Cleopatra (Joseph L. Mankiewicz) 1963 (REVISITED)

Production Budget: around $44 million
Worldwide Earnings: $62 million
Subsequent Earnings: $26 million

$44 million is of course a modest estimate using 1963 dollars.  In today’s economy it would be at the very least $300 million and maybe more.  Fox was going through a tough transitional period.  Television was lowering ticket sales and Fox did not have much in the way of a big name production to really sell for the next year.  Other production companies had the Ten Commandments, Spartacus, and Ben Hur and Fox decided to follow the trend and remake their 30’s production of Cleopatra.  Cleopatra was supposed to be a million dollar costume drama shot on the Fox backlot.  One of the producers had the brainstorm that the ONLY woman who could play the title role was Elizabeth Taylor although many warned him Taylor was prone to health problems and a tad temperamental.  It is said Taylor jokingly offered to do the movie for a million dollars but to her surprise Fox seriously considered it.  In the end, she agreed to do it for about $750,000 dollars, fees if the movie ran over on time, nad the movie had to be shot in a certain wide screen format which gave a profit to her husband.

Fox had been producing elaborate sets for the movie on their backlot but when Taylor signed on the budget ballooned and to justify the new costs decided to make Cleopatra a big budget epic.  Rouben Mamoulian (a director with a rather mediocre track record) was brought in and moved the production to England for shooting (their first choice Mankiewicz was busy shooting The Longest Day).  Not to mention that England looks nothing like Italy and the weather was detrimental to shooting the outdoor scenes but Mamoulian thought England would be a cheaper option.  Of the time Taylor was on set she was demanding and a total diva.  The rest of the time she was sick: very sick.  Taylor had complications due to an infected tooth and later terrible bouts of pneumonia in which she technically died four times.  Production ground to a halt and the sets were being destroyed by the terrible weather.  Mamoulian was scrapped and Mankiewicz was brought in to save their production.

All of the sets and footage was scrapped and the production was moved to Rome.  Mankiewicz was in a mad blitz to rewrite the script which was causing it to be even more expensive (because it is more economical to have things planned out and to shoot scenes out of order).  Mankiewicz was taking shots so he could work day and night and got so ill working around the clock he had to be carried to the set on a stretcher.  The crew did not help as they were stealing equipment and would fraud Fox out of money by punching in workers and then leaving for the day.  Taylor and Burton were a whole other issue.  Both actors were married but that didn’t stop them from having a public affair.  This caused a very obvious embarrassment for both spouses but became THE tabloid discussion for the entire production.  At one point, Mankiewicz had over 26 hours of usable footage.  It was his plan to release the movie as two three hour movies Ceasar and Cleopatra and Anthony and Cleopatra.

Fox fired him and hired Zanuck to edit it into one movie.  The problem was the movie had no official shooting script and so Zanuck had hours of footage but no plan to make it into a coherent narrative.  Mankiewicz was re-hired with a raise to edit the film.  Mankiewicz made a four hour epic of all the footage.  The hype was on as this was the most expensive movie ever but the controversy of the Taylor Burton relationship.  The movie did alright (although not enough to cover its enormous costs) at the box office and won four Academy Awards.  The movie later made a minor profit by the television and rental rights.  Thanks to the GreatBadir and the book Fiasco for all the info which I stole.

Is it any good?  Okay the reason I revisited it is because I finally got to see it.  If I were to judge the movie based on the first half I would say it is actually not bad.  It is just a retelling of the Julius Ceasar story we all know and it works rather well.  But then I see I have another two hours to go and I let out a big sigh.  Really the biggest problem with the movie is that it doesn’t have to be four hours long.  It could be a quick three hour movie.  A lot of the extraneous footage it seems is to justify the expenses.  Its like “We spent $300 million and by God you are going to see the result!”  We have 10 minute sequences where we see Cleopatra arriving in Rome on a giant Sphinx or she comes in on a big boat or we get extended sequences of armies approaching etc etc.  You can have those scenes and you can show all that extravagance but we don’t need to see it for ten minutes.  There are also plot cul de sacs and scenes that are just pointless character blathering.  Cleopatra is gorgeous but for 300 million could I expect anything less?  My favorite acting performances oddly enough were not by the leads but by Rex Harrison and Roddy MacDowell.  I absolutely loathed the performance by Richard Burton.  He is an incredible overactor and he always gives the same spoiled man/boy performance.  Both Taylor and Burton get the longest death scenes ever (they put Trinity’s death scene to shame) that just made me roll my eyes.  Cleopatra is an alright movie overall but could easily lose an hour off the running time and is nowhere near sword and sandal epics like Ben Hur and Spartacus.  I still don’t recommend it.


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