We’re just over a week away from the announcement of the 2023 Oscar nominations, an event as breathlessly anticipated as it is openly ridiculed. If things go like they do most years, there will be nominations for the obvious awards bait and devastating snubs, as well as long overdue recognition for fan favorites. But there are also the performances for which there is, as yet, no category: the ones ahead of their time.
Our collective idea of “best” is unstable, after all. What was classic for one audience can become cringe for another, and vice versa. Unfortunately, having your work misinterpreted by the masses is (still) a burden most often borne by women. Shelley Duvall, whose Razzie nomination for The Shining was recently rescinded by the organization, would qualify. So does Elizabeth Taylor, whose performance in 1974’s Identikit can now properly be seen – thanks to a handsome restoration from Severin Films – as one of the riskiest and most electrifying of her career.
In certain feminist film circles, Identikit has become the stuff of legend. When Paramount Pictures first announced the project in 1970, it was to be directed by Herbert Ross. At one point Luchino Visconti wanted to make it with Glenda Jackson in the lead. By the time production finally began, it was being financed by an Italian company with Giuseppe Patroni Griffi, whose most notable previous credit was an X-rated remake of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, at the helm. Shooting started without a complete script. This isn’t always a recipe for disaster (see Casablanca) but fortune was not in its favor.
Released theatrically in the U.S. under the title The Driver’s Seat, which it shares with Muriel Spark’s source novella, it was widely regarded as a failure and has been unavailable in any reliable format for years. Even in this age of endless internet archives, contemporary reviews are hard to come by. It wasn’t until Kier-La Janisse included the film in her 2012 cult compendium House of Psychotic Women that interest in it revived, though it would be another decade before it got a home video release.
All due respect to Jackson, who’s a tremendous performer, but Taylor feels like the right casting in hindsight. She brings a sense of royalty knocked askew to the role of Lise, a misplaced haughtiness that only a star of her magnitude could achieve. As film historian Jeanine Basinger once wrote: “No actress ever had a more difficult job in getting critics to accept her onscreen as someone other than Elizabeth Taylor… Her persona ate her alive.” There’s a wry humor to her playing a woman offering herself up to be consumed on her terms, but audiences in 1974 weren’t ready to see it.
By then Taylor was mostly in the twilight of her film career, shifting to the realms of the stage and TV movies in her later years as well as devoting more time to philanthropic causes. She’d been onscreen for over three decades, and while she played her fair share of tempestuous women in that time, the character of Lise presents a unique challenge, both to viewers and pretty much everyone she comes across in the film. She’s introduced berating a saleswoman for showing her a dress that’s stain resistant. It’s deliberately off-putting behavior, meant to disorient audiences expecting another histrionic Liz performance right off the bat. For contemporary viewers, Taylor delivering a line like “Sex is of no use to me” might have drawn laughs. For those of us more removed from her public scandals, it plants the question in our minds that we’ll spend the rest of the film trying to answer: what is this woman up to?
We learn of Lise’s fate long before she gets there herself, but the path is by no means straightforward. Taking a structural cue from its title, Identikit unfolds with a fractured frenzy. While there are a few different definitions of the term, the most useful for interpreting the film is “a likeness of a person constructed from descriptions provided by witnesses to a crime.” Starting early on, Griffi interrupts the present action with flash forwards to police interviews with various people we’ve seen Lise interact with during her ostensible vacation in Rome. We know something dreadful has happened to her, but the film takes its time revealing by whose hand and why. Meanwhile, as the authorities question each suspect and the mystery grows knottier, Lise must navigate an increasingly hostile world where any man could plausibly be her assailant. It’s not the subtlest commentary on how the general public saw Taylor as a target throughout her career, which may be why viewers at the time reacted poorly to it.
The film confounds in other ways too: watching Identikit requires actively piecing it together, but it doesn’t behave like a typical whodunit, nor does Taylor act like a typical victim. It’s this defiant quality that’s perhaps the masterstroke of her performance, but viewers have to wait until the chilling climax to understand the full extent of its malevolence. What at first glance seemed unhinged suddenly acquires a hideous logic. A role this tricky and, by the end, repellent, was never going to be Oscar fodder in 1974, and, let’s be honest, it probably wouldn’t be now either. But such audacious performances illuminate the paucity of our current awards categories. Only recognizing the best (and the worst) leaves a lot of the most interesting stuff out.