Cleopatra is a film so steeped in legend, so famous for other reasons, that many people probably feel they have seen it when they haven’t: Cleopatra, the film that nearly bankrupted 20th Century-Fox when it’s budget ballooned from 2 to roughly 44 million dollars (the equivalent of almost 320 million today); Cleopatra, the film that made Elizabeth Taylor the first actor to earn a million dollar payday; Cleopatra, the film that replaced its director during filming, forcing a frazzled Mankiewicz to do rewrites at night after shooting all day, using rounds of different barbiturates to sleep and stay awake; Cleopatra, the film that was shut down for months when Liz Taylor had to have an emergency tracheotomy as well as other sporadic periods when her pneumonia and depression got the better of her; and most (in)famously, Cleopatra, the film that created Le Scandale, when the married Taylor and the married Richard Burton fell in love and became “Liz and Dick,” the papally denounced couple that shook the world.
Liz and Dick’s love affair has been called the Marriage of the Century, as “important” as the union of the Duke and Dutchess of Windsor. Dick was married to longtime wife, Sybil; Liz was then married to Eddie Fisher (breaking up the marriage of America’s Sweetheart Debbie Reynolds along the way; read Carrie Fisher’s hilarious Shockaholic for all the juicy details) – the only modern equivalent would be Angelina Jolie “stealing” Brad Pitt from Jennifer Aniston (incidentally, a remake of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? directed by Darren Aronofsky starring Brangelina is the best idea not happening in Hollywood…). Producer Walter Wanger feared their affair would hurt the film, dubbing Liz a Social Pariah who had broken up not one but two marriages, and tried to keep it under wraps. Mankiewicz, in his signature wit, even quipped that Taylor was merely a beard for his own affair with Burton. But the lovers, try as they did (or didn’t, appearing in public, canoodling, as Ted Casablanca would say) were unable to keep their love hidden from the constant prying of the paparazzi. In fact, it was that very love affair that excited moviegoers to turn out in droves, making Cleopatra the biggest box office draw of the year.
But their love was fraught also with drama, not least of which Burton’s refusal to ever divorce Sybil, sending Liz into tailspins of depression and at least one suicide attempt. (Sybil eventually acquiesced and Burton and Taylor were married soon after; twice, in fact…) Liz and Dick were also both chronic alcoholics who could drink each other under the table and loved to fight in front of others – was Virginia Woolf? so touching and brilliant because it was autobiographical? But their folie a deux came with its perks: Liz served as a ticket to movie stardom for Burton; Dick’s theatrical training brought out the best work she ever did.
But what of Cleopatra itself? Can the film be seen past the fog of its scandal for its own merits? Does it have any merits? Is it possible to be objective about something so steeped in the collective conscious as a “flop”? What if the film is actually a misunderstood masterpiece, mired by its own legend? I had to know. This was my task.
Usually when I choose films for Bad Cinema, they are films I know will be terrible because I have seen them already (Myra Breckinridge) or films that can only be terrible (Battleship). But with the inclusion of my newest column, Good Cinema, I was fully prepared for Cleopatra to go either way. I was going into this with an open mind, secretly hoping to declare the haters wrong. I wish I hadn’t needed to sit through four hours of crap to figure out they were right.
Part of the problem with Cleopatra for the modern viewer is that, thanks to The Burtons, we are expecting this to be a love story. In actuality, it is a war film peppered with traces of romance. But neither the love stories or the battles are particularly engaging or fleshed out. If it all weren’t so mind-numbingly dull and so slowly paced, I would sign up for the six hour Director’s Cut if and when the footage is found; Mankiewicz implored for the film to be released in two three hour installments: Caesar and Cleopatra and Antony and Cleopatra. Instead Darryl F. Zanuck, the new head of Fox, took the film away from him and cut it to one four hour film with an intermission.
But with two hours cut, naturally this leaves character development and some story lines drastically underdeveloped or non-existent (or maybe, writing under intense duress, Mankiewicz was just not able to see the big picture). For example, is it a fallacy in the editing/writing that we never believe the love between Rex Harrison and Liz Taylor or a misstep in their performances? The same could be said for the instant romance of Antony and Cleopatra. In Part I, Antony is essentially a side kick to Caesar, he and Cleo barely having an interaction; by Part II, Antony has always been pining for the Queen while she still holds a torch for Caesar by wearing a necklace of his coins to bed. THEN almost on a dime, they fall madly in love, both claiming adoration for the other, Cleo even going so far as to say she has loved him since she was 12. This scene, while reading false in the film, is ironically one of its most believable pieces of acting because it mirrors Burton and Taylor’s love-at-first-sight affair; we feel we have intruded on their pillow talk. Legend as it that Liz and Dick continued to make love on set well after Mankiewicz called cut, completely lost in their own romance.
The war scenes and story lines are hard to follow and feel belabored. Due to the massive amounts of story that needed to be eradicated, Mankiewicz and Co. had to actually come back and shoot MORE footage, 39 pages in fact, to tie up loose ends. The first scene in the film is one such segment. Martin Landau tells us on the commentary track that since their original DP Leon Shamroy had moved on to shooting The Cardinal with Otto Preminger, Claude Renoir (son of the director, grandson of the artist) was brought in to finish the needed footage. This meant that there was a French camera crew, German special effects team, Spanish extras, Italian wardrobe and make up artists, and English speaking actors, necessitating orders to be given in numerous languages and using bombs as a universal communication – one of the many things that slowed down production.
Yet, while the romances and wars seem underdeveloped, what is most obvious to an objective viewer is the amount of footage that is unnecessary. Not scenes per se, but shots: Caesar walking across the room here, Cleopatra glancing there, an endless parade of angles capturing gratuitous dance numbers and processions; probably 30 minutes of the film could be trimmed just by tightening up the scenes (or a different 30 minutes of footage, footage that actually contributed to the action, could have supplanted it). Sometimes more is just more. (Which makes me wonder if we really need to see the 9.5 hour version of Greed. Would it be “better”? Or just longer? Judging from even the 2.5 hour version of Foolish Wives, Erich von Stroheim could have learned a thing or two about cutting for rhythm…)
Strangely, the thing that suffers (and shines) most through the truncation are the performances. Richard Burton, one of the greatest of all actors, goes from 0-120 in a matter of moments, using his large Shakespearean voice for even the gods to hear. Is this a product of his adjustment from theatre to film? Or a product of having the necessary scenes in which to build up an eruption cut? (If the film version of August: Osage County has a downfall, it is Lett’s decision to trim the valleys and keep all of the peaks…).
Rex Harrison is all Henry Higgins smug and keeps an intellectual distance from the woman he supposedly loves; one of, if not the most beautiful woman the cinema has ever known. He reads dispassionate, appearing uncomfortably in his brief moments of physical connection, but then again so does Burton even though we know he and Liz were fucking like rabbits off camera. Maybe everyone was just too burnt out, confused, or drunk to give a damn.
But Liz. Oh, Liz.
Liz was a great star, perhaps the greatest. The fact that in the last 20 years of her life she appeared in only two films, yet lost none of her Hollywood glamour and legend, even though she had become an over weight tabloid parody of herself that seemed to be on her death bed at every moment, palling around with the likes of Wacko Jacko and Eccentric Liza, she was still regarded as cinema royalty. And of course she was. That is the magic of film. It captures us at our finest hours, our most beautiful, our most radiant, and our most talented. And Elizabeth had it all, in addition to being one of the most philanthropic, kindest, well liked celebrities around; a woman who prided herself more on being a good wife, mother, and friend than a movie star. Yet her cinematic charisma was, and still is, undeniable. No matter the film, no matter the role, you simply cannot take your eyes off of Elizabeth Taylor. Yes, she is beautiful, yes those violet eyes are unique and transcendent, yes her real life dramas make their way into our experiences, but there is something more, something intangible, an incandescent glow that can’t be properly described. Marilyn had it. Garbo. Dietrich. There is a fire behind their eyes that always know more than they admit, a passion, a secret that can only be shared with us, those wonderful people out there in the dark. Cleopatra dies when she is not on screen. We simply do not care about anyone else. The film is called Cleopatra for a reason. No one else could have played her at the time; she knocks Theda Bara, Claudette Colbert, and Vivien Leigh off the map; and no one, except maybe Angelina Jolie, could play her now (Catherine Zeta-Jones, my foot, Soderbergh…). Cleopatra IS Elizabeth Taylor and Elizabeth Taylor, the spoiled, beautiful Queen who brought men to their knees was Cleopatra.
However, this doesn’t mean that she was a great actress. Nor does this mean that she was just a pretty face. Elizabeth Taylor is somewhat maddening in her inconsistency. She will carry a movie like Giant against the dreadfully droll Rock Hudson, but utterly fail as Maggie the Cat; perhaps she just couldn’t relate to a woman who was unable to bed a man. She will turn in one of the cinema’s greatest performances in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (truly, her and Burton’s work is so exquisite it is practically unmatched) and then sleepwalk through something like The Mirror Crack’d. She will have great moments of fragility in something like Suddenly, Last Summer or stentorian dominance in Cleopatra and then begin yelling at the top of her lungs, almost completely disconnected from the words, as if someone once told her that loudness equates passion. In her best and worst work, Liz seems to fluctuate between whispers and shouts like a singer unable to effectively use their mix (I’m talking to you, Aguilera…).
Miraculously, and perhaps as a testament to its making, a pat on the back for just finishing the damn thing, Cleopatra was nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture! (But from an organization that chose Around the World in 80 Days – incidentally produced by Mike Todd, Elizabeth Taylor’s third husband – just six years earlier as the best of the best in a year that included The Ten Commandments, The King & I, Anastasia, The Searchers, The Killers, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, this seems par for the course…) In 1996, the American Film Institute nominated Cleopatra as one of the 400 Greatest American Films Ever Made, yet took it off their list in 2007. Today it is remembered for the only things it should be: How Not to Make a Movie and the Taylor/Burton romance. If you don’t want to sit through four hours of bloated tripe to learn about these two things, just watch the abysmal Lifetime film, Liz and Dick. Or better yet, just read Furious Love.
Is Cleopatra a Car Crash, Colonoscopy, Berkley, or Kardashian?
What are your thoughts on Cleopatra? Epics? Elizabeth Taylor?
*FURTHER READING: The Cleopatra Papers by Jack Brodsky and Nathan Weiss