Friday, March 14, 2014

Give Liz an A for Zee

I’ve always said that some great roles rub off on the actors who play them. Bette Davis stayed Margo Channing in just about every role after All About Eve. Yul Brynner remained the supercilious King of Siam for life, from the day he first originated the role onstage. Faye Dunaway has continued to channel Joan Crawford more than 30 years after Mommie Dearest. And Elizabeth Taylor’s post-1966 roles all contain echoes of her Oscar-winning turn as Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf...including this darkly comic, little-seen gem.

One of the great Taylor performances: Elizabeth as Zee Blakely

Zee (Elizabeth Taylor) and Robert (Michael Caine)

In fact,  X, Y and Zee (1972) is somewhat like a London mod version of Virginia Woolf in psychedelic technicolor, a portrait of a crumbling marriage, with the handsome and talented Michael Caine standing in for Richard Burton in the George-like role of Zee’s passive-aggressive husband. When Robert (Caine) begins a surreptitious affair with  Stella (Susannah York), you-know-who finds out and an ugly game of cat and mouse begins, culminating in hurt feelings, high drama and sweet revenge.

Stella (Susannah York) tolerates Zee's antics

York and Caine underplay admirably as the adulterous lovers. Caine’s qualms about abandoning his marriage foreshadow his comic Oscar-winning turn as the adulterer in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters two decades later. And as the hard-to-read, sexually confused Stella, Susannah York pays homage to one of her own iconic roles, the lesbian love interest in The Killing of Sister George.

The charming and charismatic Caine, so adept in light comedy, reveals brilliant flashes of a menacing dark side as Robert, particularly while sparring with Taylor, who unrelentingly baits and taunts him until he explodes in moments of uncontrolled rage and fury.

Zee and Robert, or George and Martha? 
Robert loses his patience

But, of course, the film belongs to Elizabeth Taylor as Zee, a heightened version of a woman scorned. Zee is mean, nasty, vicious, domineering, childish--a replay of Martha but with an even greater measure of madness. No one plays bonkers like Taylor, as fans of films like Night Watch, Raintree County and Suddenly Last Summer can attest…and as Zee Blakely, she pulls out all the stops. Truly, as the aptly named title character, she runs the gamut of emotions from A to Zed. 

Here, La Liz is grotesque and flamboyant, as foul-mouthed as Martha but now glammed up in full-color splendor, flouncing about in jangling jewelry, powder blue eyeshadow and flowing caftans that barely disguise her ever-more-Rubenesque proportions. Camp yes; over-the-top, sometimes, but make no mistake: This is a bravura star performance by Taylor, a fine actress who redeems the villainy of her character with a generous dose of wry humor and a surprising vulnerability that ultimately leaves the audience on her side, despite Zee’s appalling behavior.

Zee makes some noise
Zee and Gordon (John Standing)

Stella, Robert and Gladys (Margaret Leighton–not Audra Lindley)
Obviously glorying in cinema’s newfound freedom since the abolition of the production code and establishment of a movie rating system, director Brian G. Hutton goes out of his way to make sure X, Y and Zee is hip and (to use the vernacular of the day) “with it”. The language is frank and salty. Hutton takes pains to capture the mood of the early 70s zeitgeist—the hedonistic fervor of the sexual revolution in full swing and burgeoning “Me” decade—particularly in the party scene at the beginning of the film hosted by an eccentric socialite (a marvelous cameo by English theater veteran Margaret Leighton) . This is also one of the first films to use the character of a flagrantly gay confidante (John Standing)  to move the plot forward and provide exposition. But alas, Zee, an equal opportunity psychotic, is as nasty to him as she is to everyone else she comes in contact with.

For Elizabeth Taylor fans, this is the perfect opportunity to enjoy the actress in one of her great unsung roles, ably assisted by great costars, in a campy, colorful, rousing rendition of love gone wrong. And the film’s startling conclusion features a neat twist that makes it all worthwhile.


  1. Hi
    This is one of my favorite latter day Liz movies...
    ET is totally game here and has a great flair for comedy.
    X, Y, and Zee was considered a bomb in its day (despite many good personal reviews for Liz)...but like Reflections in a Golden Eye and Secret Ceremony, are considered cult classics.
    Taylor deserves props for letting vanity go to hell and having a ball playing character roles.
    The first glamour girl to do so, I believe!
    Great pick, and a fun pic!

  2. Hi rico - how nice of you to stop by and say hello! Yes, I am absolutely crazy about this little-known Taylor film, too. And I agree, the reason she was such a great actress is that her beauty is always secondary to her performance...she always gives every role lust passion, humor and humanity. Even more so as she matured as a person and as an actor.

    Thanks again for your comments!

  3. This one is another of my Taylor favorites as well. I've really watched it more times than I can count. Taylor is really the whole show and she is very funny, but as you point out, she has a few marvelous scenes that are rather poignant.
    They tend to get lost amid all the mod trappings, but the movie does play very well on repeat viewings.

    I am glad that you find much to appreciate in a late-career Liz film that is so often overlooked.
    Because I only remember it as being such a flop and not well promoted in my area when I was growing up, i was surprised in reading the book of Richard Burton's Diaries, how sure everyone felt (at least in her sycophantic circle) thought this film would be another Oscar nomination for Liz. Burton specifically thinking she was better than in "Virginia Woolf."
    Certainly gives credence to the axiom that no one intentionally sets out to make a bad movie.
    Love the roster of films you're chalking up here, Chris. Looks like my DVD collection! Thanks!

  4. Hi Ken - I am not surprised at all that you too love this film! Zee is Ms. Taylor at her raucous best. This is a film you almost never hear about, despite the amazing cast and performances. Liz had great chemistry with Michael Caine, and this is also some of his best work.

    Yes, Ken, I am sure our DVD collections do have quite a few match-ups. In fact, many of my more recent purchases are due to reading about them on your Le Cinema Dreams blog.

    Thanks as always for stopping by and sharing your impressions.

    I have to get a copy the Burton Diaries! Sounds like a delicious read.

  5. For what my recommendation would be worth, I think you would most certainly get a kick out of that Richard Burton book. Although a heavy tome, i practically devoured it. So much fun gossip.
    Also while you're at it, consider the book of Dirk Bogarde's letters. Lots of dishing of fellow stars and a peek into a troubled closet case.
    Love your blog. Keep up the good work!

  6. It's been too long since I've seen this. I can never, however, forget Ms. Leighton in a see-through top and fright wig! LOL about her not being Audra Lindley. Hilarious! Michael Caine certainly worked opposite some of the screen's most potent actresses during his long (and busy!) career.

  7. Hi Poseidon! Yes, all I could see in Margaret Leighton's character was Helen Roper! And yes, Michael Caine is STILL going strong after all these years, and he enjoyed some of filmdom's most beautiful leading ladies...
    Thanks for stopping by!

  8. Love this take on the movie, and would be honoured if you interested in adding it to my Michael Caine blogathon here, send a pm if you interested - and thanks again for your lovely comments on my post on this movie.

    Gill at Realweegiemidget Reviews

  9. Hi Gill - great! Would be pleased and honored it if you included this in your Michael Caine blogathon!

  10. Thanks - adding you to the roster now!

  11. btw you can have up to three entries so send me a message here if any others you want to add,

  12. Thanks so much for letting me use this in my blogathon on Michael Caine today and superhappy able to use your other Caine review too. Gill at Realweegiemidget Reviews

  13. If you are going to cheat on Elizabet Taylor, you can't get much better than Susannah York. She was hot even when she got older.

  14. Hi Quiggy - Susannah was indeed very very beautiful. I just bought the Christopher Reeve Superman collection, and forgot that Susannah played Marlon Brando's wife and Christopher Reeve's mom from Krypton!
    She is also amazing in the film The Killing of Sister George, which I highly recommend:

  15. Wait. A. Minute.

    Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Caine starred in a movie together? Where have I been?

    This sounds terrific, and I need to see it. Liz looks fabulous here, like she always does.

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  17. OMG, Silver Screenings, yes, and I think you are going to love. It's like a technicolor Virginia Woolf but with more dark humor, and Caine and Taylor have amazing chemistry. Enjoy this little known gem--and also check out Gill's Realweegiemidget Reviews for her great article too, as well as Ken Anderson's Le Cinema Dreams, which turned me on to this little masterpiece in the first place!