Elizabeth Taylor: a right royal pain in the asp

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

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.

'Cleopatra' is re-released in a digitally restored version in cinemas nationwide on 12 July

*This article appears in tomorrow's print edition of Radar Magazine

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
This year's Big Brother champion Helen Wood
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Full company in Ustinov's Studio's Bad Jews
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Harari Guido photographed Kate Bush over the course of 11 years
Music
Arts and Entertainment
Reviews have not been good for Jonathan Liebesman’s take on the much loved eighties cartoon
Film

A The film has amassed an estimated $28.7 million in its opening weekend

Arts and Entertainment
Untwitterably yours: Singer Morrissey has said he doesn't have a twitter account
Music

A statement was published on his fansite, True To You, following release of new album

Arts and Entertainment
Full throttle: Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Turturro in God's Pocket
film
Arts and Entertainment
Kylie Minogue is expected to return to Neighbours for thirtieth anniversary special
tv
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be Lonely Island's second Hollywood venture following their 2007 film Hot Rod
film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
    Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

    But could his predictions of war do the same?
    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

    Young at hort

    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

    Beyond a joke

    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

    A wild night out

    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

    It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
    Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

    Besiktas vs Arsenal

    Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

    The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
    Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

    Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

    Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment