skip navigation
X, Y and Zee
share:
Remind Me

X, Y and Zee

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, arguably the most famous celebrity couple of the 20th Century, experienced a fall from grace in the seventies. Their films together continued to lose money and attract the ire of critics and very few of their solo acting efforts were considered much better either. They never would again rise to the heights of greatness represented by their peak achievement Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) but even worse, their own marriage was beginning to crumble due to their volatile relationship and Burton's drinking problem. They would divorce in June of 1974 yet remarry in October of 1975 and continue their stormy union for almost two years, divorcing again in August 1976. X, Y and Zee (1972) was one of the many maligned films in which Ms. Taylor appeared during this turbulent period and is ripe for reassessment now that it can be viewed from the more objective perspective of 38 years later, unbiased by negative press and newspaper tabloids.

Based on her own novel Zee and Co. and adapted for the screen by Irish novelist Edna O'Brien, X, Y and Zee is the story of a triangle relationship. Zee (Elizabeth Taylor) is the constantly scheming, tempestuous wife of Robert Blakeley (Michael Caine), her unhappily married architect husband. Stella (Susannah York), a hip dress designer and boutique owner, is Robert's latest infatuation who enters their orbit and is drawn into an intense menage-a-trois with the couple, being seduced by both the husband and wife. Yet, despite the film's flirtation with a lesbian subplot, that aspect of the story is exploited in the same manner as every other vice and character flaw in this flamboyant soap opera in which everyone is less than admirable.

The film's similarities to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? are unavoidable due to the constant and vicious verbal and physical sparring between Zee and Robert that mirrors George and Martha's combative behavior from Edward Albee's Tony-award winning play. But, while Edna O'Brien's screenplay may lack the sting of truth that made Albee's play so powerful, she knows how to write funny, acidic dialogue that seasoned professionals like Caine, York and Taylor transform into barbed and often hilarious line readings that sound spontaneous and accent the black comedy inherent in this exposé of a perverse, co-dependent relationship.

Michael Caine, who had never worked with Elizabeth Taylor before, was a bit apprehensive at first about meeting this larger-than-life legend and her equally infamous husband, who usually accompanied her to her film sets when he was wasn't working himself. In his autobiography, Caine recalled their first encounter on the set which he compared to a royal film premiere in London: "Like the Queen, Elizabeth was preceded by various minions - in fact, quite a large entourage was finally lined up. The joke on the film quickly became that if the entourage alone went to see the film we would be in profit. Finally Elizabeth arrived and behind her, as I had been warned, was Richard. She was smiling, he wasn't. One out of two was not bad, I thought. I had never seen her in the flesh before and she was much smaller than I had expected. The next surprise was that she was holding a huge jug of Bloody Marys, and at some hidden signal a new minion came forth bearing two glasses and handed one of these to me and one to Elizabeth. She filled both of them, kissed me on the cheek, chinked her glass with mine and said, 'Hello, Michael. Good luck!' and we both downed a healthy swig. Brian [G. Hutton], the director, shouted, "Let's go to work," and off we went....the whole picture went by in a relaxed sort of haze, due mainly to the Bloody Mary jug becoming a permanent prop on the set."

The entire filming of X, Y and Zee proceeded amicably for the most part due to Hutton's winning personality and sense of humor, which endeared him to his leading actors. The few times Ms. Taylor showed any annoyance was due to Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner who dropped in for a surprise visit one day and had one of his employees try to secretly record his conversation with Elizabeth. The actress had also expressed her displeasure earlier at the sight of the Playboy banner flying at the top of the studio's flagpole (Roman Polanski's Macbeth [1971], financed by Playboy magazine, was also being filmed there). She was quoted as yelling, "I am working at this studio and I don't work for Playboy," after which the studio bowed to her demands and lowered the offending flag.

Much ado was made at the time about Taylor's ballooning weight though, in truth, the actress's fabled beauty is intact, despite the hairdresser's and costumer's insistence on dressing her up in outlandish wigs and garish clothes as an extension of her character, a voluptuous vulgarian with a huge appetite for everything. There was one technical detail, however, that had to be addressed in relation to her co-star. "The difference in our heights," Michael Caine noted, "meant that in a medium two shot my head was sticking out of the top of the screen and hers was peeping in from the bottom of it. This was solved by having Elizabeth stand on a box so that our heads were at an equal height. After I had done this a couple of times, I told her that as everybody knew she was short, they would now assume that I was the same height. "I am going to look like Mickey Rooney in this picture," I commented. She laughed and that was it - to this day she still calls me Mickey..."

The one person who did not have a good experience in regards to X, Y and Zee was screenwriter Edna O'Brien who felt betrayed by the director; he had some of her dialogue rewritten while deleting other scenes and adding completely new ones. In her own words, she said her work had been "butchered and killed" and disowned it, though the film had no negative effect on her career. In fact, she has earned numerous literary awards over the years for such accomplishments as her Country Girls Trilogy which includes the novels The Country Girls (1960), Girl with Green Eyes (1962) and Girls in Their Married Bliss (1964).

When X, Y and Zee opened in theatres, the movie proved to be a disappointment at the box office and many of the reviews were not kind. Typical of the response was this review by Judith Crist who called it, "A slice-of-jet-set-life nightmare far beyond the dreams of the piggiest male chauvinist...the distinction of this film is that its characters are repulsive, its style vulgar, its situations beyond belief and its dialogue moronic..." A few critics, however, appeared to enjoy the film's excessive, go-for-broke style such as Roger Ebert who wrote, "X, Y and Zee is a loud, boozy celebration of the fact that no matter what Elizabeth Taylor says or does, she's a movie star. The movie in this case is no masterpiece, but audiences are having fun at it because it unzips along at a nice, vulgar clip. It's soft-core pornography, sort of like John O'Hara's later novels and Miss Taylor plops herself down in the middle of it as a bitchy wife." Pauline Kael of The New Yorker agreed and added, "This one has a script that enabled Elizabeth Taylor to come out. The aging beauty has discovered in herself a gutsy, unrestrained spirit that knocks two very fine performers right off the screen - and, for the first time that I can recall, she appears to be having a roaring good time on camera." If you adjust your expectations, you might too.

Producers: Jay Kanter, Alan Ladd, Jr.
Director: Brian G. Hutton
Screenplay: Edna O'Brien
Cinematography: Billy Williams
Art Direction: Peter Mullins
Music: Stanley Myers
Film Editing: Jim Clark
Cast: Elizabeth Taylor (Zee Blakeley), Michael Caine (Robert Blakeley), Susannah York (Stella), Margaret Leighton (Gladys), John Standing (Gordon), Mary Larkin (Rita), Michael Cashman (Gavin), Gino Melvazzi (Head Waiter).
C-107m.

by Jeff Stafford

SOURCES:
Elizabeth: The Life of Elizabeth Taylor by Alexander Walker (Zebra Books)
A Passion for Life: The Biography of Elizabeth Taylor by Donald Spoto (HarperCollins)
Michael Caine: What's It All About? by Michael Caine
Michael Caine: A Class Act by Christopher Bray (Faber and Faber)
IMDB

VIEW TCMDb ENTRY

ADVERTISEMENT

Also Playing on TCM

Also playing
Scorsese Screens for February
An exclusive monthly column

In partnership with The Film Foundation, Turner Classic Movies is proud to bring you this exclusive monthly column by iconic film...more