This is my second of two entries for The Royalty on Film Blogathon. Check out the first entry here and learn more about the blogathon here.
If you’re a woman who’s had one lover too many, history isn’t very kind to you.
The number isn’t fixed. Cleopatra had, it’s generally agreed, two lovers total; hooking up with Caesar when she was eighteen, and then Marc Antony about six years later. That was it. Stories of her lavishness and seductive charms were written a century after her death; while contemporary accounts like to mention the fact that she spoke nine languages, and wasn’t particularly beautiful but was such a stellar conversationalist it made her seem beautiful.
For two millennia, the retellings of her reign (outside of her native Egypt) focused on making the story as vivid and sensational as possible. Cleopatra poisoned by a mixture of herbs? No. She was bitten by an asp on her arm. No, wait! On her breast!
And so it went, until there was very little left of the actual woman except gossip and Roman propaganda.
In 1963, it was probably a fate that seemed daunting and inevitable to Elizabeth Taylor.
During the early ‘50s, she had successfully transitioned from a child star to a critical darling with several major hits at MGM. In 1958, while working on Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, she’d been dealt a terrible blow when her husband, Mike Todd, died in a plane crash. The media quickly painted her as a tragic figure, until she began an affair with one of Mike Todd’s best friends, Eddie Fisher. Then she was painted as a homewrecker, with little regard for whether or not it was cool of Eddie Fisher to put moves on his dead friend’s vulnerable widow.
By the time Cat was released in theaters, the scandal had broken and MGM decided to use it in their favour, printing posters that featured a painting of Taylor posed seductively in her now-famous white slip. Things only snowballed from there. Suddenly, Last Summer – a grim fable about the ethics of lobotomies – was promoted with images of her in a white bathing suit. (Especially ironic if you know how the white bathing suit fits into the plot of the film.)
The worst blow was dealt with BUtterfield 8, the final project she completed for MGM, and the one that closed out her contract. In it, she plays a high price call girl, derided as a “slut” throughout the film. On MGM’s part, it was a cold and calculating manipulation of public opinion. In the life of Elizabeth Taylor, it was a charming moment where she got called a slut in the press, by the public, and also in the script at work.
She left MGM with a bad taste in her mouth, and an Oscar win for BUtterfield 8.
When 20th Century Fox called her in 1959 to offer her the role of Cleopatra, she wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of playing history’s most notorious homewrecker. She was also looking forward to some time away from acting, presumably to process the sharp turns her life had taken in the previous year. Fox asked her what they’d have to pay her to get her to do the part. She sarcastically told them one million dollars.
They said yes.
She then asked for ten percent of the film’s profits, and told Fox to shoot the film in Todd-AO, a format she’d inherited the rights to from Mike Todd. She also wanted an additional salary of $50,000 a week for every week the film went over schedule, and a few key script changes to make Cleopatra into an actual woman with motivations and opinions. It was a very shrewd piece of negotiating.
Fox agreed to all of this. Regardless of the outcome, or people’s perceptions of her, Elizabeth Taylor was making bank on this thing. When all was said and done, she earned a cool seven million smackaroos. (That comes out to around fifty million in modern cash.)
But, like Cleopatra, the closer Elizabeth Taylor seemed to be getting to her own goals and happiness, the more her own story slipped out of her grasp.
A lot has been written about the bloated budget and messy years devoted to the production of Cleopatra. It remains the most expensive film ever made, and nearly bankrupted Fox when all was said and done (Taylor’s earnings a surprisingly small percentage of overall costs). And it took around three years to film, with numerous script changes – the first director, Rouben Mamoulian, had a very thin story with an allegedly inconsistent Cleopatra, mixing Taylor’s desire to play a strong world leader with the more torrid romanticized seductress of old. Mamoulian either quit or was fired, depending on who you ask, and Joseph L. Mankiewicz was suggested by Taylor as a replacement. Mankiewicz managed to smooth things out, but ended up getting his feet tangled in the life of Caesar.
Then, too, there was the infamous affair between Elizabeth Taylor and her co-star Richard Burton. Burton plays Antony in the film, and like Antony he was very much married when he took up with our Egyptian queen. She was still married to Eddie Fisher. People didn’t like seeing them cavorting on yachts, but they also couldn’t look away. And it all fit so nicely into the familiar Shakespearean scene of Cleopatra and Antony cruising the Nile on a pleasure barge.
More trouble was to come, though.
In the spring of 1961, Elizabeth Taylor nearly died of pneumonia. She survived because of an emergency tracheotomy, and public opinion was briefly on her side. It seems trite to say, but the ordeal stalled production further on a schedule that was already well beyond projections.
Eventually, the movie was completed, released, and a box office hit. But recovering those costs was a daunting prospect, and people still consider it a flop because of the cost-to-returns ratio.
So, what does this version of Cleopatra have that the 1934 version doesn’t?
It’s long. The finished product is four hours long, trimmed down from an original six hour cut. And the length is exhausting to watch. I seriously recommend taking two days, watching the Caesar portion on day one, then watching the Antony portion on day two. It makes it more like a mini-series, and it helps. But somehow, the elaborate set after elaborate set becomes less dazzling and more dull the longer you stay. You become numb to the glamour.
Cleopatra’s intellect is mentioned a few times, even the tidbit about the languages (though they cut the number down to seven for some reason, and it’s during a speech where her sexual prowess is the main focus of discussion). The scene where the Romans burn the Library of Alexandria and she has a meltdown about it is one of the best in the first half of the film.
Egypt’s political usefulness is more explained than in most versions, though erroneously and including reference to Egypt’s wealth of corn (?!), and Cleopatra’s plan to prevent her empire from becoming a province of Rome is more sound than it normally is. (Because normally it’s: “sleep with some dudes and see what happens.”)
There’s also some focus on Cleopatra as a mother, which had previously been avoided, and it’s handled well. Motherhood is a political strategy for the pharaoh, but also something that anchors her motivations. Her son and her country pull her in the same direction, because her son will one day inherit Egypt, and the fate of both is tied.
The most interesting addition is the emphasis on Cleopatra’s religion, and the scenes about godhood and the deification of leaders. In a couple of places, it’s way too mystical, particularly during the assassination of Caesar, but it’s a unique twist on the telling.
Ultimately, like Claudette Colbert before her, Elizabeth Taylor wasn’t happy with how the whole thing shook out.
“I was finally forced to see it in London,” she told interviewers Jerry Vermilye and Mark Ricci for their book The Films of Elizabeth Taylor, “knowing full well, after what I’d heard, that I’d be sick to my stomach. They had cut out the heart, the essence, the motivations, the very core, and tacked on all those battle scenes. It should have been about three large people, but it lacked reality and passion. I found it vulgar.”
She wasn’t being totally unfair. There’s a disconnect between the pillars of power, and the human element is noticeably absent in some key moments. But, it’s not really that bad.
And two overlooked supporting players deserve some recognition that they don’t always get, just because the scandals and the drama of the production tend to outshine the narrative of the film itself. Martin Landau as the ever-present Rufio, he who must explain all the politics to us without it feeling like a big old wad of exposition. Can he pull off the Roman helmets? No. Does it matter? Not when he gets the best line in the movie.
When the Roman armies are suffering from a desertion issue because of lack of supplies, Rufio tries to convince Antony to ask Cleopatra for aid, and that he has to be respectful and polite to her because she’s Queen of Egypt.
ANTONY: Queens! Strip them as naked as any other woman, they’re no longer queens.
RUFIO: It is also difficult to tell the rank of a naked general. And generals without armies are naked indeed.
Also bringing it home is Roddy McDowall as Octavian. It’s a performance that earned him a Golden Globe nomination, though he lost to John Huston in The Cardinal because the people who vote for Golden Globe recipients aren’t good at it. No matter how you slice it, in the story of Cleopatra, Octavian is the villain. McDowall, with a head of golden curls, sells the original emperor as a goldbricking, covetous, insecure mastermind. It’s well done.
Ultimately, though, for a film about Cleopatra, the movie fails to make her as relevant as her male counterparts. And it failed to do anything to help Elizabeth Taylor get away from her image as a homewrecker. It actually made it way worse.
In 1934, Claudette Colbert seized victory from the role of Cleopatra and mimicked the pharaoh’s strength and tenacity when she broke away from her over-sexualized public image. In 1963, Elizabeth Taylor inherited Cleopatra’s curse, when the story of her life became the story of her romances.
Maybe both pharaoh and movie star do get the last laugh, though.
Cleopatra’s name is one of the best known of the ancient world, and her popularity and mystique have led to a fascination with Egypt that has allowed her beloved nation’s treasures to be preserved. Elizabeth Taylor is warmly regarded as not just a movie star, but a woman whose philanthropic efforts continue to reverberate, even after her death.