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How could a film become one of the year's highest grossing movies and still manage to be widely regarded as one of Hollywood's biggest flops of all time? Perhaps if a film's budget surges from around $2 million to over $45 million (some reports say $60 million) and takes years rather than the allotted time to shoot, then you have a good justification. Add Elizabeth Taylor's near-fatal illness, director and cast changes during filming, and constant rewrites to the mixture. Then top it all off with an adulterous love affair between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and you have a perfect recipe for disaster. Well, either that, or just enough scandal and publicity to garner Oscar® acclaim and entice curious moviegoers to the theatre. This is exactly what happened when 20th Century Fox released Cleopatra in 1963.
When the film opened, critics panned it as a debacle. Time magazine called it, "raddled with flaws, [lacking] style both in image and in action." Even the stars themselves condemned the final product. Elizabeth Taylor, who played the title role, explained, "It must be the most eccentric film ever made. I was finally forced to see it in London, knowing full well, after what I'd heard, that I'd be sick to my stomach. They had cut out the heart, the essence, the motivations, the very core, and tacked on all those battle scenes. It should have been about three large people, but it lacked reality and passion. I found it vulgar" (Jerry Vermilye and Mark Ricci, The Films of Cleopatra).
Bad reviews were just one of the many dark clouds looming over a film that was cursed even before production began. Originally, Fox aimed to release the film in March of 1960. Studio heads Buddy Adler and Spyros P. Skouras wanted an "economically made $2 million spectacle with `pre-sold names' such as contractees Joan Collins, Suzy Parker, or Joanne Woodward" (Matthew Bernstein, Walter Wanger: Hollywood Independent). However, the film's producer, Walter Wanger, saw a big-budget epic in the making. He set out to sell Adler and Skouras on the film he wanted by first demonstrating the visual possibilities for the epic. Wanger hired John DeCuir, who had worked on such grandiose films as The King and I (1956), to be the film's art director. One afternoon in February of 1959, Wanger set DeCuir's sketches and set models on display for the studio heads to see. Wanger later explained, "They all flipped because it was the God-damndest thing they had ever seen" (Bernstein). Wanger continued his campaign for a bigger film by casting Elizabeth Taylor to play Cleopatra. Initially, Fox was not happy with the decision, but Wanger held out, and Skouras conceded that the decision would increase the box-office draw.
Taylor was shooting Suddenly, Last Summer in London when Wanger called her in September of 1959. She said that she would play Cleopatra if a few script changes were made, the film was shot in England for tax and publicity purposes, and she was guaranteed a salary of $1 million dollars. Wanger, and the studio, balked at her asking price, but Taylor got her wish. While filming Butterfield 8 (1960), Taylor secured one of the most astonishing deals in Hollywood up to that time. The contract she signed assured her a salary of $125,000 per week for sixteen weeks; $50,000 weekly after sixteen weeks; 10% of the film's gross; $3,000 per week living expenses plus food and lodging; and first-class tickets for herself, three adults, and three children. Taylor's total earnings for a film with a supposed budget of $2 million eventually totaled more than $7 million.
After Taylor signed on, Adler and Skouras secured Rouben Mamoulian to direct. Casting was also finalized with Peter Finch to play Caesar and Stephen Boyd to play Antony. However, Cleopatra still lacked a finalized script. Many re-writes and writer replacements during nearly two years of pre-production had not produced a filmable script. Thus when shooting began in the fall of 1960, there was no structured production plan. Shooting the film in England also proved disastrous. Despite previous assumption, England's Pinewood Studios did not process the technical capacity for the film's production. Ceilings were too low to allow for the set design, there were not enough soundstages for all the different scenes, and the unions were very limiting. To compensate, the projected budget now soared over $6 million.
Filming was rescheduled for September of 1960 and Fox hoped to complete the project by February of 1961. However, England's chilling temperatures and high humidity immediately caused Taylor to fall ill with a cold. Mamoulian shot around her, capturing Egyptian landscapes and dialogue scenes between minor characters, yet costumes and sets were no more ready than the script. Mamoulian was also having trouble controlling the crowd scenes, and England's weather was frustratingly unstable. The resulting footage did not befit an Egyptian setting. Mamoulian explained, "The great white columns of that beautiful set were wreathed in light mists; while every time anyone spoke, there were clouds of steam from his mouth. It had a marvelous quality, quite beautiful, but not exactly Alexandrian" (Bernstein). These complications once again forced Fox to raise the budget to $9 million.
Meanwhile, specialists were brought in to see about Taylor. As her fever, headaches, and congestion continued, the press began to swarm. Reports surfaced that she was suffering from a nervous breakdown or a miscarriage. Queen Elizabeth II's personal physician finally diagnosed the cause of her illness as an abscessed tooth, and she would need more time to recover. Taylor's illness cost Fox an additional $2 million. The company ordered production to cease and demanded a replacement be found for the leading lady. Wanger once again went to bat for Taylor, and she remained on the picture.
After two years in the making, and $7 million spent, Fox had ten minutes of useable footage. Mamoulian subsequently resigned before shooting resumed, and Taylor suggested Joseph Mankiewicz to take his place. Mankiewicz had directed her in Suddenly, Last Summer, for which she earned an Academy nomination. He had also directed Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in 1953, proving his keen sense of classical history. Thus, Mankiewicz seemed like the perfect choice. Fox paid out $3 million dollars to secure the director and buy him out of previous obligations.
When Mankiewicz read Mamoulian's script, he found it to be "shockingly barren of either scope or magnitude" (Bernstein). He criticized its stereotyped characterization of Cleopatra as "a strange, frustrating mixture of an American soap-opera virgin and an hysterical Slavic vamp" (Bernstein). Instead, he saw her as a femme fatale and perceived the rivalry between Caesar and a weak Antony as the motif of the film. This story transformation called for a completely new script. Mamoulian's ten minutes of footage was discarded, and Fox had to abandon the $7 million spent thus far. Mankiewicz composed an outline and hired Ranald MacDougall, who wrote Mildred Pierce (1945), to pen the new script.
Just when it seemed like the film might be back on track, Taylor became ill again in the spring of 1961. She suffered from acute staphylococcus pneumonia and underwent an emergency tracheotomy. Her condition was critical, and the press flocked to the hospital. The media alerted the world that Elizabeth Taylor could die at any moment. Taylor eventually recovered and flew home to California just in time to receive the Best Actress Oscar® for Butterfield 8. During her six-month recuperation, she underwent plastic surgery to remove the scar from the tracheotomy, but it was never completely hidden.
When filming was to resume in the fall of 1961, production had been moved to Italy, where Fox hoped to cut costs due to the Italian six-day work week and warm weather. Mankiewicz had yet to receive a finalized script and began writing it himself. Sets and costumes were still yet to be completed. However, Fox remained rigid to its September start date. The company's production department had to prepare the film's budget and production plan with only a script outline. Even though Mankiewicz had written 132 pages of script by this point, which would equal about a 100-minute film, 195 pages remained to be written during shooting. Mankiewicz worked himself to sheer exhaustion during the next several months of production. He would shoot all day and write all night, going on little if any sleep. With no time to make script edits or rewrites, he shot everything he wrote, costing Fox millions in wasted time. Sets were built at high overtime costs only to sit unused for months due to lack of production planning. Extras waited on set doing nothing for weeks while still on payroll. Every day, Fox sent wires to the set complaining about the films skyrocketing costs. And still, another complication was brewing - one that would create more of a scandal than anyone imagined.
During Cleopatra's hiatus over the summer of 1961, the role of Caesar had been recast to be played by Rex Harrison, and Antony was to be played by Richard Burton. Burton had just won a Tony as King Arthur in Camelot. Fox bought him out of his contract in New York and signed him to the film for $300,000. Cleopatra was to be the biggest film thus far in his career, and he was happy to go to Rome. Despite being married for 12 years with two daughters, Burton had developed a reputation for romancing his leading ladies. Taylor was also married at the time to Eddie Fisher, a highly publicized relationship itself that began while Fisher was still married to Debbie Reynolds.
At first, Burton could not stand Taylor, referring to her as "Miss Tits" and remarking to Mankiewicz, "I expect she shaves" (Melvyn Bragg, Richard Burton: A Life). Even though he had never seen her perform, he saw her as just another movie star with no acting talent. Taylor knew of his reputation as a highly acclaimed actor, yet she did not think much of the loud-mouthed, womanizing Welshman at first either. All that was soon to change. Many times, Burton had said, "I cannot act with a person unless I'm powerfully sexually interested in that person" (Kitty Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor: The Last Star). If this was the case, then Burton's opinion of Taylor had undoubtedly changed by the time they played their first scene together. Fox described it as an "electrifying encounter" (Bragg). Everyone on set then realized that the actors were now actually living their parts. "There comes a time during a movie when the actors become the characters they play," said Wanger. "This merger of real personality into the personality of the role has to take place if a performance is to be truly effective. That happened today...The cameras turned and the current was literally turned on. It was quiet, and you could almost feel the electricity between Liz and Burton" (Kelly).
It was only a matter of weeks before the media buzz of the scandal reached the rest of the world. Paparazzi followed the couple everywhere, and the story dominated headlines around the world. "Le Scandale," as Burton termed it, even incited the Vatican to publicly denounce the adulterous affair.
When filming wrapped, Fox had spent over $30 million on production. Another $15 million would be spent on the picture's promotion. Mankiewicz delivered the final product at over six hours long. Fox toyed with the idea of releasing the film in two parts to try to recoup as much money as possible, but that idea was scrapped. The film opened in New York on June 11, 1963 with a running time of 243 minutes. A week later, it was reduced to 222 minutes. The reviews were discouraging, yet the film's publicity did attract consumers to the box-office. Although it grossed over $26 million, making it one of the highest grossing films of 1963, it was nowhere near enough to recover the studio's losses. Wanger later explained Cleopatra's high disappointment as resulting from two reasons. "The first was corporate politics that resulted in executive indecisiveness. The second was that the film went into production `before we had a script or a well-thought-out and practical production plan or organization' " (Bernstein).
Looking past Cleopatra's enormous cost and confusion, some critics did praise the film. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times wrote, "Unless you are one of those skeptics who are stubbornly predisposed to give Cleopatra the needle, I don't see how you can fail to find this a generally brilliant, moving, and satisfying film." The Academy agreed. The film won Oscars® for Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, and Best Visual Effects. It also received nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor (Rex Harrison), Best Editing, Best Score, and Best Sound.
The dark clouds lingering over Cleopatra's production undoubtedly stained its release, overshadowing the actual quality of the film itself. The plot, Cleopatra using her feminine wiles to stabilize her Egyptian power by seducing Caesar and Marc Antony, seemed almost irrelevant. Audiences were more interested in the romance between Taylor and Burton than Cleopatra and Antony. The film's dialogue was smart and the spectacle was stunning, yet never quite seemed worth the price tag. Over time, Fox did eventually make its money back. In 1966, ABC paid $5 million for two showings, finally putting Cleopatra in the black.
Producer: Walter Wanger, Peter Levathes
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Screenplay: Sidney Buchman, Ben Hecht, Ranald MacDougall, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Carlo Mario Franzero (book)
Cinematography: Leon Shamroy
Film Editing: Dorothy Spencer
Art Direction: Herman Blumenthal, Hilyard Brown, John DeCuir, Boris Juraga, Maurice Pelling, Jack Martin Smith, Elven Webb
Music: Alex North
Cast: Elizabeth Taylor (Cleopatra), Richard Burton (Marc Antony), Rex Harrison (Julius Caesar), Pamela Brown (High Priestess), George Cole (Flavius), Hume Cronyn (Sosigenes).
by E. Lacey Rice