This Sunday tea-time epic returns, restored and much better than the horror stories would have us believe.
The summer blockbuster season has always been synonymous with excess. Excessive budgets, excessive salaries, excessive running times, excessive editing. With $150 million dollar plus studio behemoths appearing on an almost weekly basis, each proving more swollen and needy than the last, what better time to dig up Hollywood’s most infamous paean to vanity and extravagance?
Even today, for better or worse, movies simply don’t come any bigger than Cleopatra. With a $300 million inflation-adjusted budget ($44m in 1962) large enough for James Cameron to have gone on to raise the Titanic as well, its notorious production history continues to overshadow the merits to be found in this exquisite 50th anniversary restoration.
Whilst undeserving of the kind of critical revisionism surrounding that other bête noire of studio executive nightmares such as Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (re-released 2 August), Cleopatra remains an agreeably old-fashioned epic in the definitive sense. A camp melodrama if ever there was one, its opulent gaudiness and the unimpeachable craftsmanship of its production design now more than ever keep the eye enthralled through even the more plodding longeurs of its 243 minute running time.
Initially conceived as a $2 million swords-n-sandals quickie to be shot on the backlot of the ailing Fox studios after a string of box office duds, it was producer Walter Wanger (Wayne-jer, disappointingly) who convinced studio boss Spyros Skouras of the project’s potential if he would only up the budget and re-think their choice of contract-player Joan Collins for the lead.
Wanger was a B-movie producer at the time, most famous for serving a jail term for shooting his wife Joan Bennett’s lover in the nuts at point blank range, but he’d just earned Susan Hayward an Oscar with his previous project, I Want to Live! and was thus in strong enough standing within the industry to eke a promise of $5 million out of Skouras and convince his first choice of leading lady to sign away the next two and a half years of her life.
"Tell them I’ll do it for a million dollars", said Elizabeth Taylor, attaching herself to the film that would not only make her the highest paid actress in the business, but through its behind-the-scenes dramas — played out on the front pages of the world press — also the most famous woman in the world.
Ultimately, it was le scandale that saved Cleopatra (and 20th Century Fox) from complete financial ruin. The crowds came for ‘Liz and Dick’, not for Anthony and Cleopatra. They came to see evidence of the affair between Taylor and co-star Richard Burton that had kept John Glenn’s orbit of the Earth off the front pages of the tabloids earlier that year. They weren’t disappointed, even if they had to sit through two hours of Rex Harrison’s Caesar (unaffectionately nicknamed ‘The Cunt’ by his fellow cast and crew) before the pair got their smooch on.
Director Joseph L Mankiewicz (taking over from Rouben Mamoulian after he’d burnt through $7 million for just 10 minutes of footage) tried to convince Fox to let him make two three-hour films: Caesar and Cleopatra and Anthony and Cleopatra, but Skouras couldn’t take the risk that no one would bother turning up to the first. The second half of the final release (at one point cut to 191 minutes) may prove the most ripely enjoyable, with terrific, scenery-chewing turns from Burton and Roddy McDowall as the Machiavellian Octavian. But the political machinations of the first more demonstrably show off Mankiewicz’ acidly nuanced skills as a writer.
That there were even words for the characters to speak at all was something of a miracle. Upon accepting the project, Mankiewicz rejected Nigel Balchin’s script for Mamoulian (directly adapted from Fox’s silent 1917 version) out of hand. Opting to start completely from scratch, his days were spent filming pages he’d written only the previous night. It was only Taylor’s constant, protracted illnesses — shutting down filming for anything from a day (she banged her hand), to a week (Malta fever) to finally six months for an emergency tracheotomy after developing pneumonia — that allowed Mankiewicz to knock the script into shape.
While it’s hard to deny that much of Cleopatra’s ever-swelling budget made it onto the screen, most explicitly evidenced in the visual splendour of the hand-crafted outdoor sets (Cleopatra’s sphinx-ride into Rome in particular), it was as much a case of mis-management and lack of preparation as it was bad luck (and Elizabeth Taylor) that led to it escalating out of all control. Ben Hur, Hollywood’s most expensive production to that point, came in at a third of the cost of Cleopatra. Most of the blame was laid at Wanger’s feet, from the initial decision to shoot in London (where the weather prevented any outdoor scenes from being filmed) to the costly re-location to Rome and later Hollywood.
The cast were kept on the payroll for the entire production period, the leads aside at rates of up to $5,000 a week. As the Taylor-Burton scandal escalated, so too did paparazzi intrusion as well as unexplained absences from the hassled stars — production was often halted, at a cost of $100,000 a day. Being sued by the film’s elephant wrangler for slandering his pachyderms by referring to them as 'wild', only added to Cleopatra’s financial misfortunes.
Despite the rumours and presumptions of ever-impending catastrophe that filled the tabloids throughout Cleopatra’s production, it was never the box office disaster its reputation might suggest. It may have taken three years to break even, but only 12 months after release it was already one of the top ten grossers of all time, winning four of its nine Academy Award nominations (Art Direction; Cinematography; Costume; Visual Effects). Mankiewicz famously called it "the most difficult three films I’ve ever made", yet plans are apparently afoot to assemble the director’s preferred six hour version.
So finally, after 50 years, Cleopatra is back on screens big enough to do justice to the size of the egos and pockets that put it there in the first place. It looks better than ever, and while no reclaimed masterpiece, it goes a long way to make the rest of this summer’s kaiju and iron men look diminutive by comparison. Its production history may go some way to explaining why they don’t make them like they used to, but see this on the biggest screen you can find, and for all its old-fashioned, melodramatic clunkiness, it remains ‘event cinema’ that’ll make you wish they did.
The biggest flop of all time… And it’s four hours… Umm, ok.
An exquisitely restored, beautifully crafted spectacle.
Melodramatic, and camp as Christmas, but nothing like the disaster its reputation suggests.