It’s the grisliest of children’s jump-rope rhymes: “Lizzie Borden took an ax/And gave her mother 40 whacks/When she saw what she had done/She gave her father 41.”
In reality, 32-year-old Lizzie Andrew Borden likely wielded a hatchet to deliver 18 deadly whacks to her hated stepmother Abby; her father Andrew took 11 blows a few hours later. And a jury — unable to believe a woman could commit such savagery — quickly acquitted Borden of all charges, rendering the truth of her innocence a matter of public fascination even 121 years later.
Now Lifetime takes its own whack at Borden’s story in this month’s Lizzie Borden Took an Ax, starring Christina Ricci as the lively Lizzie and Argo’s Clea Duvall as her obedient sister Emma. While the film pulls no punches about the crime’s brutality and who committed it, its true focus is the complex family relationships and secrets that could drive a Sunday school teacher to murder.
Ricci says that before filming began, director Nick Gomez and his cast discussed at length what they believed truly went on in the family’s puritanical Massachusetts home. “[Lizzie] has fascinated scholars for a long time and people have taken a lot of guesses and tried to come up with a theory,” says Ricci, whose pale face and wide, dark eyes render her a natural in the title role, able to convey innocence, eroticism and evil in a single moment. “But we don’t really know what was going on in her world or in her household. We had to come to an agreement so that our performances could be grounded in the same foundation.”
The group concluded that unscrupulous businessman Andrew had reasons beyond controlling his wealth for keeping his grown daughters at home.
“I do a ton of work with victims of childhood sexual abuse and with adult rape victims and it’s interesting how people manifest that in totally different ways and act out against it in different ways,” says Ricci, who serves as national spokesperson for the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN). “So I had the option of choosing — is she aggressive with [Andrew]? Is she afraid of him? Is she seductive with him? Is she manipulative in another way? All of that stuff for me was really fascinating to do.”
After the murders were committed and suspicion toward the younger Borden grew, Lizzie — who longed for the flashier lifestyle of her socialite friends — seemed to relish the drama and attention, with no outward fear of punishment for her crimes.
“It was an interesting script for me because there were a lot of ways to play this character,” Ricci explains. “She’s someone who we pretty much know committed this murder, but the entire length of the film she thinks she is behaving very innocently. So it was interesting to try to find that balance between somebody that you could believe could have this childlike innocence, but then at the same time let what was going on beneath the surface out a little bit, too.”
Many of the most compelling moments of the film happen between Lizzie and Duvall’s faithful Emma who quickly realizes her sister’s secret and struggles to reconcile her own fear and distain with the Borden’s warped familial loyalties.
“We both had to come to an agreement about what was going on that family so that our performances could be grounded in the same foundation,” says Ricci, who cites Duvall’s abilities as an actress and a writer for allowing them to expand what was on the page. “What we discussed is the bonding of surviving a situation like that and that, even if Emma was totally disgusted by what happened, she knew where it came from. And I think you see it in the performance — they both feel this dependence and guilt toward each other. If at some point there was incest going on in the household, maybe they were pitted against each other and there was sort of a jealously that absolutely does not belong in a relationship between sisters. So we discussed how complex all of that stuff was and then tried to pepper as many scenes with it as we could.”
Regardless of how you feel about Lizzie’s guilt or innocence —and the implied abuse that drove her to pick up that infamous hatchet — Lizzie Borden Took An Ax does stir up some interesting notions about the media’s impact on public opinion and how, even now, plenty of us still have a tough time accepting that women can purposefully and maliciously kill. The film points out that at the time of Lizzie’s trial, there was no prison space allotted for female inmates. In the rare instances that women were convicted of a crime, they were institutionalized instead. Ricci believes Lizzie knew that well.
“What was interesting for me playing this part is that Lizzie was a part of that society, so she’s certainly relying on that as, a member of this society, she wouldn’t believe that a woman could do this either,” Ricci says. “She has a certain amount of arrogance after she commits the crime, and I think a lot of that came from the fact that she knew the world she was living in.”
Lizzie Borden Took an Ax premieres Jan. 25 at 8pm ET/PT on Lifetime.
Christina Ricci and Clea Duvall in “Lizzie Borden Took an Ax”: © 2013 Lifetime