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GETTING THE LAST LAUGH

Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra, the most maligned Hollywood epic made up to 1963, 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 unimaginably salacious and negative press coverage—so sucked in by le scandale of Liz & Dick that 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 hoopla. Or the onslaught: the critics’ handy knives merrily slashed away and what might have been be reasonably appreciated became bloodied corpse. When Liz first appears, rolled out from a carpet, you’ve got to concede to Stanley Kauffmann’s observation that “she need do no more than walk around the throne room to turn Alexandria into Beverly Hills.” Trapped in 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 that 20th Century Fox cut an hour out of its 246 minute roadshow presentation, he noisily blew a gasket and, in a surprise, the cuts were restored for a while. (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 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—the whole world turned to the press daily to read or watch 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 the Walter Wanger and Joe Hyams My Life with Cleopatra, both in their own way qui vive on rapid change. Re the crowds cheering Cleopatra during her arrival into Rome were dubbed to eliminate thunderous shouts of “Liz! Liz! Liz!” 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 that their kisses rank among the least impassioned in movie history. Viewers really weren’t expecting a serious biography of the ancient world’s most powerful woman that was the intent of producer 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, superfically equal to the perceived reputation of Cleopatra. Mankiewicz too wanted the bio to be more than Fox’s usual titillating “sword and sand quickie.” Had it not been for the chaotic procedurals—he’d film the next day what he speedily wrote the night before—he might have been able to pull it off. Under monumental strain of directing and writing and heavy amphetamine intake, he defaulted 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, blubbing Shakespearesque, swamped the jargon and Liz’s limited vocal range. Her performance sometimes works: when calculatingly 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 that 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 pull off a transforming moment, such as her passion for a “one world, one people” advocacy at Alexander’s tomb. In spite of blemishes, she has moments of looking so gorgeous that you might download in your pants: plummy in décolletage, she’s eye-popping in a yellow Irene Sharaff deluxer, crowned with a bejeweled Esther Williams swimming cap and wearing a tracheotomy scar as beguilement. She’s 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 Antony that “love can stab the heart.” Upon the conclusion of the vulgar panoply of her entrance into Rome, this Cleo, decked in gold, dares to wink at her master, a classic common denominator moment. 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 Lowlowbrigada (sic) in Solomon and Sheba. In the big motivation scene at Alexander’s tomb, Harrison’s imperial calm and graciousness are moving and applaudably self-sacrificing to Liz. No male actor in any epic, including Charlton Heston, wears Roman royal purple more appropriately; given Caesar’s sexual tastes, you can believe the comment made of him in his heyday: “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 the vino as he is for Cleopatra. As actor, however, Burton is often scaling to the upper balconies exhausting himself, dwarfing his quieter moments. 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 beauty, though the sharp eye will detect some of the flowers and greenery aren’t matching the palatial digs. 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 hopelessly using different angles to attempt 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 awesome peak of the epic’s grandeur; we needed more of its visual sweep and mammoth pyres. No matter the toils in making the movie and the blame and dubious lawsuits that followed, the one unheralded salute due Cleopatra is that it doesn’t overly contort basic fact. Mankiewicz hasn’t received credit for resisting the standard Hollywood trashing of history. Yes, he shortcuts a bit: Caesarion, her 17 year old son with Caesar, probably was not killed before her death; historians believe she shipped him off to safety, possibly to India, and was lured back to Alexandria by Octavian with the false promise he would be allowed to rule Egypt. 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 and not her breast—was narratively strong and what the audience expected. (Click image of the blu-ray at left for more on accuracy.) With hours missing in the roadshow release, Dick Cavett on his TV show joshed Mankiewicz with the anagram “tale o crap,” to which he reponded that he’d liked to have one day presented the movie as a miniseries, given that he had originally planned two three-hour epics. Darryl F. Zanuck put the kibosh on that, as he was the final arbitrator. 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 the search in the Blu-ray release (click its cover on the left). 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. Filmed in TODD AO. (Opening June 26, 1963 at the Stale 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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For all stills: http://movie-screencaps.com/cleopatra-1963/

ralphbenner@nowreviewing.com  

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