Clicking my way through the movie channels yesterday evening, I came across that once infamous and timelessly fatuous 1963 cinematic epic, Cleopatra. I can’t remember the last time I watched it on television, and I’m not sure I’ve ever sat through the whole thing.
I don’t think I ever saw it in a theatre when it was first released. More than a few did; Cleopatra, I’ve read, was the box office hit of 1963 with receipts of $26 million. Even that still wasn’t enough to recover production costs of $44 million, a then stratospheric figure that nearly bankrupted the studio, Twentieth Century Fox. (The company recovered the following year with the release of The Sound of Music).
Last night, I switched it off after half an hour, that being more than enough time to confirm my earlier critical recollections.
Much about Cleopatra is simply awful.
One might start with the pedestrian directing by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, previously regarded by some as one of Hollywood’s more sophisticated filmmakers (All About Eve and The Barefoot Contessa supposedly testify to his earlier reputation). Most scenes are so static as to suggest that Joe might have been directing by telephone. Even more stilted is the dialogue, which comes out of the “Let all that I have said be properly recorded” school of blockbuster-writing. The excuse is that Joe wrote many of the scenes the night before shooting them. Perhaps he did direct by telephone.
The acting by the male principals is no better. It is vapid, almost distracted, as if the actors would rather have been somewhere else. That may possibly be the case. Rex Harrison as Caesar is more or less Henry Higgins in a toga. Richard Burton does much sneering and random shouting, an acting style which he patented in an earlier Roman epic, The Robe.
Elizabeth Taylor’s performance, in the role of a supposedly exotic seductress, is not merely passionless but sexless. She didn’t want the part, apparently, until Fox executives, apparently bent on financial self-destruction, coughed up a record fee of one million dollars. Liz’s reluctance is evident. In most scenes she is seen either lounging coquettishly (and rather plumply) on couch or bed, or parading airily around the garish sets (this Caesar’s Palace is more Las Vegas than ancient Rome) in a variety of diaphanous chiffon robes, like a society hostess in an expensive health spa.
If Cleopatra produced anything by way of lasting value it was in provoking the shortest and perhaps the most telling film review of all time. Written, almost needless to say, by the late Pauline Kael, the undisputed doyenne of film critic during the eighties and nineties, it was confined to a single sentence: “Oh, go and see it anyway.”