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Cleopatra Movie Review

taylor burton caesar antony

1963 – Joseph L. Mankiewicz –

Two and a half years in the making, the most expensively made movie to date (1963), this is the picture that nearly bankrupted Fox studios while creating international headlines. Unfortunately, the story, either on-screen or off, has no fairy-tale ending. Taylor commanded the unheard-of sum of one million dollars to make the film, and then a grave illness kept her off the set for months and caused a change of location from England to Italy. Once on the set, she scandalized the western world with a torrid affair with her married co-star Richard Burton. The two divorced their spouses, married, later divorced and remarried each other, and divorced again. The story of their star-crossed lives is paralleled on the screen with the legendary fall of the great Roman soldier Marc Antony for the beautiful Egyptian queen Cleopatra.

However, the Burton/Taylor headlines were more gripping than the wooden script. After Taylor fell ill, director Rouben Mamoulian was replaced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who rewrote the script and moved the movie to Rome. The sets are spectacular—a true feast for the eye—especially Cleopatra's triumphant entry into Rome with her son by Julius Caesar. Clothed in gold and seated on a massive rolling sphinx, Taylor looks every inch the queen that could rock the foundations of civilization. But when she opens her mouth, she sounds like an elaborate and antique version of Maggie the Cat in Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, a slightly neurotic woman driven to the edge by the gutlessness of the men she loves. Surely there was more to the fall of two Caesars than Southern gothic intrigue.

The dialogue is so ponderous that no amount of talent can wring any urgency out of it. Rex Harrison is believable in any role requiring authority, whether it is Henry Higgins, Dr. Dolittle, or Julius Caesar. But his best lines are the short, throwaway kind, usually aphoristic observations or imperious commands. Perhaps Caesar and Cleopatra did spend twenty minutes at a stretch comparing themselves to Alexander, but the audience doesn't need to hear the full discussion to get the idea.

Burton fares most badly, though, with a lavish, poorly edited script. His magnificent voice is a pleasure to listen to, but what a shame his character vacillates between pompous boisterousness and extreme self-pity, with no stops in between. Marc Antony was a man so besotted by love that he threw away an empire, but Burton's performance gives few hints of the decline of greatness. Instead, the viewer wonders how the Romans managed to conquer half the world with leadership like this. The movie could have used some leadership, too; a lively, edited version of, say, two and one-half hours might have saved the studio decades of embarrassment.

Cast: Elizabeth Taylor (Cleopatra), Richard Burton (Marc Antony), Rex Harrison (Julius Caesar), Pamela Brown (High Priestess), Hume Cronyn (Sosigenes), Andrew Keir (Agrippa), Roddy MacDowell (Octavian), Robert Stephens (Germanicus), George Cole (Flavius), Carroll O'Connor (Casca), Michael Hordern (Cicero), Isabelle Cooley (Charmian), Jean Marsh (Octavia), Gwen Watford (Calpurnia), John Hoyt (Cassius) Screenwriter: Sidney Buchman, Ranald MacDougall, Joseph L. Mankiewicz Cinematographer: Leon Shamroy Composer: Alex North Producer: Walter Wanger for Twentieth Century Fox Running Time: 243 minutes Format: VHS, LV Awards: Academy Awards, 1964: Cinematography, Art and Set Decoration, Costume Design, Special Effects; Nominations: Picture, Actor (Rex Harrison), Sound, Score Budget: $40-$44M Box Office: $26M (rentals).

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