1963 / Best Actor / Best Picture

Film #228: Cleopatra (1963)

Continuing on from the 1950s section of the blog, I am now going to pick up on the career on Elizabeth Taylor and specifically her partnership with on/off lover Richard Burton. Taylor’s relationship with Burton is almost as famous as her acting career and is perfectly represented through the next two posts.

The first of these is quite infamous in itself mainly as it took years to make, almost bankrupt a studio and elicited a negative reaction from its lead actress. That film was Cleopatra an epic that took three years to shoot and whose location had to be moved after Taylor, who ultimately earned a fee of $7 million for her appearance, had had emergency surgery and claimed that the British weather wouldn’t help her healing process so all the sets had to be rebuilt in Italy. There were also issues on the direction front as original director Rouben Mamoulain was replaced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz who envisaged his film as a six hour epic. The film was edited down to three hours and then lengthened back to four for the DVD release, which I watched, which separated the film into two very distinct segments. The first told the story of the Egyptian Queen’s meeting with Julius Caesar, played by Rex Harrison, who he later marries and has a son with however as we know Caesar’s closest allies were planning to kill him off. After Caesar’s death his closest ally Anthony, played by Richard Burton, heads over to Egypt and ends up having it off with Cleopatra himself however he then has to battle Caesar’s nephew who has been named his heir. As the second half of the film goes on the relationship between deteriorates as they realise that their allies are being killed off. By the end of the film there has been plenty of deaths, fires and costumes however the stories off-screen have somewhat eclipsed what was happening on screen.

Watching the film for the first time I found it to be visually spectacular and deserving of its awards for costume design and special effects, but maybe not for cinematography, and I did find the battle scenes the most stimulating. I also thought Liz Taylor improved as the film went on, perhaps because she was on the mend, really maturing during the second half of the film during Cleopatra’s scenes with Anthony. However at the same time I personally believed the first two hours of the film were very slow and Taylor had very little chemistry with Rex Harrison meanwhile some of the dialogue was just laughable. Cleopatra is still in the history books as one of the most expensive films of all time and famously almost bankrupted Fox who eventually clawed back the money after the VHS and DVD releases. Taylor meanwhile wasn’t too keen when she saw the film at the London premiere as she actually threw up however it wasn’t all bad as she met her next husband in Richard Burton. The two were both married at the time they began their affair on the set of Cleopatra and after they married they began to star in a number of films together but more on that in the next post.


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