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Friday, April 11, 2014

Joseph L. Mankiewicz's Cleopatra

Cleopatra herself.
June 26, 1963, the weather in Cincinnati, Ohio, was unseasonably warm. I was a student in business college there at the time, a resident for less than a month. For the previous two weeks, following the movie's premier in New York City, Joseph L. Mankiewicz's Cleopatra had been making headlines. Movie critics were starkly divided in their reviews: American film critic Emanuel Levy panned it as "...a verbose, muddled affair that is not even entertaining, while the entertainment magazine Variety claimed, "Cleopatra is...a supercolossal eye-filler." The premier at Cincinnati's RKO Grand theater (where it played for 42 weeks) was a charity fundraising event. I paid the outlandish price of $13. to be among the first of my friends to see it (half my weekly budget at a time) when most movie tickets were seventy-five cents). I was becoming a rabid movie fan, eager to see every first-run film coming to town. In Cincinnati, and elsewhere, Cleopatra was probably the biggest movie to hit the city since Selznick's Gone with the Wind more than twenty years before.
If this doesn't make you want to see a movie, I don't know what would.
I remember drawing Liz from this cover.

I had been following the publicity trail of breadcrumbs left by Cleopatra for more than two years. The scandals involving the principals of the film had been making headlines rivaling John Glenn orbiting the earth, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Kennedy Camelot saga. Eddie and Debbie, Liz and Eddie, Liz and Dick, were almost impossible to ignore on every newsstand. The story of Cleopatra easily surpassed that of the film's namesake Cleopatra VII, the last of Egypt's Ptolemy dynasty during the period around 50 BC. I knew little about Julius Caesar (except from Latin classes in high school) and virtually nothing about Mark Anthony other than his Shakespearian line, "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears." But I knew virtually all there was to know about those playing the historic characters in the film.

The budget for Liz's costumes came to $194,800.
The version I saw that night was the original cut of some 243 minutes (certainly in the same league as GWTW). I took my seat in the balcony prepared to be overwhelmed. I was, though likely it wouldn't have taken much to impress a kid not yet eighteen at the time. The sets were eye-popping, the costuming extravagant (above). Liz had a then-record 65 costume changes. The vivid battle scenes, were not only immense, but historically accurate. Indeed, though some have nitpicked it, as Hollywood goes, the film can hardly be faulted for its historical accuracy. And then there was Liz. It was almost worth the thirteen bucks to see her get a (mostly) nude massage (below). She was in her prime, having turned thirty in 1962, while in Rome where the principal photography was then underway.

Cleopatra in her bath--considered quite daring for 1963.
George, Skouras,
20th Century Fox president
The years following Cleopatra were not kind to many of the film's makers. The Burton-Taylor marriage was turbulent, to say the least, ending in divorce (twice). Mankiewicz got fired, then rehired, having nearly killed himself writing and directing the massive enterprise. Eddie Fisher and Sybil Burton certainly got the "short end" of the stick. Twentieth-Century Fox boss, George Skouras (left), lost his job. Fox, in fact, nearly went bankrupt from the film's then-record setting $44-million cost. The studio was forced to sell off it's 300 acre back lot, which became Century City. It was decades before they showed any profit from the film ($13-million is the most recent figure). Quite a few others saw their Hollywood careers take a dive following the traumatic experience of having worked in the film.

Cleopatra conquers Rome.
Cleopatra's Roman forum--larger than life.
The arch in the background wasn't built
until 300 years after the story took place.
By the same token others didn't do so bad. Burton saw his career skyrocket with the film's release. Rex Harrison was nominated for an Oscar as best actor (he didn't win but the movie did take home four Academy Awards that year). It was also the number-one box office winner, despite having lost Fox a ton of money in the process (the first and only time that has ever happened). The studio survived only because The Sound of Music was such an immense hit. Despite all this, the fifty years since the movie's release have been relatively kind to the film. Half a century helps film critics see a movie in its historic context. There are still naysayers (especially regarding the movie's second half) but in general, critics today tend to be "understanding" of the film flaws and flamboyance.
Theda Bara--Hollywood's first Cleopatra, 1917
Claudette Colbert,
Cleopatra number two, 1934
Vivien Leigh, the British version
of Cleopatra, 1945.
Cleopatra has become a primer on "how not to make a movie." What started out as a $2-million back lot production in the mind of Fox president Buddy Adler following the retirement of Darryl Zanuck 1n 1956, swelled into a horrendously overblown monster in little more than two years. Adler was not up to the job. He was soon overpowered by the Greek entertainment entrepreneur, George Skouras. That's when things started getting out of hand. This would be the third remake of the Cleopatra saga, the first staring Theda Bara (above) in 1917, the second Claudette Colbert (above, left) in 1934. Vivien Leigh made a British version in 1945 (above, right). Joan Collins, Joanne Woodward, even Suzy Parker were considered for the lead role. Elizabeth Taylor was mentioned. Skouras immediately rejected her "too much trouble." He had that part right. Moreover, Liz didn't really want the role. She jokingly asked for the outrageous sum of one-million dollars (that eventually ballooned to seven-million). To her surprise, Fox agreed. Then, as they say, things went downhill from there.
Taylor, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, and Burton, a director deftly "handling" his stars.
Even before there was anything resembling a script, Fox started building sets at Pinewood Studios outside of London, hired a director (Rouben Mamoulian) and even managed to get about ten minutes of film "in the can" before both the director and his footage were "canned." Walter Wanger, the producer of the film, brought in Joseph L. Mankiewicz (above) to "save" the movie. The movie had already cost Fox $5-million and they had no usable footage to show for it. Skouras had been extraordinarily prescient in his judgment of Elizabeth Taylor. She was nothing but trouble, suffering from health problems (real and imagined) which almost lead to her death from double pneumonia (she was pronounced dead four times). In short, the London weather didn't agree with her. Likewise, the London fog did not agree with the film's production schedule, costing Fox millions.
The Ptolemy Palace, Alexandria, the largest movie set ever built.
Mankiewicz decided to scrap everything and start over from scratch in Rome. The weather was better, Cinecitta was huge. And what's not to love about Rome? New sets were built. Cleopatra's Roman forum ended up being larger than the original just a few miles away. The entire movie, except for Liz, was recast. Burton replaced Stephen Boyd as Mark Anthony, Rex Harrison replaced Peter Finch as Caesar. Roddy McDowall became Octavian. Hume Cronyn, Martin Landau, and Carroll O'Connor (remember Archie Bunker?) came on board in supporting roles. The budget grew to $20-million, surpassing that of Ben-Hur ($15-million), and still the money hemorrhage continued. Paperclip costs were pegged at $100,000. The motto seemed to be, shoot first, plan later.
On board Cleopatra's Barge, a banquet fit for a Mark Anthony.
Even as serious filming got underway in 1961, Mankiewicz was writing script (in longhand, no less) all night then shooting what he'd written the next day, relieved, so it seemed, when Liz, for one reason or another delayed production (which happened often). Cleopatra's Cleopatra was one of the major reasons production costs were exploding. Add to that perpetual poor planning, corruption among the Italian crew, and conflicts between American and Italian department heads, and the fact that any film at all got made approaches the miraculous. Still, production continued, plodding as it was. The daily rushes looked good (they had to be flown to Hollywood for processing, then flown back for viewing). Thanks to Liz and Dick, publicity was only a problem insofar as there was too much of the wrong kind (if there is such a thing in the movie industry). And Cleopatra's triumphal entry into Rome was said to be the most spectacular such scene ever filmed (click below).

Yet, with the budget already at stratospheric levels, some of the most expensive (the battle scenes) and those on Cleopatra's quarter-million dollar barge, were yet to be filmed. Actually, as it turned out, these blockbuster sequences were among the least difficult. They were what Hollywood had long been able to do best. Then once, Cleopatra's asp had done its duty, Fox let out a collective sign of relief. The thing was winding down. Then the post-production battles began as Fox came to realize they had far too much footage (six hours in its first cut) and a director adverse to whittling it down to a size in which theaters could manage four showings a day (a little over three hours). Mankiewicz has since referred to the film as the toughest three movies he'd ever made, "…conceived in a state of emergency, shot in confusion, and wound up in a state of blind panic."

Cleopatra and Julius Caesar
--Rex Harrison was one of the few to receive consistent
praise for his part in the movie. The chemistry was right.

Say what you may about Liz Taylor, the production mess that was Cleopatra can be laid mostly at the doorstep of Skouras and Fox. They hired her knowing her faults as well as her considerable talent. Without her, the film would have likely been "forgettable" at best. No other film, except maybe GWTW, has ever been so horribly disorganized, though some more recent ones like Heaven's Gate, Ishtar, and Waterworld have tried. Cleopatra is not near the top of anyone's list of greatest movies (including my own), yet in its monumentality, and especially in its flaws, it rises to cinematic importance as a warning beacon for future filmmakers, contrasting the best and worst the industry has ever produced.

The final scene.


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