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Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra is the most maligned Hollywood epic made during the heydays of the roadshow era. Coming in at a purported cost of $44 million, having taken four long years from conception to completion, generating unequaled salacious and negative press coverage—so sucked in by le scandale of Liz & Dick even the Vatican and members of Congress publicly addressed it (the equivalent of the tumult of Bill & Monica)—there was no way back then for the spectacle to survive the crazed hoopla. Or the onslaught: the critics’ long-readied knives merrily slashed away and what might have been reasonably appreciated became bloodied corpse. When Liz first appears, rolled out from a carpet, you’ve got to concede to Stanley Kauffmann’s observation: “She need do no more than walk around the throne room to turn Alexandria into Beverly Hills.” Entrapped by hodgepodge dialogue, not unlike how Claudette Colbert was in the 1934 rendition, Liz utters lines to Rex Harrison’s Caesar such as this: “We’ve gotten off to a bad start, haven’t we? I’ve done nothing but rub you the wrong way.” In the second half, she daringly confesses to 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, vainly trying to bring a saner evaluation, and when he found out 20th Century Fox made substantial cuts in the 246 minute roadshow presentation, he blew a gasket and, in a surprise, the cuts were restored for a while. (Facts in dispute: were the cuts restored to the original roadshow, to an alleged 3 hours and 45 minute version most of us never heard about until we read Vanity Fair’s 2011 piece, or to the 180 minute “popular prices” slaughter released in 1964 but first used for the London Royal premiere?) Though the 1962 Mutiny on the Bounty, Michael Cimino’s 1980 Heaven’s Gate and 1995’s Waterworld were to receive hugely damaging pre-release publicity, no epic in moviedom has been more obsessed over: Cleopatra became the social phenomenon—virtually the whole world turned to the press daily to read what new outrages Liz was supposedly up to, what expensive delays had occurred, whose executive head was next on the Fox chopping block. (Best books on the subject are the Jack Brodsky & Nathan Weiss The Cleopatra Papers and producer Walter Wanger’s and Joe Hyams’s My Life with Cleopatra, reflecting the ceaseless bedlam and the rapid attitudinal change: the crowds’ cheers for Cleopatra during her arrival into Rome had to be dubbed to eliminate frenzied shouts of “Liz! Liz!” defying the moralists.) All of this became part and parcel of our initial response: if Liz and Dick were so openly flaunting the hots for each other, the movie was made disappointing when audiences, wanting the same kind of lust on screen, saw their kisses, ranking among the least impassioned in movie history. Viewers really weren’t expecting a serious biography of the ancient world’s most powerful woman, the intent of Wanger, who had Liz in mind from the start. She wasn’t only magnet pulling in red hot box office, she was also Hollywood’s reigning queen of notoriety, superficially a peer to the falsely perceived reputation of Cleopatra. Mankiewicz wanted the bio to go beyond the titillating “sex, sword and sand quickie” and had it not been for the chaotic procedurals—he’d film the next day what he speedily wrote the night before—he would have had a shot at pulling it off. Under monumental strain of directing and writing, under heavy amphetamine intake, he returned to familiar territory, giving Liz the vernacular from the School of Hollywoodspeak, which in the past was praised and Oscar-awarded as bitch wit. Two of the more majestic voices in entertainment, Harrison, enjoying his pseudo Shaw, and Burton, whaling mucky Shakespearesque, swamped Liz’s jargon and limited vocal range. Her performance sometimes works: when teasing, purring with kittenish resistance, she’s fuckable; when issuing orders—to Antony demanding he knee, “You come before me a suppliant,” or ordering her food tester Lotus to “taste (the poison) again,” or half-nakedly braying at Caesar she will not be told where she can or can not go—she’s self-awareness as guilty pleasure. Just when you think she’s in way over her ever-changing head of hair, she’ll have a transforming moment, such as her passion for a “one world, one people” advocacy at the tomb of Alexander. In spite of blemishes, she has moments of looking so gorgeous you’ll fight the urge to download in your pants: in plummy décolletage, she’s eye-popping in a yellow Irene Sharaff deluxer, crowned with a bejeweled Esther Williams swimming cap and proudly wearing the tracheotomy scar as beguilement. She’s desirable in emerald green with gold serpents on the biceps and one slithering up her crotch to support an ankh, and another asp crawling down her black wig (with noisy gold beads attached) when she tells Antony “love can stab the heart.” Upon the conclusion of the vulgar panoply of her entrance into Rome, this Cleo, decked in thousands of dollars worth of 24 caret gold, dares to wink at her master, a classic common denominator moment we can’t fight off.

Because of Mankiewicz’s penchant for “wit” and levity as ambush, his conception of Caesar is successful. Harrison plays him disarmingly; audiences back in 1963 didn’t expect to find themselves laughing with so historic a figure—instead of at, as with Liz, or Peter Ustinov in Quo Vadis or Jay Robinson in The Robe and Demetrius and the Gladiators or Gina Lowlabrigada (sic) in Solomon and Sheba. In the big motivation scene at Alexander’s tomb, Harrison’s imperial calm and graciousness are moving and applaudable self-sacrifice to Liz. No male actor in any epic, including Charlton Heston, wears Roman royal purple more inquisitively: given Caesar’s sexual tastes, you might believe the comment made of him in his prime—“he was every woman’s man and every man’s woman.” Burton’s Antony is consumed warrior, as lustfully mad for all of the Roman Empire and vino as he is for Cleopatra. As actor, however, Burton is exhausting us and dwarfing himself. Played as a malevolent bleached blond, Roddy McDowall’s Octavian is unexpectedly an amusing adversary. For a while Cleopatra’s lush look is a plus. The production’s chief designer John De Cuir, along with nine additional art directors and set decorators, refused to fudge in making an all-out beaut, though the sharp eye will detect some of the skimpy flowers and greenery aren’t matching the palatial digs. And then a viewing fatigue from repetition develops beyond the slow-paced last two hours: we’re trapped in the Alexandria palace and Cleo’s tomb with cinematographer Leon Shamroy attempting various angles to keep us from zonking out. Re-filmed months after principle photography and only four months before the world premiere, the opening sequence—Caesar’s defeat of Pompey at Pharsalia—is the peak of the epic’s grandeur; we need much more of its visual sweep, thundering horses and mammoth pyres. No matter the toils in its making and the blame and dubious lawsuits that followed, the one unheralded salute due Cleopatra is refraining from overly contorting basic facts. Mankiewicz hasn’t received credit for resisting the standard Hollywood trashing of history. Yes, he shortcuts: Caesarion, her son with Caesar, wasn’t killed before her death; historians believe she shipped him off to safety in India and lured back to Alexandria by Octavian under the guise he would be allowed to rule Egypt. The twins Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene and the second son Ptolemy Philadelphos by Cleopatra and Antony are avoided altogether (ending up being raised by Antony’s Roman wife Octavia; the male boys are assumed to have died from illnesses or more likely killed by Octavian, the daughter accepted into Roman and African societies). Determining he couldn’t argue how Cleopatra managed to end her life, Mankiewicz felt the altered myth of the asp—its bite on her hand in a basket and not her breast—was narratively strong and what U.S. audiences would want. (Rumors started, perhaps at the time Playboy published a few of Roddy’s intimate boob shots of Liz on set, that European audiences would see the asp snap at her top but no footage was ever confirmed.) With hours missing in the roadshow release, Dick Cavett on his TV show joshed Mankiewicz with the anagram “tale o crap,” to which he responded by wanting to one day present the movie as a miniseries, given he had originally planned two three-hour epics. Darryl F. Zanuck put the kibosh on the plan, as he was the final arbiter. According to the documentary Cleopatra: The Film That Changed Hollywood, Fox has been attempting to locate missing footage to fully restore the epic and the latest update isn’t promising. Liz got the last laugh: by the time she finished filming, she reportedly collected seven million dollars and, as salve for all those bad reviews, she’d pick up 10% of the gross, its contracted dilverence never confirmed. Filmed in TODD AO. (Opening June 26, 1963 at the State Lake, running for 32 weeks.)

Oscar wins for best color cinematography, color costumes, color art and set decoration, special visual effects. Oscar nominations for best picture, actor (Harrison), sound, film editing and musical score.


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Text COPYRIGHT © 2000 RALPH BENNER (Revised 6/2021) All Rights Reserved.