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GETTING THE LAST LAUGH

The most maligned Hollywood epic ever made, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ Cleopatra may also be the most undeservingly scorned. Coming in at a purported cost of $44 million, having taken five long years from conception to completion, generating as salacious and negative a press as could be imagined—so sucked in by Liz & Dicks le scandale that even the Vatican and Congress publicly addressed their illicit affair (the equivalent of the Bill & Monica scandal)—there was no way then that the spectacle could live up to itself. And when Elizabeth Taylor first appears, rolled out from a carpet, youve got to concede to Stanley Kauffmann, who observed that “she needs do no more than walk around the throne room to turn Alexandria into Beverly Hills.” Trapped by hodgepodge dialogue, not unlike how Claudette Colbert was in the 1934 rendition, Taylor utters lines to Rex Harrisons Caesar like, “Weve gotten off to a bad start, havent we? Ive done nothing but rub you the wrong way.” The critics handy knives merrily slashed away and what might have been more reasonably appreciated became bloody corpse. (In the second half, she has to bray out the then-popular assessment of her image: to Burton, Octavian “has made of me unmistakably your whore.”) Only the N.Y. Times Bosley Crowther held out, alone against the assassins, hopelessly trying to bring a saner evaluation, and when he found out that 20th Century Fox cut an hour out of its 246 minute roadshow presentation, he blew a noisy gasket and, in a surprise, the cuts were restored. (But the 180 minute slaughter would become the “popular prices” release.) Though the 1962 Mutiny on the Bounty, Michael Cimino’s 1980 Heaven’s Gate, and 1995s Waterworld were to receive hugely negative pre-release publicity, no other epic in Hollywood history had been more written about: Cleopatra became a social phenomenon—the whole world turned to the press everyday to see what new outrages Taylor was supposedly up to, what expensive delays had occurred, whose executive head was on the Fox chopping block. (Best books on the subject are the Jack Brodsky & Nathan Weiss The Cleopatra Papers and the Walter Wanger and Joe Hyams My Life with Cleopatra.) All of this became part and parcel of our initial response: if Taylor and Burton were so openly flaunting their hots for each other, the movie was made boring by the disappointment of audiences who wanted to see the same kind of lust on screen. (Their screen kisses rank amongst the least passion-filled in movie history.) Producer Wanger, who lost control of the movie, always wanted to make a serious biography of Cleopatra, and he had Taylor in mind from the start. After all, she was the screens top celebrity at the time, and she was red hot box office—though less for her acting than for her Debbie-Eddie-Liz biz. Had it not been for the chaotic scripting—while filming went on during the day, furious writing and re-writes went on through the night—she might have been able to pull it off. (She did in Ivanhoe.) Mankiewiczs miscalculation was to write down for Taylor, giving her the vernacular of Hollywood as opposed to pseudo Shaw for Harrison and low fat Shakespearesque for Burton. Two of the more majestic voices in entertainment, they swamped Taylors limited range. You wonder how it came to be that Mankiewicz didnt hear what was obviously so injurious a liability. He did; he was under such immense pressure to complete the movie that he accepted what he likely recognized as L.A. hoot and let it go. (Others have pointed out that Mankiewicz came out of the school of Hollywoodspeak, so what he wrote for Taylor seemed customarily “with it.” And many critics never bothered to note that Mankiewicz eviscerated Shakespeare in the 1953 eye-sore Julius Caesar.) Her performance sometimes works: when shes teasing, purring with kittenish charms, shes as fuckable as any queen; when shes on the throne issuing orders—to Antony she says, “You come before me a suppliant”—or ordering her food tester Lotus to “taste (the poison) again.” shes no Glenda Jackson but shes persuasive. Smilingly, that is, because when shes awful, shes a guilty pleasure: half naked, she shrills at Caesar that she will not be told where she can or can not go; when she starts crying after stabbing the bed she shared with newly wed Antony, shes the original Ann-Margret. Just when you think shes way over her head, shell pull off a transforming moment, such as her passion for a “one world one people” advocacy at Alexanders tomb. She has moments of looking so gorgeous that you might download in your pants: with deep décolletage, shes eye-popping in a yellow Irene Sharaff deluxer and wearing a crown that looks like a bejeweled Esther Williams swimming cap. Shes equally desirable in emerald green (with gold serpents on the biceps and one crawling down her black wig and one slithering up her crotch to support an ankh) when she tells Burtons Antony that “love can stab the heart.” She wears her tracheotomy scar with magnificent pride. (And upon the conclusion of the vulgar panoply of her entrance into Rome, this Cleo dares to wink at her master.) Because of Mankiewiczs penchant for “wit” and levity as ambush, his conception of Caesar is successful: Harrison plays him disarmingly; audiences back in 1963 didnt expect to find themselves laughing with so historic a figure—instead of at, like with Liz, or, say, Peter Ustinov in Quo Vadis or Jay Robinson in The Robe and Demetrius and the Gladiators. Harrisons also generous: in the big motivating scene at Alexanders tomb, during which Cleopatra reveals her grand design for the future, his imperial calm and graciousness are beneficial to Taylor. (Surprisingly, and disappointing to initial audiences, she shows deeper love for Rex than Dick.) And no male actor in any epic wears Roman royal purple more impressively than Rex; given Caesars sexual tastes, you can believe the comment made of him: “He was every womans man and every mans woman.” Burtons Antony is factual and fair—a drunken warrior, as lustfully mad for all of the Roman Empire as he is for Cleopatra. As actor, Burton in the second half is often scaling to the upper balconies and exhausts himself, overshadowing his quieter moments. Roddy McDowalls Octavian, played with bleached blond malevolence, is unexpectedly a top adversary. Another plus is Cleopatras lush look. The productions chief designer is John De Cuir, who, along with nine art directors and set decorators, refused to fudge in making an all-out beauty of a spectacle, though the sharp eye will detect that some of the flowers and greenery dont always match the palatial digs. (And it is a waste of memorabilia that Cleos $277,000 barge and the movable sphinx didnt end up at one of Disneys theme parks.) Filmed months after principle photography and only four months before the world premiere, the opening sequence—Caesars defeat of Pompey at Pharsalia—is awesome movie epic grandeur. No matter the fuss concerning the making of the movie and the blame and lawsuits that followed, the one amazing thing to come out of the expensive hoopla is that Cleopatra doesnt much fabricate or distort basic history. Mankiewicz hasnt received much credit for resisting the standard Hollywood mode of altering history for dramatic purposes. Unquestionably a lot is missing in the roadshow release and on a Dick Cavett show years back, Mankiewicz, being joshed with the anagram “tale o crap,” said that hed liked to have one day presented the movie as a miniseries because he had originally planned a three hour Caesar & Cleo and a three hour Mark & Cleo. (Darryl F. Zanuck put the kibosh on that, as he was the final editor. Executioner is more like it. According to the documentary Cleopatra: The Film That Changed Hollywood, Fox is attempting to locate missing footage to restore the epic as intended and there’s an update about it in the Blu-ray release.) Elizabeth Taylor gets the last laugh: though she signed a highly publicized million dollar contract, with oodles of perks and stipulations, by the time the movie had finished its theatrical runs and was sold to television, she had received in excess of seven and a half million, and her estate still collects residuals. Great salve for all those bad reviews. Filmed in TODD AO.

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Text COPYRIGHT © 2000 RALPH BENNER  Revised 6/2012 All Rights Reserved.