Thursday, June 13, 2013


Cleopatra (1963) will go down in history as one of Hollywood’s most resounding flops. It was the most expensive movie ever made at the time of its release—the first whose budget exceeded the $40 million mark when the average film cost less than a million to produce. Having been the subject of three years of hype and scandal, this epic was ultimately swamped by its own publicity, all of it bad, and movie audiences stayed home after a series of scathing reviews.

Highlights of the bad press the making of Cleopatra generated included Elizabeth Taylor’s then-gargantuan salary of $1 million (the very first actor to command that sum); Taylor’s near-fatal illness which caused the London production to be shut down and later rebuilt in Rome, with new actors hired to accommodate La Liz’s schedule; and tales of extravagant on-set demands, including chili from Chasen’s in Beverly Hills being flown into Rome to appease the royal appetite of the voluptuous star.  

But the worst was yet to come. Miss Taylor’s voracious appetites were apparently not restricted to food alone. Having been dragged through the publicity mud several years earlier when she “stole” Eddie Fisher from her friend Debbie Reynolds, Liz had partially repaired her image by almost dying of pneumonia and winning the Academy Award. Now, in 1962, she seemed ready to kick husband number four Eddie to the curb, as she embarked on a hot-and-heavy affair with her (also married) Cleopatra costar Richard Burton, who was playing Marc Antony. The new scandale sold countless papers, but killed the box office potential of the big-budget behemoth. 

The tragedy is, it was a movie worth seeing, featuring an outstanding cast including Rex Harrison as Julius Caesar, Roddy McDowall in a brilliantly underrated performance as Caesarion, Hume Cronyn, Martin Landau and the electric first-time screen chemistry of Taylor and Burton. Filmed in Todd-AO (a process developed by Elizabeth’s late third husband), it is a lush, crisp, colorful and eye-filling production. Written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (creator of classics including All About Eve and A Letter to Three Wives), Cleopatra is both literate and spectacular—and basically historically accurate, based on ancient seminal texts. At four hours and five minutes, it runs about 20 minutes longer than Gone With the Wind.

Considered a failure and a disappointment at the time, the years have been kind to this film, which has enjoyed a resurgence on DVD and is a staple for movie houses that run big-screen revivals of the classics.

Cleopatra deserves a fresh look—it’s a witty, incisive and engrossing history lesson featuring some of the most charismatic actors in film.

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