The Zigs and Zags of X Y & Zee

The Zigs and Zags of X Y & Zee

Posted by Mike Finnegan on Nov 28th 2018

The end of the year for our label also comes to the end of the alphabet. X Y & Zee (1972), described by biographer Ellis Amburn in his 2000 tome The Most Beautiful Woman in the World: The Obsessions, Passions and Courage of Elizabeth Taylor as “a story of Swinging London’s Bohemian upper crust,” starred Taylor, Michael Caine and Susannah York as the points of what was coined at the time a modern triangle. To draw in the letter W, 70 Not Out: The Biography of Michael Caine author William Hall, considered it “a glossy exercise in infidelity and love-hate brinksmanship that approached the barbed wire excesses of Virginia Woolf,” as in the Taylor personal triumph Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). 

There was marital tension behind the scenes as well as on screen, for Taylor’s real-life husband Richard Burton, with whom the film’s director Brian G. Hutton had worked on the hugely popular Where Eagles Dare (1968), often visited the set to ensure that no genuine romantic sparks might ignite between reel-life marrieds Taylor and Caine. Also, according to Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger’s fascinating 2010 account Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and the Marriage of the Century, “Elizabeth found herself watching him [Burton] like a hawk, especially jealous around [screenwriter] Edna O’Brien, who posed a double threat to Elizabeth as she was (and is) a beautiful, redheaded Irishwoman as well as an acclaimed novelist.” The parallels to the Burton-Taylor alliance were striking. The Furious Love authors continued: “Even when they weren’t making a film together, their personal life continued to seep into their films, feeding the imaginations of filmmakers and screenwriters. In the movie, Caine plays a version of Richard Burton, and the screenplay made many allusions to the Burtons’ marriage, such as their explosive, George-and-Martha rows. Zee, Elizabeth’s character, is raucous, loud, passionate, and, in Edna O’Brien’s words, ‘a ruthless survivor.’ Zee and her architect husband go at it hammer and tongs, verbally as well as physically, in graphic and explosive language. In fact, her character was described in the press as another Martha, complete with blowsy wigs and carrying unflattering weight (though in stills from the film, you can see that Elizabeth is far from fat; the public, perhaps, had never accepted her as anything but the slim, heartbreaking beauty of her youth, and every weight gain was noticed and commented upon. She was not allowed to age like an ordinary woman.).” 

Caine, by then no stranger to roles that involved aspects of the ladies man or hypocritical husband (after all, his Alfie was a cinematic highlight the same year of Virginia Woolf), filtered all this out and focused on his co-stars, particularly Taylor. Hall incorporates Caine’s reflection that “Elizabeth and I became great friends instantly, because she is a real no-bullshit lady, and I like to imagine that I’m a no-bullshit man. She’s not very tall, and every time we did a scene they used to stand her on something. There we are on our first day, both standing up, and I’m looking just slightly above her eye line, which makes me about five foot six inches. One day I said to her: ‘Everyone knows you’re not very tall, but no one knows how tall I am. So when this picture comes out I’m going to look about five foot six inches…Are you going to call me Mickey Caine?’ And from that day to this she still calls me Mickey Caine. But she was smashing to work with. Professional. I love professionals. There was never any temperament on the set. She’s a smashing woman. I love her dearly. A real knockout bird.” 

The intriguing story angle that X Y & Zee introduced to this chronicle of relationship bitchery and sexual attraction was the concluding scene of lesbian love between Taylor and Caine’s adulterous romantic interest York, and Hutton reached into Taylor’s past in order to get an initially reluctant York on board. Amburn’s book includes Hutton’s recollections: “That was the whole basis of the story. Two people who play this game of running around, and suddenly they get serious. Susannah York is never interested in Michael York, not really. I couldn’t get Susannah to play the lesbian thing. I told her, ‘Susannah, it’s not a lesbian thing, it’s a love scene.’ I had to run the beginning of Jane Eyre [1944] for her to understand. Elizabeth played the little girl in the rain, going around with the iron. I said, ‘She’s Elizabeth Taylor, and you’re Peggy Ann Garner [a leading child actor of the 1940s who appeared with Elizabeth in the film and later won an Oscar® for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)]. You were in love with her when you were little – and suddenly you see her grown up. And you feel your attraction to her, but you’ve loved her all your life, and you thought she’d died, but now you can resume your relationship; it’s not a lesbian relationship. For Elizabeth Taylor it’s a lesbian relationship – she’s the aggressive one because when she figures out you’re goin’ to take her husband, in order to stop you she’s going to fuck you. And she does. Michael Caine walks into the room and catches her. And that’s when he says, ‘Let’s go, darling,’ and she gets up and pounces out, and he just sits there, boom, that’s the end. Columbia didn’t have the guts and cut the sex out of the scene.” 

None of this tempest and tinkering detracts from the pleasure in what The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael called “Taylor’s brute triumph, especially since she’s working with two of the best screen performers of our time,” having “discovered in herself a gutsy, unrestrained spirit…and, for the first time that I can recall, she appears to be having a roaring good time on camera.” Featuring two classy actors, Margaret Leighton and John Standing, in showy supporting roles, and a pulsating Stanley Myers score nicely highlighted on an Isolated Music Track, X Y & Zee roars onto TT hi-def Blu-ray December 18. Preorders open December 5.