For Cleopatra, the Backstory Is the Unrivaled Story

CLEOPATRA 2Guest blogger John Greanias writes:

Never has there been a storyline as robust as Cleopatra. The backstory, that is! The 1963 movie received nine Oscar nominations, but garnered mixed reviews from film critics. However, the reason movie fans rushed to theaters to see Cleopatra was not simply to view a movie, but instead to see the phenomenon that had been filling gossip columns for more than a year. 

No film production has ever rivaled Cleopatra for publicizing Hollywood culture. The unrivaled backstory has it all! It was the most expensive movie ever filmed prior to 1963, almost bankrupting 20th Century-Fox. The most alluring actress in the world, Elizabeth Taylor, earned the highest salary ever awarded to an actress, $1,000,000. More importantly, she earned the affections of co-star Richard Burton. Both Burton and Taylor were married at the time, making their public affair all the more gossip-worthy. To add to the drama, Taylor suffered a serious illness during the filming and surgery was required to save her life. 

The original director, Rouben Mamoulian, was fired after filming commenced andwas replaced with Joseph L. Mankiewicz. After filming was completed, Mankiewicz was fired and then rehired when it became clear that no other person would be able to edit the footage into a theater-worthy movie. Rex Harrison, who played Julius Caesar, was the only actor who received an Oscar nomination for a performance on the screen. We know, however, that the screen is not where the real action occurred.

The director’s cut of Cleopatra is more than five hours in length. Much shorter versions are available. However, the elaborate sets, the Oscar winning costumes, and the outstanding cast make the director’s cut the clear choice for an unbeatable film experience.

California-based blogger John Greanias regularly shares his love of classic cinema at his John Greanias Film Review site.  

  • Jeffry Heise

    Sadly, we will never get to see the “director’s cut” of this film unless the sound for many of the scenes is found.

  • Gord Jackson

    I have never forgotten my mother’s response after seeing CLEOPATRA – “It died with Rex Harrison’s Julius Caesar.”

  • Mike in Oz (down under)

    I was unaware that the 5 hour cut was still in existence- minus the sound elements or otherwise. Burton felt his best scenes wound up on the cutting room floor in the 4-hour cut. The cast members on the dvd commentary seemed to believe that a full version was somewhere but in great need of restoration work. The documentary on the making of the movie is one of the bes I’ve seen. Fascinating. Would love to see Finlay Currie’s scenes. All that is left of his “performance” is his corpse being thrown over the fence of Cleopatra’s Rome dwelling. (Guessing that was a stunt man and not Mr Currie). Marina Berti’s pe4rformance is also completely gone.

    • Laurence Almand

      Probably was a stunt man. Actors cannot do their own stunts because of insurance reasons. Most insurance companies prohibit actors from doing anything dangerous, despite what you read in the actor’s publicity.

    • moo moo

      I loved Cleopatra, and I adore Elizabeth Taylor, she was/is a consummate actress and a real Hollywood legend, I hope some day the director’s cut is made available on DVD I would love to watch it please stop trashing Miss Taylor.

  • Carolyn Ferrante

    Oh, how I miss those torrid but not-for-publicity-only backstage love affairs! Elizabeth and Richard truly loved each other. Of course, the sentiment was kept alive by the passion. Toward the last years of her life, Elizabeth said that when she died, she and (the late) Richard would marry once more.

    • Laurence Almand

      Taylor also said that Mike Todd was the great love of her life. Also, Taylor converted to Judaism to please Todd, and was married to Jewish Eddie. Since Jews don’t believe in the afterlife, how could she be reunited with anyone after death? Perhaps Taylor had a bit too much to drink – as usual – when she made the remark.

      • Carolyn Ferrante

        Elizabeth Taylor was a volatile woman! I believe that Richard Burton was her match and knocked her off her feet. She may not have been actively involved with Judaism by the time she and Burton became inseparable. I believe she was sincere when she made that prediction in the afterlife. Makes sense to me!

      • Wayne P.

        Actually, Judaism does profess a strong belief in an afterlife, as this excerpt from Wikipedia regarding the “World to Come” attests:

        “HaOlam HaBa, or world to come, is an important part of Jewish eschatology, although Judaism concentrates on the importance of HaOlam HaZeh (“this world”). The afterlife is known as Olam haBa, Gan Eden (the Heavenly Garden of Eden) and Gehinom (Purgatory). According to the Talmud, any non-Jew who lives according to the Seven Laws of Noah is regarded as a Ger toshav (righteous gentile), and is assured of a place in the world to come, the final reward of the righteous.”

        Strict Jewish believers (other than Messianic Jews) do seem to place a greater emphasis on their life here and now in this world, however. Since they are still waiting for the first coming of the Messiah and not His second and final, as Christians decidely are, that view might appear to make sense to them; and perhaps, was the basis for that part of your remarks, although I only offer this reply by way of information for the sake of accuracy in this context!

        • Laurence Almand

          Wayne – Thanx for the clarification. Since I’m not Jewish I don’t know the details of Jewish belief. However, in the past several of my Jewish acquaintances stated their disbelief in the afterlife, so that was my impression.

      • Carolyn Ferrante

        Laurence — …because in “heaven” there aren’t any religions!

  • Chuck

    I remember an interview with Rex Harrison after his nomination- he said he was the only one who had time to practice his lines (he might not have said it but he should have).

    • Laurence Almand

      Judging from the performances, I guess Harrison was right – if he did say that.

  • LadyFanshawe

    JG forgets to mention the main reason that this torrid affair (the pix on the boat, etc.) was so scandalous. Elizabeth had just recently stolen her then-current husband, Eddie Fisher, from her “dearest” friend, Debbie Reynolds. Eddie had been consoling Miss Taylor after the sudden loss of prior husband, Mike Todd, in a plane crash. I couldn’t wait to get my copy of “Photoplay” to see what happened next!

  • williamsommerwerck

    It might be possible to make a fascinating, attention-grabbing five-hour film about Cleopatra — but this isn’t it. Mankiewicz’s script is the main problem — it’s windy and boring.

    Elizabeth Taylor’s performance doesn’t help. In Shaw’s “Caesar and Cleopatra”, Julius Caesar warns Cleopatra that she acts like a little spitfire, rather than a queen. That’s how Taylor plays the part. She never for a second convinces us she’s the queen of Egypt and a skillful politician.

    • Bruce Reber

      I agree with you on everything, except maybe the first part – IMO it is NOT possible to make a 5-hour movie (fascinating, attention-grabbing or otherwise) about Cleopatra, or anyone or anything else for that matter. Maybe attention spans were longer in 1963, but a 5+ hour Cleopatra or any other movie just wouldn’t make it today. Anyway, it’s on my list of movies I’ll never watch again, and that’s exactly where it’s staying, despite the numerous efforts of other classic movie fans to convince me otherwise. Mr. G is right about one thing – the drama going on behind the scenes of Cleopatra was way better than what ended up on the screen!

  • Joseph23006

    ‘Five hours’ of wallow and trite dialogue, at least the costumes, or lack of, made it interesting. Give me C. B.s version with Claudette Colbert, Warren William, and that new guy, Henry Wilcoxon.

  • Laurence Almand

    The 1963 version of Cleo was a long, drawn-out bore. Joseph Mankiewicz was a verbose writer who also worked on ALL ABOUT EVE. EVE’s dialogue was windy but amusing. Cleo’s was just flat and dull. Taylor/Burton’s passion did not translate to the screen. Most of their scenes are wooden. Burton acted like he was reading his dialogue off a teleprompter (maybe he was). At any rate, this 1963 version of Cleo was a chaotic mess from start to finish, a classic example of Hollywood bad management.

    • Bruce Reber

      I commented in another post that everybody connected in any way with the production of Cleopatra should have made a collective apology to movie-goers everywhere for forcing them to pay good money to see this “epic” disaster. And also a big “We’re sorry!” to TC Fox for nearly bankrupting them.

    • williamsommerwerck

      Mankiewicz’s biography is aptly titled “Pictures Will Talk” (a reference to “People Will Talk”). Mankiewicz was a fine director and a superb writer-of-dialog. How he failed to produce a terse, engaging script seems beyond understanding.

  • Jan

    I have to agree with the majority – Cleo was a bore at 3 hours, I cannot imagine sitting through another 2. I really don’t know what the problem was but, even with having some of the greatest actors of their times, they might as well have used puppets. It might have actually been better that way.

    • Bruce Reber

      I’ve expressed my opinions re: Cleopatra in this and other posts – nice to see a few others feel as I do. I love your idea with the puppets – they certainly would have been more interesting to watch than the actual actors. Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Rex Harrison, et al – one of the biggest wastes of talent in movie history!

      • williamsommerwerck

        Go to Amazon and search for “Puppet on a Stick”.

        How would you assign them to Taylor, Burton, and Harrison?

  • Daisy

    The movie wasn’t a total disaster, but it was much too long, and I never could stand Burton & Taylor, in any case.

  • wade

    Apparently when Taylor was offered the part She replied she would only do it if they paid her a million dollars thinking they wouldn’t pay it . Surprizing her, they did pay it and the rest is history

  • Carolyn Ferrante

    Ah, I remember it well! Not the movie; I never went to see it…but the red-hot romance between Elizabeth (don’t call her Liz!) and Richard. They were a great team, on screen and off. I miss them both very much. I hope they were wed again in heaven, as Elizabeth said would happen.

  • Karen Halstroem

    Much shorter – and funnier is ‘Carry On Cleo’, one of the British series of ‘Carry On’ comedies and a send-up of the Taylor – Burton epic. I wondered at the production values until I found out that the rather spectacular breastplate worn by the comedian Sid James as ‘Mark Antony’ was actually that also worn by Burton!