Directed by Joseph L Mankiewicz. Running time: 248 minutes. Starring: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Rex Harrison.
Hollywood’s Golden Age heralded new cinematic techniques unheard of prior to the early twentieth century. Movies were profusely fabricated by up-and-coming Hollywood studios, and gave a platform to actors who would benefit from the advent of sound into motion pictures. 20th Century Fox, one of the “Big Five” Hollywood Studios distributed Cleopatra, which in turn, almost bankrupted the studio. Talk about a quid pro quo! Budgeted at a modest $2 million, it went on to cost the studio $44 million, making Cleopatra one of the most expensive films to produce. Cleopatra has been considered a moderate box office failure. The film won four Academy Awards, and was nominated for five. It modestly falls into the “epic drama” genre. Taylor was the first actress to earn $1,000,000 for a movie role. Was it all worth it?
The film chronicles the life of Cleopatra. Married to her brother Ptolemy (which, I am happy to report, was a political rather than romantic alliance!) Cleopatra must consolidate her reign within the imperialistic hegemony of the Roman Empire. You may be wondering why I’m reviewing Cleopatra now. Well, not only is the film reaching its 50th anniversary next year, Elizabeth Taylor herself is having a moment in Hollywood at present. A new documentary called “Liz & Dick”, which chronicles Taylor’s tumultuous relationship with her twice-husband Richard Burton, is set to appear on American television screens later this month. I have always admired Elizabeth Taylor. Her beauty, poise, nonchalant attitude (and not to mention her colourful personal life) kept audiences enthralled for decades.
With regard to the characterisation, Taylor’s Cleopatra matches the wit of Harrison’s Caesar quite well; however there was a lack of chemistry. Caesar’s embrace of Cleopatra and their kiss was wooden and banal. Caesar appears to be too austere and insipid for the tantalizing Cleopatra, resulting in more of a teacher-student relationship rather than husband and wife, which they eventually become. However unlike her other marriage, Cleopatra does love Caesar. It is a pity that this romance is lost in the lack of chemistry between Taylor’s melodramatic proclamations of love and Harrison’s apparent lack of interest in her. Ironically, Harrison was the only actor to be nominated for an Academy Award. I personally cannot see why he was even nominated. His delivery of his lines is too synthetic, and not organic enough to convince me of his political competency and sincere love for Cleopatra. After their son Caesarion is born, Cleopatra does not become peripatetic or lazy. She is politically motivated to act as a patriotic bulwark for Egypt against the incoming threat of Octavian. Art imitates life when Cleopatra meets Mark Antony (Burton). It may have been the real life romance between Taylor and Burton that made their scenes together as Cleopatra and Mark Antony more palpable, but their romance seems more sincere and veritable than Cleopatra’s romance with Caesar. I say, good on Cleo for bagging a man who’s one third of the powerful triumvirate who own the Roman Empire! There’s more romantic embracing and intimacy evident between Cleopatra and Mark Antony than there was with Caesar. The meticulous narrative provides an immense volume of history for the audience to digest. I enjoyed the historical accuracy the people, the battles and of course the dates. A very long drawn-out film at 4 hours and 11 minutes, I wouldn’t jump back on the couch to watch it again anytime soon!
Shot in widescreen format, for the most part it felt like I was watching a play that was caught on film. The melodramatic acting coupled with the wide spaces left between the actors who were attempting to converse with one another. Most scenes show long or medium shots of Cleopatra and Caesar, providing the audience with no sense of affection between them. There were close up shots to convey the physical, intimate romance between Cleopatra and Mark Anthony. The film could have done with a few more of these shots.
I can most certainly see why this film won the Academy Award for Best Costume Design. The film earned Taylor a Guinness World Record title, "Most costume changes in a film" – she had 65 costume changes. All the costumes are commendable. There are many to comment on, and were all exquisitely created. Each one was meticulously designed for a specific purpose – whether it’s a gown for her coronation, or a blue dress with a fur trimmed coat, all her costumes add connotations to Cleopatra’s emotions, decisions and romances. My top three most memorable dresses were the following: The mandarin-red dress. This is the first outfit we seen when Cleopatra rolls out from the rug that she gives to Caesar on their first meeting. It’s a very simple mandarin-red colour, split both sides with white fabric showing. Cleopatra teams it with a thin gold belt and gold cuffs with two snakes on them (introducing us to the theme of snakes). This is one of the rare occasions we see Cleopatra without one of her headdresses. This dress appeals to me because it is simple, sublime, and would be something that you would have seen Elizabeth Taylor wear on the red carpet in the 1960s. Thus, this dress introduces us to Elizabeth and Cleopatra; all rolled into one (excuse the pun).
My second favourite dress is the white and purple court dress. Here Cleopatra is demanding one third of the Roman Empire from Mark Antony (and pissed off that he married another woman!). Her dress conveys her political astuteness with the red headdress showing she means business, and it also implies that she is still his lover, even though Mark Antony was coerced into a “marriage of state” with Octavia. The stars going down the purple part of the dress (reminds me of the European Union stars). You certainly wouldn’t want to mess with Cleo.
My favourite dress is the green dress. Here we witness Cleopatra at one of her most vulnerable moments. She’s speaking about her tomb to Mark Antony, and they share a tender moment where they express their love for one another. I like how this dress has gold snakes embroidered into it, as well as her gold headdress with a snake draping down the middle of her hair. It is a foreboding message sent out to the audience’s advantage. Snakes appear here and there in Cleopatra’s jewellery and dresses. It is no surprise that Cleopatra later dies of snake poisoning.
On a whole, this “epic drama” is on a grandiose scale. It is quite enjoyable once you witness Taylor acting with Burton in their beautifully crafted scenes. The opulent sets and exquisite costume changes take you on a journey with Cleopatra, from her reign as Queen of Egypt, to her impetuous romances with Caesar and Mark Antony, to her premature death. A must-see for all Elizabeth Taylor fans.