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Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra, the most maligned Hollywood epic ever made, 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 le scandale of Liz & Dick that even the Vatican and Congress publicly addressed it (the equivalent of the tumult of Bill & Monica)—there was no way back then that the spectacle could live up to itself. And when Liz first appears, rolled out from a carpet, you’ve got to concede to Stanley Kauffmann who observed that “she need 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, 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.” 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 confess 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 noisily blew a gasket and, in a surprise, the cuts were restored. (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, few epics in Hollywood have been more written about: Cleopatra became a social phenomenon—the whole world turned to the press everyday to see what new outrages Liz 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 Liz and Burton were so openly flaunting the hots for each other, the movie was made boring when audiences, wanting to see the same kind of lust on screen, realized their screen kisses rank among the least impassioned in movie history. Producer Wanger, who lost control of the movie, always wanted to make a serious biography of Cleopatra and had Liz in mind from the start. After all, she wasn’t only the screen’s reigning celebrity queen at the time, she was red hot box office—though less for her acting than for her Debbie-Eddie-Liz biz. Mankiewicz too wanted the bio to be more than Fox’s usual sex & sandal titillation. Had it not been for the chaotic procedurals—while filming went on during the day, furious writing and re-writes went on through the night—he might have been able to pull it off. Under monumental strain of directing, and heavy amphetamine intake, he defaulted to familiar territory, giving Liz the vernacular from the School of Hollywoodspeak. Two of the more majestic voices in entertainment, Harrison enjoying the pseudo Shaw and Burton blubbing Shakespearesque, they swamped her limited range. Her performance sometimes works: when she’s teasing, purring with kittenish charms, she’s fuckable; when she’s 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. Inspite of blemishes, she has moments of looking so gorgeous that you might download in your pants: with deep 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. 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, say, Peter Ustinov in Quo Vadis or Jay Robinson in The Robe and Demetrius and the Gladiators or Gina Lowlowbrigada in Solomon and Sheba. In the big motivating scene at Alexander’s tomb, Harrison’s imperial calm and graciousness are beneficial to Liz. Surprisingly, and disappointing to initial audiences, she shows a deeper love for Harrison than Dick. No male actor in any epic, including Charlton Heston, wears Roman royal purple more impressively; given Caesar’s sexual tastes, you can believe the comment made of him: “He was every woman’s man and every man’s woman.” Burton’s 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 exhausting himself and 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 fatigue sets in: trapped in the Alexandria palace and Cleo’s tomb, we get tired of the different angles cinematographer Leon Shamroy uses to attempt to keep from us from getting tired looking at the same sets. 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 it. No matter the toils in making the movie and the blame and morally dubious lawsuits that followed, the one unheralded salute to come out of the expensive hoopla is that Cleopatra doesn’t much fabricate or carelessly distort basic fact. Mankiewicz hasn’t received credit for resisting the standard Hollywood trashing of history for dramatic purposes. The use of the asp in the queen’s suicide the one major exception; he determined that since he couldn’t argue through his limited research just how she managed to end her life, he felt the myth was narratively stronger and what the audience expected. (Click image of the blu-ray at left for more on accuracy.) 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 he’d 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 Marc & Cleo. Darryl F. Zanuck put the kibosh on that, as he was the final editor. 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. Liz gets the last laugh: though she signed a highly publicized million dollar contract, with a bonanza of perks and stipulations, by the time the movie had finished its theatrical run, she reportedly collected seven and a half million. This contradicts Fox’s lawsuit filed against her in April, 1964, in which the studio claimed she had already received at least $20 million. Whatever actual millions received, they were great salve for all those bad reviews. 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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Text COPYRIGHT © 2000 RALPH BENNER  Revised 6/2012 All Rights Reserved.