One of Mao Zedong's most celebrated quotes came about when he was asked for his views on the French Revolution. "It's too early to say," was the reply.
So it must be with Joseph Mankiewicz's 1963 production of "Cleopatra". Half a century later and the dust has yet to ultimately settle in regards to this film. Or at least the dust around those who make it a habit to discuss motion pictures. There may very well now be people alive today who know nothing or care little about Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Rex Harrison, Joseph Mankiewicz or the stories (both in terms of plot and everything else) surrounding the movie. But, as I never claim to be able to commune with the dead, I'll direct my remarks to the rest of you.
And why am I writing about it now? Well . . . I suppose that, in my heart of hearts, I knew I would someday find myself facing the prospect of tossing in my own two cents. Besides, I need to make some sort of penance here. I've had a recent opportunity to go over many of my previous columns, and I feel I've been somewhat harsh in my references to "Cleopatra". Not only in regards to Mankiewicz, but there've been some remarks concerning Elizabeth Taylor which, in retrospect, I've would've liked to have softened. It's unfortunate that I can't deliver apologies to either of these people in person, but I want to try and wipe the slate clean (or at least clean enough to read). I know some of you have a problem with the idea of me admitting a mistake . . .
I said I know some of you have a problem with the idea of me admitting a mistake . . .
(Memo to myself: get the sound system looked at.)
Please don't get me wrong. I want to go on record that I still have problems with "Cleopatra", and I'll get into those anon. But I want to expand on my opinions and, as usual, try to provoke either a response within you, or at lease give you food for thought concerning the film. Fair enough?
If I had to choose an overall symbolic image for "Cleopatra" I would pick Marley's ghost from Dickens' "A Christmas Carol". The poor stately man encumbered by endless links of heavy chains. Ultimately, "Cleopatra" was not just a movie, it became a movie carrying with it the weight of so many outside circumstances. One imagines Elizabeth Taylor's golden barge trying to tow Gibraltar across the Mediterranean. Did the film succeed in spite of all the additional baggage? That, pumpkins, is what I plan to discuss.
It can't be denied that "Cleopatra" is a watchable film. If any production deserved the word "spectacle" then this would be it. You can care little about the story, or even the performers, but there's no denying that the movie can draw the eye, if even on an occasional basis. I've sometimes referred to "Cleopatra" as a train wreck, but seldom has any disaster been mounted so sumptuously (or directed so well). In terms of sheer production effort "Cleopatra" surpasses everything leading back to Griffith's "Intolerance" (and many films since then). The age of the Vast Cinema Spectacle (trumpeting a Cast of Thousands) wouldn't quite come to an end for another four or five years, but "Cleopatra" was clearly the handwriting on the wall. After this the studios would enter decades of cinema verite, with the images growing more personal and intimate. Any attempts at spectacle would have to be handled through cinema trickery, waiting for the day when CGI technology would once again allow the movie camera to widen. Despite the aid provided by computers, though, the results would never again be the same. "Cleopatra" would become the apex of a time which has come to an end.
"Cleopatra" would also provide the dividing line in the careers of both Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Prior to "Cleopatra", Richard Burton was already an excellent stage and screen actor (perhaps mostly known for his stage work, and especially his performances in Shakespeare plays). As for Elizabeth Taylor, she was a bankable movie star (Mankiewicz had already handled her to good measure in "Suddenly, Last Summer"). It is possible that, in some alternate universe, "Cleopatra" never happened and both performers enjoyed full and rewarding careers.
Not that the careers of either star suffered in terms of quality after "Cleopatra". Much. But "Cleopatra" converted both people from Stars into Celebrities. Before it was Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Now it was Liz & Dick, and their lives became as incredible (and as stormy) as any screen spectacle. They were even mentioned in an issue of DC Comics' "Jimmy Olsen". Top that, Brangelina!
The post-"Cleopatra" career of Burton and Taylor would result in some interesting films (with Mike Nichols' "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" and Franco Zefirelli's "The Taming of the Shrew" coming immediately to mind). It would also result in some rather . . . let us say odd . . . productions. Someone better than I will someday devote time to a scholarly work on that bizarre period in 1967-1968 where we had films such as "Doctor Faustus" (weird yet watchable) and "Boom!" (weird yet . . . weird). Mention must also be made of a 1970 appearance on the "Here's Lucy" television series (easily a category unto itself).
(Well, say what you will, I always thought both Burton and Taylor had unplumbed comedic depths.)
The passionate relationship between the two actors would be the stuff of studio publicists dreams, but it was just another millstone Mankiewicz found around his neck during the making of "Cleopatra". I don't have any means of scientifically determining this, but I've always been curious to know how many people attended the movie simply to get a look at The Couple. With "Cleopatra" the Age of the Paparazzi would slouch towards Hollywood waiting to be born.
Even if Burton and Taylor managed to work coolly and professionally, "Cleopatra" would still attract attention simply (!) on the basis of its cost. If I ever find myself in a position to direct a film for, say, HBO, I'd be tempted to do a depiction of the Accounting Department at 20th Century Fox during the making of "Cleopatra". That's got to be one of the great unfilmed stories of all time. The price tag for the production (including the salaries of the stars) has long since become the stuff of legend. One of my favorite scenes in the film takes place at the beginning: the aftermath of the battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC. Excellently depicted and handsomely directed, with some nice moments by Rex Harrison as Julius Caesar. But I always watch that scene with the back of my mind wondering how many motion pictures could've been bankrolled by what it ultimately cost to put all of that together. According to my notes, Queen Cleopatra's royal barge would've cost two million dollars in today's money. Show of hands: how many directors (real or would-be) could work with such a chunk of change? Elizabeth Taylor had chili air-freighted to her from Los Angeles to Europe. Sixty-five costume changes alone for Taylor. The financial superlatives just piled one on top of the others.
Well, let's examine by means of comparison. "Cleopatra" certainly wasn't the only big screen historical epic. Kubrick brought in "Spartacus" for twelve million (compare with "Cleopatra's" forty-four million). Kostler's "The Robe"? $4.1 million. DeMille's second version of "The Ten Commandments"? $13 million. Ray's "55 Days at Peking"? $17 million. Mann's "Fall of the Roman Empire"? $20 million.
William Wyler's "Ben-Hur"? Brought in for under $16 million buckadingdongs, pumpkins. And "Ben-Hur" copped beaucoup Oscars including, I might add, Best Picture. The Oscars brought in by "Cleopatra"? Nominated for nine . . . won for Best Cinematography (Color), Set Direction, Costume Design and Special Effects.
(One has to wonder anyway about the 1963 Academy Awards. Putting it another way: I still scratch my head that "Cleopatra", "Lilies of the Field" and "How the West Was Won" . . . almost $15 million . . . were beat out by "Tom Jones".)
But consider the films I listed above. "The Ten Commandments" . . . "Fall of the Roman Empire" . . . "55 Days at Peking" . . . "Ben Hur". These films were less sumptuously produced than "Cleopatra"? All right. Perhaps more expensive materials were used in "Cleopatra" (or, after listening to the commentary track on the DVD, scratch "perhaps" and insert "definitely"). As far as what we saw on the screen was it all that much more noticeable? Or necessary? I want to get around to praising Mankiewicz's efforts, but in all fairness I would also have to ask if all of it was so vital to what he wanted to do?
(Not that Mankiewicz was by any means alone in this sort of thing. In making "Apocalypse Now", Francis Ford Coppola included a scene in a French Indochinese plantation where he spared no effort to bring gourmet accuracy to a depicted meal. For all his work the scene was deleted from the original theatrical release. It showed up later on in the "Redux" version . . . but seriously: would the viewing audience have really known the difference between duck confit and Banquet Frozen Turkey with Giblets?)
Okay. I know I'm sounding as if I'm damning with very faint praise. Besides "Suddenly, Last Summer", Mankiewicz was also responsible for "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" (which is one of Child Bride's favorites), "5 Fingers", "People Will Talk", a nicely mounted production of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" and many other appreciable films. When I considered my previous snide digs at his expense on "Cleopatra" I mulled over the possibility that Mankiewicz certainly didn't want his work to be side-tracked either by the storm tides of the production costs, or the peccadilloes of his stars. "Cleopatra" certainly didn't come to him out of nowhere. It fell into his lap after director Rouben Mamoulian had left the production, and after the film was already five million dollars over budget. Certainly not the most auspicious of circumstances. Imagine being promoted to captain of the "Titanic" after the ship had already struck the iceberg.
Mankiewicz also came to the project with an interesting notion. He originally wanted to create two separate three hour films . . . "Caesar and Cleopatra", followed by "Antony and Cleopatra" . . . and that's how he handled the project. In retrospect, a $44 million price tag doesn't seem that excessive. Unfortunately for Manikiewicz the bean-counters at 20th Century Fox axed the notion (the Burton-Taylor affair was already in full swing, and it was felt that the viewers would've wanted to have seen more of Burton as soon as possible). The bean counters ultimately won.
I hear where efforts are still underway to restore the two hours which were sliced from the theatrical release, and my hopes are that such efforts are eventually met with success. Personally I feel that, the sort of director Mankiewicz was, a full six hour version would ultimately vindicate his vision. We would be presented with performances which fully justify the cost.
(Depending, of course, on one's taste. If the restored version of "Cleopatra" is ever released in its planned two-film format, I would limit myself to purchasing only the "Caesar and Cleopatra" DVD. Just as with "Gone with the Wind" . . . which I feel tends to lose steam after Atlanta is torced . . . I personally prefer the first half of "Cleopatra" to the comparative soap opera bitchiness of the second half. Oh I'd buy both films if a good price was offered, but I suspect I'd spend more time watching the first part.)
When all is said and done, if you can chop away all the gossip and the whining about the production costs . . .
. . . "Cleopatra" actually has many things working for it. As fond as I am of Claude Rains in Pascal's 1945 "Caesar and Cleopatra", I would have to say that Rex Harrison delivered an excellent job in the role of Julius Caesar. Equal parts charming and cunning he smoothly represents not only Imperial Rome at its height, but also a man consumed by ambitions. Mankiewicz could always coax the best out of an actor, and it shows in Harrison's balancing act of the imperious and the personal. Practically outnumbered and outgunned, Harrison's Caesar smoothly stares down the court of Ptolemy XIII and manages to come out on top with hardly a shrug.
This coolness is matched by Elizabeth Taylor's titular queen, and it's interesting to watch her play against Harrison (I could say her performance was Taylor-made, but I'm not that cruel). She instantly recognizes Harrison's Caesar as an intellectual strategist and initially comes to him on that level. Like Caesar, Taylor's Cleopatra also has ambitions, and seeing her with Harrison one can almost hear the wheels spinning behind those pretty eyes. Her performance makes one suspect that the reason the cobra is one of the enduring symbols of ancient Egypt is because so many of its more successful rulers possessed the conscience of reptiles. The fact that Cleopatra actually allows herself to become quite fond of Caesar says much about Taylor's talent for effortless nuance.
(Of course, as Gene Tierney, Audrey Hepburn and others could easily attest, Harrison wasn't the sort of man a woman could easily refuse.)
Taylor's channel certainly gets switched when Harrison is replaced by Richard Burton as Mark Antony. Pile on what sleaze you will about the whole "Liz & Dick" business, Burton's Antony is incredible. Mankiewicz depicts him as the brilliant military commander which he was reputed to be, but shows that as the character's sole strength. When Harrison's Caesar is dead we see Burton as a man crippled without the guiding influence of a man who was not only born for battle, but for politics as well. In almost an echo of the role he played in "The Robe", Burton's Antony is a man tortured by the presence and influence of a man he cannot help but acknowledge as superior in practically every other way. More and more he allows passion to pull him into despair; and, with no Caesar to back him up, the queen of Egypt becomes his only source of solace. Fire erupts between the irresistable force and the immovable object, and the entire second half of the film is a blazing display of two characters who feel their respective dreams falling into disaster, and who won't risk their relationship even if it leads to mutual destruction. Another reason I'd like to see the full six hour version of "Cleopatra" is to capture the less grandiose moments of the relationship between Burton and Taylor's characters which I suspect ended up on the cutting room floor just to satisfy bean counter mentality.
(And Taylor's penchant for nuance wasn't limited to her scenes with Harrison. Another acting high point for me in the film comes at a late moment, when a triumphant Octavian is delivering his terms to Cleopatra. Perhaps by accident she notices Octavian wearing the ring that Caesar gave to their son, and realizes that the child is dead. Taylor's reaction is exquisite in its restraint.)
(In considering the onscreen relationship between Cleopatra on one side, and both Caesar and Antony on the other, I feel Mankiewicz sort of stacked the deck in favor of Taylor. How else to explain the comparative dowdiness of all the other female principles in the cast? Gwen Watford and Jean Marsh were both lovely and talented women . . . but as Calpurnia and Octavia in "Cleopatra" they both looked like honor graduates of Mouseburger University. Small wonder their menfolk kept finding excuses to go to Egypt.)
Well, any film with a cast that also includes Hume Cronyn, Andrew Keir, Martin Landau, Roddy McDowall, John Hoyt and Caroll O'Connor will definitely hold my attention. Particular favorites include Hume Cronyn's Sosigenes (Egyptian scholar/advisor . . . and occasional subtle pimp . . . for Cleopatra), and Roddy McDowall's Octavian (speaking of people possessing the conscience of a reptile).
I also want to mention George Cole who plays Flavius: a mute servant to Caesar. Privy to his master's innermost (and potentially embarrassing) secrets, Cole and Harrison effectively play off on one another, with Cole's gestures providing an interesting punctuation to many of Harrison's lines.
Alex North provides one of his signature soundtracks for the film. Or perhaps too signature. I might be alone in this, but my ear occasionally picks up elements of North's "Spartacus" score in the music for "Cleopatra". But even repetitive Alex North is preferable to no Alex North at all.
But for all of the above, the bean counters ultimately gained the final triumph. And the fact that "Cleopatra" gained Oscars only for things such as costume design and set decoration shows where everyone's focus was. Perhaps unfairly. With all I've said . . . and perhaps bitched about more than I really intended to . . . I conclude that genuine Justice will not and cannot be honestly rendered on "Cleopatra" until we can finally see Joseph Mankiewicz's effort in full. Only then can the books finally be closed.