Hollywood has never made a more difficult, more expensive movie than Cleopatra (1963). It reputedly cost between US$35-$40 million, which is approximately US$300 million in today’s money. Avatar, in comparison, has been costed at US$280 million.
The shooting of Cleopatra was hardly less epic than the Roman empire itself, with a cast that qualified as cinematic royalty. It is remembered today as the film that almost sent 20th Century-Fox the way of the Romans, but this is only one of the myths that surround a project poised forever between masterpiece and disaster.
Fox released this new Blu-ray version of Cleopatra in time for Mothers’ Day, but Elizabeth Taylor presents a singularly poor role model for any mum. At the time of casting, Taylor was the biggest star in the world, fresh from her roles in Giant, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Suddenly, Last Summer. Yet when she asked for a record fee of a million dollars the studio threatened to offer the part to Susan Hayward.
Big-hearted Liz agreed to do it for a mere US$750,000, but negotiated a clause in the contract whereby she would be paid US$50,000 per week for any overrun beyond 16 weeks. Her total payout was more than US$7 million.
The original director, Rouben Mamoulian, departed after only 18 days. He was replaced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who initially said he wouldn’t even go see a film about Cleopatra, let alone direct one. He was a persuaded by a very large cheque and became obsessed with the project. All this and more is covered by Fox executive, Tim Rothman, in a Movie Channel documentary which is the most useful addition to the list of extras already found on the earlier DVD release. The Blu-ray picture quality is superior, but only fetishists would see this as a reason for buying another copy.
Nevertheless, Cleopatra is an essential part of any cinema library. It is the quintessential blockbuster, with some of the most elaborate sets ever made for a motion picture. It is also notorious because it saw the beginning of the tempestuous romance of Liz Taylor and Richard Burton. They happened to be married to different people at the time and the affair became a high-profile scandal. Even the Pope weighed in, accusing Taylor of “erotic vagrancy”.
After more than 400 troubled days on set, Mankiewicz was left with 96 hours of footage which he whittled down to an eight hour version. He showed it to studio supremo Daryl Zanuck, who promptly sacked him – only to invite him back to help make sense of the editing.
The film premiered at four hours and three minutes, but was cut to three hours to allow for the usual number of daily screenings. This added confusion to a story that was already garbled. Mankiewicz said it was the hardest three films he’d ever made. He pleaded to turn Cleopatra into a two-parter, but finally had to watch it being compressed into a form that left out many crucial scenes.
This new disc features the four hour, three minute version, which is the best available because the studio dumped all of Mankiewicz’s extra footage when they did a spring-clean at the end of the 1970s. The search continues for any extant prints.
After all this, I was pleasantly surprised at how well Cleopatra stands up. The dialogue is far superior to the usual Hollywood costume drama, it sticks closely to the historical record, and the visuals are spectacular. Liz Taylor looks every cent of her US$7 million.
Cleopatra may be long and wordy, but it is very far from being a disaster. Half a century after it first appeared it feels suspiciously like a success. If there was an ancient Egyptian curse on this film, it has not daunted Sony Pictures, who are currently casting a new version of Cleopatra, starring Angelina Jolie.
Cleopatra (1963, DVD), USA, UK, Switzerland, rated M, 243 mins
Published by the Australian Financial Review, May 26, 2012