Imagine for just a moment that you are Elizabeth Taylor. Go ahead, try it. You are sitting in front of your television set viewing a mini-series, a "docu-drama" dubbed "The Liz Taylor Story."
What you see before you is an actress playing you. The actress looks and sounds exactly like a younger, thinner, violet-eyed you. Then she opens her mouth and, in words you never uttered, declares "your" undying love for Michael Wilding, Eddie Fisher or Richard Burton.
By the end of the series, this same actress has told the public what "you" said, how "you" felt, what "you" did. The problem is that you didn't necessarily say it, feel it, do it. But you have had no more control over the content -- or the profits -- of the story of your life than any other television viewer.
The whole idea is enough to make your head spin. Unless, of course, you really are Elizabeth Taylor. In which case it would be enough to make you sue.
In fact, the actress filed suit last month against ABC and the film company that was to produce a docu-drama of her life. She staked out two grounds: (1) She alone owns her life story, and (2) a docu-drama, with its mixture of fact and fiction, would necessarily present her in a false light.
It's hard to think of Liz Taylor's life as private property and Liz as sole owner. She's lived in public since she was 16 years old. It is a touch late to turn shy.
But over time, the courts have ruled that celebrities can control the use of their own name and image. In the 1940s, for example, a bunch of baseball players sued a bubble gum manufacturer who was packaging their pictures without permission, and they won. The law now would prevent anyone from sewing the letters L-i-z T-a-y-l-o-r onto the pocket of a pair of blue jeans.
At the same time, the First Amendment protects the media's right to put that name on the jacket of a book or the cover of a magazine or a television news show. If a court ever ruled that Elizabeth Taylor owned the exclusive rights to "her life story," then so might Jimmy Carter or Herschel Walker. The only biographies of a living person we would see would all be "authorized."
The second problem that Liz Taylor has raised is more complex. It has to do with the whole fuzzy business known as docu-dramas. Part fact, part fiction, they purport to tell people the absolute truth while they embellish, edit, and rewrite it.
We have had some form of this activity ever since Shakespeare began putting words in the mouths of kings. We allow a good deal of "literary license" in historical fiction.
In the past year, we have seen a rash of docu-dramas about live people: Jacqueline Onassis, Jean Harris, Princess Diana and Prince Charles, and, most recently, and dreadfully, Gloria Vanderbilt.
In each instance, the authors didn't quote the principals; they wrote the quotes. The lines were then spoken by actors who had learned to look and sound like the real thing. The stories were neither entirely false nor precisely factual.
If the Liz Taylor story is written, we'll see an actress playing the part of an actress. Harriet Pilpel, an intellectual-property lawyer, describes this critically as "impersonation." Surely a portion of the audience will accept the story as the real McCoy, or the real Liz. Many will even accept the actress as the real Liz.
If the audience is confused, so is the law. Harvard Law Prof. Arthur Miller, a self-described "privacy nut," calls this case "a goulash of rights." In the goulash, he says, is "the public's right to know (about Liz Taylor's life), her own rights to privacy, her property rights and the need to give the creative act some license."
This particular goulash, however, is labeled docu- drama. The ingredients are one part documentary, one part drama, one tablespoon fact, one tablespoon fiction. It's not just Liz Taylor who gets indigestion at the notion her life could be presented "imaginatively." Docu-drama is more than a goulash of rights; it's a recipe for a four-star media disaster.