Thursday, July 31, 2014


On June 12, 2013, the epic classic film CLEOPATRA celebrated a grand 50th anniversary. Because of this monumental landmark, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment released a special 50th Anniversary Edition on a two- disc, 251 minute version onto blu- ray. Upon my personal purchase and recent viewing of the full- scale behemoth, it was revealed to me that there was far more to the tale than what had been captured onto film. Discovering this and enveloping myself with research, I felt compelled to write about the stories within the story that transpired regarding Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and the dramatic behind- the- scenes production that made CLEOPATRA the talk of Hollywood in the early 1960’s. The story would wrap itself in its own Egyptian- like shroud of power, finances, poor decisions, lust and the near demise of the great powerhouse that is the 20th Century Fox studios.


Timeline: the late 1950’s in Hollywood still presented itself as the dream factory that churned out cinematic gold for the audiences in the dark. An overall number of major film studios were still flourishing from the lucrative returns that their films were bringing back home, however, that wasn’t the case for one studio: 20th Century Fox. Fox had been suffering from a string of costly productions and mediocre returns at the box office. This was bringing the studio’s finances down to an all- time low and made the top brass begin to question what or who was at fault for these appalling and fearful numbers. After the public availability of in- home entertainment, thanks to the introduction of the television set, America had become fixated with the little glowing box and soon became a major clinch in the lack of ticket sales at the box office, losing almost 40% of its previous patrons to TV. In the early years, film studios were actually in odds with television heads and were in constant bickering of dollars and bragging rights over the entertainment of the public. This form of action caused many film moguls to seriously consider their cinematic futures in deed.
Darryl F Zanuck
One such key player was co-founder and studio head of 20th Century Fox, Darryl F Zanuck, who abruptly decided to step down from his position and leave Hollywood all together in 1956 to pursue a career in Europe as an independent film maker. This hasty decision left the board at Fox concerned for its future… Zanuck had a handsome resume of successful hits under his belt, so who could possibly fill such prestigious shoes?
Spyros Skouras
Enter Spyros Skouras, a Greek immigrant who had previously been largely successful in the exhibition side of films, quickly moved up the ranks and eventually took over as President of Fox. Although coming on board with no real previous film experience, his keen ability of presentation as well as his professional relationship with Zanuck was enough to secure his position right at the top. His first order of business: to ‘green light’ a series of low- cost films that would perform extraordinarily well at the box office and help recover previous financial losses for the company. A task considered easier said than done!
Walter Wanger
Fox Producer Walter Wanger, who had a modest track record of successful films, was looking to remake the story of Cleopatra. The concept had been done twice, once through Fox in the silent classic 1917 with Theda Bara and again in Cecil B DeMille’s 1937 version with Claudette Colbert. Skouras handed Wanger an existing 10 page copy of the 1917 script and instructed him to re-shoot the film as a B- picture to turn a nice profit. The script, however, had no dialog because of its silent origins and had to request a rewriting for a new audience. Wanger would take on the project personally with a new re-write and commence the search for the ideal Cleopatra immediately!

Joan Collins' screen test

One can only imagine the buzz that went through Hollywood as Fox auditioned for the role of the lifetime for any actress! Female lead roles then, as they are now, were scarce and brought out anyone who felt they could audition and take on the task. The studio originally went with its list of contracted actresses that included Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida, Susan Hayward and Brigitte Bardot. Ideally,
Dorothy Dandridge
Dorothy Dandridge was aesthically the closest to the Queen of the Nile’s appearance due to her Nubian heritage, but Fox was looking for a star name for their production. A young Joan Collins even filmed several screen tests and eventually was cast as Cleopatra; however, she became unavailable after several production delays which inadvertently did not allow her to continue the shoot. Originally, Wagner considered Audrey Hepburn as a replacement; she was contracted with Paramount at the time, so he decided to pursue his original idea for the taking of the lead role by approaching a non- contracted actress instead: the person in question was Elizabeth Taylor.
Taylor signs CLEOPATRA contract
The year was 1959 and Taylor was wrapping up SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER as her last contracted film with MGM. Wanger knew that she would be free to elect her next project without studio entanglements and offered her the role of a lifetime! Oddly enough, Taylor’s reaction was in the form of a laugh, believing that her portrayal of the Nile goddess was ludicrous. She, nonetheless, agreed to take the role… with an unheard of guaranteed salary of one million dollars! After signing the contract, Elizabeth Taylor became the very first actress to ever receive such an astronomical fee for a major motion picture. The studios had, as they would soon discover, signed on for more than they paid for with the likes of Ms. Taylor. Stipulations in the contract stated that a $50,000 a week amount would be paid if the production would go past the agreed 16 weeks as well as a 10% return of the box office’s grosses. Details of production and returns will be discussed in the latter part of the article, but Taylor’s final financial draw would tally up to the sum of $7 million dollars. This would configure to approximately $51 million by today’s standards. 
Peter Finch as Caesar

Aside from finally getting the studio to agree to the first- ever one million dollar salary, Taylor would begin requesting script changes as well. Skouras and Wanger, however, had bigger fish to fry… and fast. Skouras was quickly realizing that the original concept of a modest $2 million production was not going to happen. The budget had now ballooned into a hefty $5 million. Now that their actress of choice had been secured, the search for casting Caesar and Antony would become the new line of business. Marlon Brando was considered for the role of Antony, but had been obligated to film MUTANY ON THE BOUNTY. Actors Peter Finch and Peter O’Toole were also considered for the role.
Stephen Boyd as Antony
Stephen Boyd, who was best known as Messala in the film BEN- HUR, was ultimately casted as Mark Antony. For the part of Julius Caesar, Skouras wanted Cary Grant… Taylor wanted Rex Harrison and the studio settled for Peter Finch instead, who had auditioned for Antony in the first place.
As casting had commenced, so had the actual production of the film began as well. Art Directors, Costume designers and Set coordinators were already busy at work on the chosen location of the infamous Pinewood Studios in London.  The largest of its kind in England, the studios would later be known as the 007 set for mostly every James Bond film made as well as director George Lucas’ use for his original STAR WARS trilogy. Next on the list would be the daunting task of selecting the appropriate Director for this high- profiled and costly production.
Director Rouben Mamoulian
Producer Walter Wanger’s original choice for director was none other than Alfred Hitchcock. Although an accomplished and respected director, the selection did appear odd and evidently was passed by “Hitch” to pursue his next project instead, THE BIRDS. It was Skouras and fellow Fox studio head Buddy Adler who secured Rouben Mamoulian as their choice.  Mamoulian had an impressive directorial resume with films like DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1931), Tyrone Powers’ THE MARK OF ZORRO (1940) and BLOOD AND SAND (1941). Although extensive, Mamoulian wasn’t necessarily brought in for his skills, since his track record only reflected modest films. No, the primary decision was based on his ability to work well with temperamental actresses and extract their best performances without rants and conflicts. Word had spread that Taylor had become such an actress and needed the strong hand of authority to direct and keep the budget in its rightful place. Another factor that Fox had to consider upon contract agreements was the harsh realizations that Taylor had a history of medical conditions. These issues had gotten to a point in her life that they were infamous for affecting previous productions in creating delays.
Art Director John DeCuir
Time marched onto the summer of 1960 and general photography was about to commence in London. A cast had been assembled along with a massive set construction project spearheaded by art director John DeCuir, who had won an Academy Award for his work on THE KING AND I (1956). One of the largest and impressive set pieces built was the ancient Egyptian port of Alexandria.
The final set included four 52- foot- high statues which covered 20 acres with a staggering cost of over $600 thousand. The project not only requested the use of every carpenter, painter and builder available… it also put a huge dent in supply and building products throughout the entire country.
Visible tracheotomy scar
It would seem as if things were looking to move forward in a steady pace, until Taylor’s lingering illness would worsen due to the damp weather conditions of London. Her health finally escalated to a case of double pneumonia and, on March 4th 1961, led into slipping into a life- threatening coma. Doctors had to work swiftly and performed an emergency tracheotomy to keep her breathing. The visible scar from the incision at the base of her throat is visible throughout the finished film. Taylor was rushed back to the United States for immediate rest and recuperation; this period spanned the length of six months in which production was also shut down until photography could commence again. During the time, rumors had already flown across the pond that Elizabeth Taylor was dead! Those were exactly the stories the press needed to run with before even gathering factual information. The execs at Fox were probably more panicked than mournful with their financial investment being pronounced dead. Upon Taylor’s recovery, she happen to read her own obituaries and jokingly said, “they were the best reviews I’d ever gotten.”
Fox took careful assessment of its costly production with many changes occurring during Taylor’s hiatus. For one, director Rouben Mamoulian eventually resigned after his committed two years to the project, leaving Fox with a production that already ran up to $7 million. At the end of it all, Mamoulian’s direction presented Fox with only 10 minutes of usable footage. Taylor suggested her SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER director to take the helm.
Directing Taylor (l) Joseph Mankiewicz (r)
Enter Joseph Mankiewicz. His flair for presenting classic historical epics was present in 1953’s JULIUS CAESAR and it was then decided that he would be hired on to direct CLEOPATRA. Upon his arrival, Mankiewicz read the Mamoulian script and felt it lacked of excitement and drama. Chewing off more than he bargained for, over- night re-writes of the script were occurring immediately. As for the rest of the cast, both Finch and Boyd also dropped out of the film due to prior commitments and extensive waiting periods for Taylor’s recuperation. Upon extensive meetings with Fox execs, producers and a suggestion or two from Ms. Taylor herself, the role of Julius Caesar would ultimately befall actor Rex Harrison.
Burton (l) and Harrison (r)
Harrison had primary been known, at the time, for his theatre work and was suggested to play Caesar by Taylor herself. The next major casting decision fell upon who would play Mark Antony. A choice made that had been originally rejected by Taylor herself, would be one that would linger into her personal and professional career and help cause one of the biggest scandals in Hollywood history. Enter Richard Burton. The final casting was still considered incomplete and the Fox board was now squeezing Skouras for a release date. Knowing that the previous production had been scrapped with no useable footage, the showman that was Skouras, promised that CLEOPATRA would be the greatest epic ever filmed. The execs bought it and re-shooting was ready to proceed… yet again.
The Alexandria set as it appeared at Pinewood Studios
One of the main reasons that none of the previous footage could be used was due to the gloomy, cloudy and misty conditions of jolly ol’ England that were captured on film. Most outdoor shots showed unavoidably murky backgrounds… hardly the backdrop required to recreate the desert landscape of Alexandria. In 21st century sense of filmmaking, a director can now merely request that a large portion of an exotic or expensive set be designed by way of a computer. This was obviously not the case in 1960. So, poor weather and the consideration of Elizabeth Taylor’s health, forced the production to move to the warmer climate of Italy. Fox was also hoping to cut production costs with the Italian six- day work week as well.
Art director John DeCuir had to tear- down the costly and labor- intensive sets build at the Pinewood Studios before leaving London. The most disappointing outcome was that not one frame of production film was kept in the final cut. No, DeCuir would have to rebuild the entire and extensive sets again in Italy. Mankiewicz dubbed DeCuir “the city planner” with the second building of the Roman Forum, which was said to have had been three times larger than the real one. The original ruins lay but only a few miles away from the set. As were the results during the London production, Italy also quickly exhausted its building materials and laborers… so much so that both were requested by nearby countries to help complete construction.
Cleopatra arrival into Rome
As production moved on, one of the most elaborate and breathtaking sequences was the arrival of Cleopatra to Rome for the first time. The scene required a cavalcade of charioteers, archers, dancers, jugglers, elephants and various other entertaining sights that would precede Cleopatra returning to Caesar, having borne his son in Egypt, by riding through the Roman Arch of Titus. Art director DeCuir was told to spare no expense in recreating the grand entrance. Cleopatra and son would ride in atop a Sphinx, pulled by hundreds of Nubian slaves. The Sphinx was to have had the appearance of black marble, so it was constructed out of fiberglass and plaster and was attached to a wood and steel frame and measured 35 feet tall and 70 feet long. During the actual filming, nearly 6,000 extras were hired to cheer Cleopatra’s arrival… when cameras rolled, however, the exuberant crowd instead cheered, “Liz! Liz! Liz!”

The full- sized barge
Just as elaborate and expensive as was the arrival into Rome, another costly piece would be the construction of Cleopatra’s barge upon its arrival at Tarsus. The massive sailing vessel was built to actual size with a price tag of $277 thousand. At the end, an estimated 79 sets were constructed.
Cleopatra's "gold" costume
Sets were not the only expensive items necessary in the story telling. Costumes took an extensive bite out of the budget as well. The Costume Designing team of Irene Sharaff, Vittorio Nino Novarse and Rene created over 20,000 different costumes for the actors and extras. The armies of extras required 8,000 pairs of shoes. And then, there was Elizabeth Taylor who would have a staggering 65 costume changes, including a dress made of 24-carat gold cloth. Her wardrobe tallied up to $194,800 in costs.
The iconic Cleopatra image would create a huge impact of fashion and make-up trends of the early 1960’s. A 1962 Revlon commercial featured the Cleopatra look by introducing the “Sphinx Eyes” appearance. Other items like snake rings and arm cuffs and long maxi dresses would also be part of all the rage.
Although the production side was extensive, massive and expensive… we still haven’t touched on the real drama that could have single- handedly sunk the entire production. For now the introduction of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton will be made and the real drama of this turbulent saga could begin!
In the summer of 1961, after production had moved to the warmer climates of Italy, Taylor had now returned to the set after her six- month medical absence. The time would come for Taylor to work opposite the newly hired actor who was replacing Stephen Boyd’s Mark Antony, that actor was Richard Burton.
Burton’s career, at the time, was primarily that of the stage. He had just won a Tony as King Arthur in CAMELOT. Fox actually bought out his contract in New York and contracted him with a salary of $300 thousand. This would be an ideal opportunity for Burton, being that this was the biggest film he had ever done and the chance to film on location in Rome. Despite being married for 12 years, he had a reputation of romancing his leading ladies. Burton didn’t care much for Taylor’s reputation and had shared his feelings about her well before he even stepped foot on the set. Taylor didn’t know much about him, other than his womanizing behavior and kept to her guard since she had just recently married singer Eddie Fisher… a scandal all its own since he had been married to actress Debbie Reynolds when they were dating. Burton also carried the reputation of drinking.  The latter was discovered quickly as Burton arrived to work the day before filming was to begin: drunk. Hardly able to stand as he staggered around aimlessly, it was Taylor who took him and offered him coffee and a place to pull himself together. The first impression was hardly impressive, but her image of him prior to his arrival was that of arrogance and a bloated ego. Taylor soon found out for herself that he was quite charming. The first day of filming was now here and both actors took the scene. The results were ‘electrifying’, as told by on- lookers and crew. The chemistry was definitely present and both actors began living the roles of helpless lovers.
It was only a matter of weeks when the media ran with the rumored stories reporting everything from public affection, photographing the couple on private yacht excursions and anything else they could run with. As the relationship intensified, the affair became the kind of fodder that appeared everywhere from mainstream magazines to prime- time TV comedy sketches. The type of controversy created in its time was probably considered far worse than anything we might see or hear in present day. For one, actors and studios alike paid big money to publicists and photographers to help create a certain look and likable personality for the fans to relate to. The reputation of such “stars” were the fuelling basis to every fan base… they could make or break you. Taylor’s reputation was severely on the line when she was considered a ‘home wrecker’ in the marriage of Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, both considered major stars in their own rights. Her coma and near- death experience actually gained the fans’ sympathies and her dignity was restored. Reports of the affair affected Taylor on a personal level. She was actually denounced by the Vatican and on the floor of the United States congress, accused of just not being irresponsible, but immoral as well.
It seem as if the board and executives at Fox were deeply concerned that the Taylor- Burton rumors would destroy the heavily- invested project. The money would be lost with nothing to show for it. The Fox PR department thought very differently, however. The most heated topic could actually be used to draw attention to the film and make people come out to see what was translating onto the screen. The end of production and the release of the film would be the final proof as to whether or not the investment was worth it.
When the film finally wrapped, Fox had ended up spending over $30 million (the amount translates to approximately $300 million by today’s costs) and 96 hours’ worth of film shot spanning 400 days. Because of the extensive amount of film, director Joseph Mankiewicz considered two separate films in regards to the two acts: CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA and ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA. The studios quickly realized that they wouldn’t be able to capitalize on the hot publicity and that paying audiences would not be interested in the first film and would be left clawing to see the drama between Taylor and Burton, which wouldn’t be seen until the release of the second chapter. Fox asked Mankiewicz to condense both proposed films into one giant epic.
The first cut of CLEOPATRA was submitted at a running time of six hours long. After much editing, the film finally made its premiere. Opening in New York on June 11, 1963, the cut had slimmed down to 4 hours and 3 minutes, requiring 49 pages of reshoots to make sense of the cut. A week later, it was reduced to 3 hours and 42 minutes. The 50th Anniversary blu- ray release clocks in at 4 hours and 11 minutes.
The critics’ were discouraging, but Fox’s PR team came through by peeking the general audiences’ interests. The film grossed over $26 million, making it one of the highest grossing films of 1963. Despite the numbers, it still wasn’t enough to recoup the money invested by Fox. Producer Walter Wanger blamed the executive board and the lack of a completed script and poor production planning for its failure. The film had reportedly finally broke even in 1973 to which Fox “closed the books” to keep any and all profits a secret thereafter.
Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton married on March 14, 1964 and would work together on 11 more films including WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? For which Taylor would win her second Academy Award. The love- hate relationship caused a divorce in 1974, only for the couple to remarry again in 1975 and redivorce in 1976. It was reported that their interchanges lasted until Burton’s death in 1984.
CLEOPATRA was recognized on Academy Award night in 1964. The film won in the categories of Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Visual Effects as well as Best Art Direction. Ten people, seven Art Directors and 3 Set Decorators, were awarded the Best Art Direction award. It remains the largest number of people sharing a single award in an annual category. The other nominations were: Best Picture, Best Actor (Rex Harrison), Best Editing, Best Score and Best Sound.

JER standing in front of Darryl Zanuck's house in Palm Springs
Considered a huge gamble, did CLEOPATRA live up to the expectations of those involved? Was it truly the Greatest Epic Of All Time? I guess it really does boil down to the individual who watches this film. Some can appreciate the complexity and the detail in the production as well as appreciate and admire both direction and acting. While there are those who will feel the film is lengthy, even bloated, a large spectacle of nothing with lots of money blown on a thin storyline and drawn out to incoherent viewing. Still, it must be scrutinized and looked upon with a certain kind of openness to really get the full feel of the project. I close this up with a final quote from director Joseph Mankiewicz as he referred CLEOPATRA as “the toughest three pictures I ever made.”

What are your thoughts, readers? A spectacular epic or a spectacular flop? Share your thoughts on the epic films of today and yesterday for viewing and share your feelings right here! All comments will be replied to. I thank you for visiting and I do hope you will join me next month as I post a new topic entry on Thursday August 28th, 2014.