Elizabeth Taylor: a right royal pain in the asp

Fifty years on from Liz Taylor's troubled turn as Cleopatra, Geoffrey Macnab reflects on the Egyptian queen's poisonous history with Hollywood film-makers

The 1963 film Cleopatra, starring Elizabeth Taylor and re-released in cinemas next month to mark its 50th anniversary, is still the most expensive movie ever made. Even now, the wanton extravagance of the project, often dubbed “the biggest flop in movie history” (although it actually turned a profit in the end), remains utterly mind-boggling. The cost of the movie is reckoned in today’s money at well over $300m, far more than even James Cameron’s Avatar.

You don’t expect to be able to make a film about Cleopatra on the cheap. However, there is something about the Egyptian queen that has always brought out the most reckless spendthrift in film-makers.

“It is better to produce a picture for $1.5m and get back $3m than to make one for $200,000 and get back $400,000,” Cecil B DeMille explained to the New York Times in 1934 when he made his version of Cleopatra starring Claudette Colbert.

Hollywood studio Fox invested the (then) vast amount of $300,000 on its 1917 film about Cleopatra, starring Theda Bara. Some sources put the budget far higher than that. The film is lost today (only a few snippets survive) but from the stills alone, it’s apparent that Fox weren’t skimping on the costumes or the mise en scène.

Generations of producers have seen Cleopatra as potential box-office gold. She is Ben-Hur, but with sex added on. In Britain, the Rank Organisation was almost brought to its knees by its foray into ancient Egypt. Rank hired a former Hungarian cavalry officer called Gabriel Pascal to direct its ill-fated 1945 version of Caesar and Cleopatra. Contemporaries testified that Pascal had no idea about cameras and little storytelling flair. His main recommendation was that he had won the support of George Bernard Shaw, who allowed him to make film versions of his plays.

Pascal’s wanton extravagance was all the more striking because he was making Caesar and Cleopatra in austerity-era Britain. The movie went vastly over time and over budget. It cost $5.5m, which made it – at the time – the most expensive film ever made. There was no obvious passion between Vivien Leigh’s Cleopatra and the well-spoken but very sombre Claude Rains, strangely cast as Caesar. Leigh had miscarried during the film and found the experience of working with Pascal thoroughly depressing.

Theda Bara is to blame for the $300m that Fox threw at the Liz Taylor movie. It was the success of the Bara version that convinced Spyros Skouras, Fox’s boss in the late 1950s, that he could help the studio out of a financial hole by gambling on the Egyptian siren again. He ordered up a remake, seemingly without noticing that the Bara film had been shot silently and in black and white.

The veteran Rouben Mamoulian was hired as the director. Peter Finch was cast as Caesar and Keith Baxter as Marc Anthony and shooting began at Pinewood Studios. Fox spent $7m recreating ancient Rome in full papier maché magnificence in rural Buckinghamshire, before putting the production into mothballs – thwarted by lousy British weather and by Taylor’s pneumonia, which nearly killed her. The costumes and sets didn’t entirely go to waste – they were later used for the supremely vulgar Carry On Cleo (1964).

When the Liz Taylor production ramped up again from scratch in the autumn of 1961, Joseph L Mankiewicz had taken over as director. Renowned for acerbic, witty comedies like A Letter to Three Wives and All About Eve, he wasn’t the obvious choice for a sword-and-sandals epic. Mankiewicz, who drove himself to the point of nervous exhaustion, was writing the new screenplay even as he was making the picture. He later described Cleopatra as a film “conceived in panic, shot in confusion” and one that ended in “chaos”.

To the end of his life, Mankiewicz dreamed of restoring his movie. He had wanted to release it as two separate three-hour features, detailing the heroine’s seismic love affairs – first with Harrison’s Caesar and then with Richard Burton’s Marc Anthony. Studio boss Darryl Zanuck vetoed the idea on the grounds that Taylor and Burton’s romance was then front-page news. Audiences, he reasoned, might feel short-changed if they went to see the first part, in which Burton is only on screen for a few minutes – so the two stories were mashed together.

Sadly, it appears that much of the material that Mankiewicz shot was thrown away.

The four-hour film that survives and is now being revived is flamboyant and sophisticated in spite of its occasional clunkiness. One reason it makes such fascinating viewing is the subtext. Audiences knew about – and still remember now – the deeply scandalous affair between Taylor and Burton that started during shooting. Most will have some awareness of the film’s immensely long and troubled production history.

It’s better written and far better played (especially by the saturnine Burton and the haughty, voluptuous but vulnerable Taylor) than its reputation suggests. Some of the scenes between Taylor and Burton have such a barbed edge that it’s as if we are watching Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf being performed in togas.

Nearly a century after Theda Bara and 50 years after Liz Taylor, a new version of the Cleopatra story is in the works. Heavyweight US producer Scott Rudin has optioned Stacy Schiff’s biography Cleopatra: A Life. Ang Lee has been mentioned as a potential director and – inevitably – Angelina Jolie is being suggested as a potential star. Like Taylor (who was eventually paid $7m for her efforts in Cleopatra), Jolie is a star who exercises a Cleopatra-like fascination on fans and media.

If Rudin does get to make his movie, it will be a major disappointment if it isn’t a turbulent and wildly expensive production, with the tantrums and politicking off set matching the spectacle and passion on screen.

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