X, Y & Zee aka Zee and Co.

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Once Elizabeth Taylor realised she wasn’t going to be starring in Cleopatra, or anything like it, any more, she set off on a mad career jag that saw her playing a succession of weirdos, harpies, harridans, drunks and foul-mouthed vixens. If that sounds like something you’d like to see, X, Y & Zee, or Zee and Co., could be the thing for you. As an added bonus you get Michael Caine in one of his best “shouting” roles. It’s “You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off” all the way through here.

Made in 1972 but mainlining the back end of 1960s London, it’s Taylor and Caine as a married couple who’ve very much come to the end of their run. Bored with each other and hating the relationship, Robert and Zee spend their time bitching at each other, when she’s not out spending his money on stuff she doesn’t need and he’s not having casual sex with whoever comes along.

And then Robert (Caine) meets Stella (Susannah York), a slim, blonde, demure and younger woman, and embarks on an affair with her. He’s not intending to fall in love but he does. Zee (Taylor), used to Robert’s lapses, is initially all woman of the world about this latest one, palling up to Stella possibly in an attempt to neutralise her, but then becoming increasingly frantic when she realises that this time Robert isn’t going to be coming back to her. Or is he?

The screenplay is by Edna O’Brien, whose The Country Girls established her name. But whereas that was about a young Irish colleen’s immersion in the world of sex, here O’Brien’s at the other end of the timeline, with a story about a woman who’s drunk too deeply at the well and become jaded. You could argue that York’s Stella is the colleen but O’Brien isn’t much interested in her, nor in Robert either if it comes down to it, and the Stella/Robert relationship never feels even faintly like a real thing.

It is in many respects the dreaded Hampstead Novel made into a film. See Fay Weldon, Kingsley Amis, Penelope Lively and their like for more stories of middle-class people and their extra-marital sexual adventures. The purpose is moralistic – look how you might end up if you’re not careful – dressed up as something a bit naughty. When Zee realises Stella is an actual proper problem, she sets off on a psychological war against her and Robert, using what limited weaponry she has available. Eventually she hits on a course of action Tennessee Williams might have dreamed up. It might have shocked audiences at the time (no spoilers) but in the 21st century her sexualised strategising is more perplexing than anything else. So you did that? So what?

Zee and Stella
Face-off: Zee and Stella

So the film has not aged well, and wasn’t that solid a vehicle for its stars in the first place, but if you can get past those two roadblocks there are the performances to enjoy.

Susannah York doesn’t stand a chance against the other two, and in any case the character of Stella is a bit of a limp rag. As for Taylor and Caine, they are versions of their public personas – Caine the chippy East End boy made good; Taylor a kaftan-wearing, bejewelled lush with hair teased to the sky and eye make-up applied by contract decorators. He shouts, and does his thing with the camera’s gaze, never letting go; and Taylor rages, trying to unnerve her co-star with mad excess. Early on there’s a scene where Robert and Zee are flirting with each other, a bit of foreplay before they hop into bed, and Taylor sticks her index finger in Caine’s ear. He’s not expecting it, you can tell, and has to move in quickly to kiss his screen wife to stop the camera catching his face as he corpses.

Taylor spends much of the movie trying to catch Caine off guard in similar ways and it’s fascinating seeing him, the consummate performer, on the ropes so often. It’s as if Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? had been running in the background for six years and Michael Caine had eventually arrived to give Richard Burton a break.

Great film? No. Terrible, really. But it’s great to watch him and her going at it. Great also if you’re a fan of that Mike Myers take on British grooviness – look out for Margaret Leighton as an ageing hipster and John Standish as a very waspish hairdresser invariably wearing a knotted cravat. Yeah, baby!

X, Y & Zee aka Zee and Co. – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2024

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