Had anyone but Elizabeth Taylor played the lead in this enervated melodrama, it would be completely uninteresting. As is, the minor appeal of Ash Wednesday stems from the way a generation of moviegoers fell in love with Taylor as a child actress, devoured reports of her scandal-sheet lifestyle, and watched with unending curiosity as she evolved from a breathtaking beauty to a merely attractive woman of a certain age. Many of Taylor’s films in the late ’60s and early ’70s concern women struggling to remain sexually vital in their middle years, none more so than Ash Wednesday, which revolves around a woman who gets a facelift in order to win back her unfaithful husband’s affection. Accordingly, those who decode this film for parallels to Taylor’s offscreen personas will find it mildly intriguing. Such was the power of old-fashioned movie stardom. Just as John Wayne fans tolerated substandard movies in order to huff his masculine charisma, so too did Taylor devotees endure hours of aimless Eurotrash just to savor her complicated mixture of fragility and glamour.
The painfully slow-moving Ash Wednesday opens with Barbara Sawyer (Taylor) visiting a European clinic for a facelift and other cosmetic procedures. Soon, clips from real surgery are shown, so queasy viewers will have to look away. Later, while recuperating, Barbara becomes friends with flamboyant photographer David (Keith Baxter) while awaiting the arrival of her husband, Mark (Henry Fonda). Since she kept her surgery plans secret, all Mark knows is that she’s been on holiday in Europe for several weeks. Unwilling to accept all the obvious clues that her marriage is over, Barbara becomes so lonely awaiting Mark—who delays his arrival several times—that she has an affair of her own, thinking jealousy might shock Mark’s system. Ultimately, the whole storyline is a slow burn to Barbara’s painful reunion with her husband.
Listing the movie’s shortcomings does not require much effort. The characterizations are thin, the pacing is absurdly dull, and the supporting performances are perfunctory. Furthermore, while we can empathize with Barbara’s anguish, one is hard-pressed to believe that a character played by Elizabeth Taylor at any age has been so starved of romantic attention that she has grown to doubt her own comeliness. (Sure, the deeper reason she gets the surgery is that her self-identity is wrapped up in her marriage, but this isn’t a story about someone getting therapy—it’s about a facelift.) Despite these significant faults, Taylor invests her performance with just enough confusion and pathos to make a few moments feel authentic. Oddly, this is not only one of her most unvarnished performances but also one of her most vain—after all, the real love story here isn’t between Barbara and Mark, but rather between Taylor and her own beauty.
Ash Wednesday: FUNKY