Cleopatra (1963) Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz

I never understood the attraction Elizabeth Taylor had for Richard Burton. Cleopatra is the movie where their on/off relationship kicked into gear. I guess I never really got Burton. Overacting, beer gutted, a bloated looking man. At this time you would think Liz could have had anyone.

I was fascinated to watch Cleopatra again because the stories of its extravagant, studio bankrupting production are legendary. The story normally ends up that with all the millions spent the film is not very good. That's actually not true. Yes, it's overlong, but it stands up pretty well after all these years of neglect. It's definitely not the film to top all films as the studio claimed. The beginning of the end of the old Hollywood studio system starts here. Despite all these expectations and unreasonable claims, Cleopatra works.

The story of Egyptian Queen Cleopatra (Taylor) and her doomed Roman lovers, Emperor Ceasar (Rex Harrison) and his protégé Mark Antony (Burton) is as good looking as any picture out there. The passage of time has been good to the lavish sets, wonderful costumes and color cinematography. So, some of the the money on show was well spent. It's a wordy picture with a lot of interiors that gives it a theatrical feel rather than creating a cinematic landmark. The acting is mostly excellent though of the stiff 40's variety. It must have felt out of date at the time of the films release to see actors recite their lines like this.

Still, stiffness is replaced by intensity and seriousness, and the main draw, Taylor's cleavage. In a variety of amazingly colored costumes the Taylor cleavage is displayed at every given opportunity. Taylor even has a full naked body massage and is bathed in milk. This is a sexed-up Cleopatra, and if there is nothing as jaw-dropping in Taylor's sexiness as the beach scene from Suddenly Last Summer, this certainly gives Cleopatra the required 60's groove the stiff script does its best to kill. Taylor is the thing to watch here.

From my very early memories of being bored with this film as a child, I really enjoyed it as an adult.
Not in the league of Kubrick's Spartacus,  this is still more watchable than say, Gladiator,  and far sexier.

Before we spent 3 nights watching Cleopatra, we had spent many nights watching the extras. We knew of the sprawling budget, Taylor's one million deal, her pneumonia, the love affair, the many countries used as locations, and we got a sense that somehow this film was a failure.

When we got to the movie, it seemed entertaining enough: there was the huge scale of the visuals, the colors and light, and the leading actors, especially Liz Taylor as Cleopatra. But were we watching a story about history and the fascinating characters who ruled Egypt and Rome for some time? Or were we watching a massive Hollywood machine slowly and clumsily churning ahead? Unfortunately, as our evenings with Cleopatra added on, I'm inclined to see it as the latter. I was no longer interested in the narrative, its repetitions and interpretations.

During the film there was much traveling between Egypt and Rome, but the movie was always cut from one static position to the other, thus never creating a natural flow and tension which follows from movement between places.

In this version of events, Cleopatra ruled with cleavage and was a kind of love addict. This view of her motivation is of course a necessary Hollywood interpretation, but I would be more fascinated to see her character as a purely power greedy ruler without the weakness for love. This would be upsetting for 20th century portrayals of women. Historically speaking, the notion of romantic one-on-one love did not exist in the world of Cleopatra.

The Egyptian dresses á la 1950s, which Liz Taylor sports courageously all through the four hours, seem always to be busting open while digging into her abdomen and lungs. I sympathize with the pain Taylor is going through here. The least she could get for her troubles was an alcoholic Richard Burton to nurse and love her in a rugged way.


  1. I ran across y'all's blog when I did a Google search for fan views of 'Cleopatra'. I'm only about 2/3rds the way thru the film and couldn't agree more! It's less like Taylor and Burton are acting and more like they're playing their larger-than-life "Liz & Dick" personas. At least poor Mankiewicz got paid $3 mill to ruin his reputation as a director. Great commentary, guys!


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