Natalie Wood's "Penelope" or MacLaine's "John Goldfarb..." Ugh!

      And the point you make about Burstyn being a contemporary of Taylor, yet emerging as somehow more up-to-date, is an interesting one. When I see her in something like "Goodbye Charlie" - 70s Burstyn (with a new name, albeit) seems like a different person!

      And when I was researching MacLaine's curious acceptance of the role in Exorcist precursor "The Possession of Joel Delaney" i came across a YouTube clip where she owns up to she and her daughter being being the inspiration for Blatty's book, and even claims the blurred, scary photo used on the book's original dust-jacket, was a photo of her daughter. This latter point, Blatty vehemently denies.

      In Richard Burton's diary, he sates that he and Liz only did one movie they KNEW was trash (The Sandpiper) but that all the rest they really believed in and thought would be hits. But as another commented suggested, they were really out of touch with public tastes by this time.
      Taylor was never anybody's victim, but I honesty think she was a good deal better in a lot of her films than critics at the time were willing to concede. Even when the films were dogs, Taylor often reveals herself to be a engaging and effective actress.
      Like you, I think she's having fun in "XY & Zee", and while not a crowd-pleasing film or performance by any means, it is one of my favorites and very entertaining.
      Thanks for the interesting thoughts and observations. Few analyze Taylor's career in context with her peers.

  9. Hello Ken

    As always a pleasure to read your thoughts on this unfairly neglected raucous treasure which was perhaps a little too ahead of its time to be appreciated then.

    I love this film too for its glorious gaudiness and ET's super-professional steamroller of a turn of tent wearing absolute bitchery. And of course there's even a bit of psychedelic table tennis to get you going!

    Please do see Ash Wednesday as I reckon you'll enjoy Mr Berger as ET's plaything in that one, and the surgery scenes early in the film are startling. Seemingly Mr Burton didn't care for it in the least.

    I'm not sure if you consider requests but I'll ask, in fact implore you anyway: please write about Boom!at some point. I'd love to read your take on that potty masterwork.

    Kindest regards and appreciation for your filmic wisdom and wit

    Nick, here in Blackpool England.

    1. Hello Nick
      The sentence "ET's super-professional steamroller of a turn of tent wearing absolute bitchery" would make a perfect TV Guide summary of XY & ZEE!

      Glad to hear you enjoy the film too and appreciate that, while not a work of profound depth, is a rollicking good time with a few surprisingly solid performances in it.
      Maybe I haven't been looking in the right places, but I haven't been able to get ahold of a copy of either "Boom!" or "Ash Wednesday" I'm not sure they're on DVD here. I'll have to check.
      Boom! was too much for me as a kid, but I'd like to see it now. It certainty is a beautiful-looking film, as i recall. And any chance to see Helmut Berger in a film is welcome, so I need to step up my investigations.
      Your very kind comments are greatly appreciated. I'm glad you enjoyed the post! Thanks, Nick!

    2. BOOM was, at one time, posted on YouTube; but it was possibly yanked due to copyright issues. There's also a very interesting clip on YouTube of John Waters speaking to a group of film fans about BOOM, which I assume they have either just watched or are about to watch. Although it never gets much love, BOOM is the perfect marriage of late-era Liz & Dick combined with late-era Tennessee Williams. Definitely worth a look.

    3. I remember reading somewhere how "Boom!" is one of John Waters' favorite good bad films. With all the comments on the topic, I'm guessing those who like latter-day Liz harbor a fondness for it. I remember liking it when I saw it again as an adult, but that was many years ago (more than 15) I've really got to check it out again soon.

  10. BOOM: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c5jr464aO0U

    Elizabeth Taylor, the Mystery Challenger on What's My Line? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1gR-vU44gd4 This one is a must for Taylor fans.

  11. Hi Ken, I'm a bit late commenting on your wonderful review of "X,Y, and Zee". I saw this one a while ago and what I remember the most are the early 70's fashions. They distracted from the drama and the fighting. You are right about how those clothes and that hair do not suit Liz at all! I do remember being amazed at the purple outfit Liz wears at one point, maybe in a boutique. I've never forgotten that! I too laughed at Liz "risking violet eye-shadow poisoning"! So true what you wrote how the 60's mod style tried to blend with the later hippie fashions which led to disastrous results. Even the younger and slimmer Susannah York looks terrible in this film. That haircut is, in my opinion, the most awful one I've ever seen in a film.

    I do love Liz's 60's and 70's vehicles, all attempting to repeat the huge success she had with "Virgina Woolf". Her late career films are fascinating: "Boom!", "Secret Ceremony" (which you saw when it was new - wow!), "The Driver's Seat", "Reflections in a Golden Eye"... She was very brave with her movie roles and in real life too!

    1. Hey there, Wille
      It must be hard for you to imagine a time when people (with enough money...and nerve) actually went around looking like this. Sometimes not being able to afford the latest fashions has saved many a person from very embarrassing "trip down memory lane" photo album sessions.
      I remember when so many Hollywood stars adopted the mod look. Stars liek Sammy Davis Jr being among the worst offenders. What looked great on Ali MacGraw looked disastrous on Mitzi Gaynor or Barbara Eden.
      I think one of the reasons it took me so long to actually like Elizabeth Taylor is because she often just looked so terrible (fashion wise) throughout much of the 70s.
      Believe it or not, when I was 15, I thought Susannah York looked so beautiful in this haircut. I look at it now and go...WTF? She IS beautiful, but that is one odd hairdo.
      But you make a point about Taylor's career I really agree with, her film choices (no matter what motivated them) were brave and interesting and certainly not safe. I adore Doris Day, but her desire to appease her fans resulted in the most boring resume for a very talented actress I've ever seen.

      Wille, I always appreciate how you express such a sense of "Wow" about my having been around at the time when so many now-classic or very retro films were new. Your delight in learning the cultural context of your favorite films makes me appreciate things I sometimes take for granted about growing up in the 60s and 70s.
      Thanks for that...and thanks again for commenting!

  12. As a 1970s kid I only knew Susannah York from '77's SUPERMAN, but as an adult I've discovered how lovely she was! Great shag indeed. She's also good in Altman's IMAGES and a Canadian crime movie with Gould called SILENT PARTNER.

    1. Will...you have excellent taste! Susannah York was indeed lovely, and you get points for appreciating that haircut. Her film career never took off with the promise of "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?", but she made many intriguing films, the two you name being particular favorites among them. "Silent Partner" is a terrific unsung gem for those who may have never heard of it. Thank you for commenting!

  13. Hi Ken, as always came to comment on one film and got lost in a labyrinth of films we both enjoy. Adore Caine in this one,its one of his definitely under-rated roles and I loved the decor. Always remember Cashman in his turn in Eastenders. And adore the beginning scene with the leads playing table tennis and the theme. I LOVE THIS MOVIE! (can you tell.. https://weegiemidget.wordpress.com/2018/02/25/x-y-and-zee-1972/). BTW please review her in Ash Wednesday with HB, love your thoughts on it!) Gill from Realweegiemidget Reviews

    1. Hi Gil
      I raced over to read your review of X,Y and ZEE after I found you were a fan of this film as well. Our tastes DO seem to intersect often.
      I adore ASH WEDNESDAY, too, and would have written about it long ago had my copy not been so fuzzy. I keep waiting for it to come out on DVD. Now I must check your site to see if you have reviewed this. Thanks so much for reading this and taking the time to comment!

    2. Hi Ken, had to return to read your thoughts on this.. just saw Ash Wednesday again as missing HB. I love your take on this one, still adore the theme.. and need to know was the table tennis match several takes meshed together with her cackle..?

    3. Hi Gill - Ha! The tennis table match! I haven't watched this one in a while. The last time I saw it I was surprised by how well it holds up and I grow increasingly fond of Taylor's performance. You're terrific about reading my posts. I need to check you site to see what you've written about Ash Wednesday (another film I need to watch again soon). Thank you!

  14. Hi Ken-
    I'm currently about 2/3 of my way through Furious Love, while also making my way through many of the films of Ms. Taylor. A lovely side effect of these two activities is developing a genuine fondness for her, not only for her sparkling personality (so wonderfully on display in that Tonys clip-thanks for posting that link), and many acts of humanitarianism, but also for her equally genuine acting abilities. Being the stunning beauty she was at such an early age I was presumptuous that she was mostly just the iconic 'movie star', but just like in the case of Marilyn (who also had acting chops) that is so not the case.

    Having already seen Boom, Night Watch and The Driver's Seat, I knew my interest was going to remain at its highest for that late 60's to early 70's period...if only for the fact that the projects are unusual, vibrant looking and cult-y. Liz definitely deserves credit for NOT choosing to act in 'safe' films! (Even if the choices are mostly do to the "cocooning" of Taylor & Burton within their luxury living, away from the changing tastes.) The critics and audiences of the time may not have rolled with it, but those that choose to seek them out now with the right mindset will be rewarded. Secret Ceremony and X, Y & Zee are both fascinating, for all of the reasons you give in your posts. Your analysis of this one especially is spot-on and helpful. (I've decided to skip over watching The Only Game In Town knowing it's pretty awful, aside from the hilarious introductory footage you've mentioned of Liz 'dancing' on stage.)

    The more I see of Susannah York's work, the more I like her. She carries all of Images so effortlessly, and it's not an easy film! However, that shag haircut...as you say, it's so bad it's genuinely distracting. In certain shots it really does look like someone suddenly left in the middle of cutting it. Lol. You make a good point about how her character has slight similarities to the one in Sister George.

    Thank you pointing out that Michael Cashman went on to become a high ranking politician! He just put out an autobiography earlier this year, which I'm intrigued to check out.

    My one complaint about this film is that there isn't enough Gladys. Margaret Leighton slays. I need to see more of her work.

    Lastly, "Rod Steiger’s uncooked pastry dough countenance"... Too f*cking funny! A prime reason why it's always such a joy to read your writing...one never knows exactly when a witty barb is suddenly going to appear.

    1. Hello Pete
      I too think that an appreciation of Taylor as an actress is is somewhat easier to access now that her performances and film choices don't have to compete with the long-run soap opera and tabloid circus that her life had become.

      The movies chosen by the Burton-Taylors for tax reasons, ease of venue, or size of paycheck are now allowed to stand on their own. And as you note, there's something to be admired in her not going the safe, boring route of seeking out marketable projects. She was like an indie queen!
      X, Y & Zee benefits from being a bit in a familiar Taylor vein, and I agree with yo about there being too little of Margaret Leighton.
      I honestly don't think you miss much by passing on The Only Game in Town, but maybe after seeing so many of her movies you might want to choose a few that only Taylor completists seem to look for (HAMMERSMITH IS OUT).
      Very impressed with your making your way through the Taylor catalog, and I'm happy that we here get to reap the benefits of your exploration. Thank you sharing your comments and thoughts with us, Pete!

    2. petlod, with your appreciation for Margaret Leighton, I recommend that you seek out "The Astonished Heart". In it, she's the third point in a romantic triangle that includes Noël Coward and Celia Johnson. The source is one of the short plays written by Coward that were presented over several evenings under the title, "Tonight at 8:30" In "Astonished," we see Leighton as rarely shown on the screen, breathtakingly glamorous. And...what a performance she gives! It takes some searching, but the movie CAN be streamed on the net, if you know where to look.

  15. Hi Ken,
    Wishes for a Happy New Year for 2021! Thank you for your great assessment of X, Y AND ZEE. I agree with you about the movie, it was a memorable film with many excellent moments, if some were a little too far over the top at times. It is a film I hope to revisit one day as I haven't seen it in many years, but I vividly recall the shouting matches between Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Caine in the film, and how Susannah York was intriguing in her role as Stella, something I always found with her performances. It really felt as if Miss Taylor and Mr Caine were married, so realistic were their slanging matches, and their quieter moments onscreen. Thank you again for your review.

    1. Happy New Year, Athanasios! (belated, but as you know, America is losing it's mind right now).
      You have a very good memory of this film even if you haven't seen it in a while. I agree that Susannah York is very good. A remarkably naturalistic actress I've liked in many films.
      And indeed, Caine and Taylor do come off very much like a real couple. But having just recently watched and written about her 1968 film BOOM!, I think perhaps Taylor was offered too many roles that sought to re-capture VIRGINA WOOLF.
      I thank you very much for your compliments and mostly for stopping by to reading this and share some thoughts on the film with us. Happy 2021 to you!

  16. I've never seen this movie, though it sounds pretty interesting. Late Elizabeth Taylor can be as obscure and hard to find as early 30's Bette Davis!

    My funny Elizabeth Taylor story: Some years ago I decided to watch the four hour CLEOPATRA from start to finish. On a rainy Sunday afternoon, I settled into a chaise lounge with a large bucket of popcorn and a liter of Coca Cola. My cat Alice Ann soon joined me, curled up on my stomach, and snoozed through most of the movie. I somehow managed to keep awake through the burning of Alexandria, Cleopatra's triumphant entry into Rome on a giant rolling Sphinx, Caesar's bloody assassination on the Ides of March and the climactic naval battle of Actium, all in BOOMING stereo and accompanied by one of Alex North's loudest scores. Finally, when Cleopatra makes the mistaken assumption that Richard Burton is dead, she steps out onto the terrace, looks up to the heavens and yells ANTONY! in that unmistakable Liz Taylor shriek. Alice Anne opened her eyes, let out a hiss straight out of Stephen King's "Pet Cemetery", dug her claws into me and then jumped so high I almost had to scrape her off the ceiling!

    1. Ha!
      Having myself narrowly avoided a spit-take outburst of laughter while recently watched BOOM! and caught off guard by one of Liz's characteristically idiosyncratic shrill line readings, the scene you describe is hilariously easy to imagine.
      I still haven't made it all the way through CLEOPATRA, so I have to hand it to you there.
      Liz's late films are indeed tough to track down. They pop on and off of YouTube, but their low visual quality (HAMMERSMITH IS OUT comes to mind) can impact unfairly on my opinion of the film.
      Your anecdotal side-stories to the films I write about are always very amusing. I'm glad you shared this one. And I hope Alice Ann (what a great name for a cat!) recovered.
      Thanks, Kip!

  17. Thanks for review. Saw film as a teenager on big screen. Thought Liz was great. Movie was good. And wondered if this was what adult life was like. Have the Three Dog Night song on my playlist. I think it was decent effort by everyone involved. Not sure why it is not seen more. Has it ever been on TCM? Thanks, PM

    1. Hi PM
      I'm so impressed (and jealous!) you got to see this on the big screen. And I think I would have felt the same...wondering if this is what adulthood was like. A question I often asked myself when I saw something that seemed light years away from the narrow scope of teenage experience.
      It has screened on TCM, but I don't think very often. And then the issue arose as to which print was aired: one with the original Three Dog Night song, or one with the replacement band.
      The song still hold up. But even though it's one of my favorites, I think most folks would find the film itself a matter of taste. Thanks very much for reading this!

  18. I am very, VERY late to the party here, but I just watched X, Y & Zee and I thought it was wonderful. The acting is marvelous and I certainly never bored, even though the ending seemed not entirely believable (though telegraphed -- rather heavy-handedly in the hospital scene). I thought Susannah York was a revelation, Michael Caine was terrific, and Liz was at the top of her game: very believable and really gorgeous: I am fond of her (very long) zaftig, blowsy period. I wasn't turned off by the Seventies styles at all -- maybe it's the passage of time; I recognize that they don't flatter Liz's figure but those were the styles at the time: practically every woman in the movie wears a caftan at some point. I was expecting this to be a campy fiasco but I found it to be nothing of the sort. I thought it was a fascinating, beautifully acted portrayal of adult relationships in a period of new rules, with resulting unclear boundaries. I was very conscious of Liz trying very hard to embody Martha in Virginia Woolf; here I she was perfectly suited to the role.

    1. Hi Peter!
      How nice to read such a glowing, positive take on "X,Y & Zee" and Taylor, in particular. Your impressions of the film read as being very much in line (at least according to Richard Burton's Diaries) with what was intended, finding value in all the lead performances and being appreciative of its “the world is changing so fast” themes.
      Your seeing it for the first time 50 years after its release offers not only a fresh perspective, but one that’s perhaps a bit more clear-eyed than those who saw it in 1972 and were told what they should feel about it.

      A critical reputation can sometimes cling to a film so intensely that often first-timers don’t actually “see” the movie they’re watching so much as filter what they’re seeing through the lens of all they’ve heard about it and expectations surrounding the standard, “appropriate” response to it. The passing of time can sometimes remedy that (for example, it seems a whole new generation is discovering and appreciating Liz’s one-time anathematic “The Driver’s Seat”).

      I’m always pleased hearing when someone has a gratifying experience of an older film. Time changes so many factors in the experience that each account is edifying in its own unique way. Certainly about the film, but most significantly, about the viewer.
      Your thoughtful, well-considered observations on a film many approach with pre-set derision is a very welcome, not so late to the party addition to the comments section.
      Much appreciated, and thanks for taking the time!

  19. I saw this at the Drive-in on it's first release - and the only thing I remember about it is the line "Frankly Scarlett I don't give a shit!" which I thought was hilarious.

    1. Ha! I remember that line! Directed at Caine and spoken by Taylor in a thick, put-on Southern accent (shades of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) during one of their many, many shouting matches in this film.

  20. I was 20 when this film came out - and because I went to the movies all the time - I must have seen it. Those are the clothes we were wearing - those are the haircuts we had. I think the women are wonderful in it as is Caine. 40 really is a turning point for women - you start to be treated as “old” then. And stardom is brutal - ET - was put through hell - for that - the intense scrutiny was the price all women in film pay.

    I like this frothy film - I suppose it’s a soap about marriage and difficulties. Our gen was dealing with that as well.

    It could be better. It needed the heads abd hearts that steered Who’s Afraid……- which is THE MARRIAGE FILM. This could have been an interesting adjunct - hmmmm.

    Thanks for your great review! 👌🏿

    1. Hello - When this movie came out, I was at an age (15) where I would have loved nothing more than to have been 20. It never occurred to me how fearful I would have been of the draft and how tumultuous the world may have felt.
      All I was aware of was the kind of freedom (represented in clothes and hairstyles) that adulthood looked like in films like this.
      The changing cultural perceptions of women were slow to evolve, so things like ageism and the "legitimacy" of motherless wives were aspects of "X, Y and Zee" that one has to keep in mind to appreciate the dramatic conflict -- then, as now, men are always free to keep moving to ever younger partners when the urge for "family" strikes them, but women writers were often the only voice for what it felt like for women in their 30s and 40s dealing with a youth-centric culture and the shifting definitions of what marriage meant beyond the traditional.

      I like that you seem to appreciate this film and the ways it tries to address the concerns of the day. As you note, I think the performances are all very strong, making it an interesting film about contemporary marriage, but, nothing along the lines of its spiritual cousin, Albee's peerless VIRGINA WOOLF.
      I'm very pleased you visited this blog enjoyed my review, Doubly happy that you took the time to contribute your thoughtful and reflective "I was there!" comments about this very '70s film. Thanks!