This Mother’s Day: Indulge yourself in the classic film, ‘Cleopatra,’ like the queen you are

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Mom.  You are a nurse, a doctor, a cook, a confidant (insert  Enjoli commercial here). Do you really want a picture made out of dried macaroni, or an unfeasible breakfast you pretend tastes good (and a kitchen to clean up) so you don’t hurt your child or your partner’s feelings? Do you really want to wait an hour-and-a-half for a seat at a restaurant where you can’t take the necessary time to actually enjoy your meal, because:

A.) You have to tend to the children while enjoying “your” Mother’s Day lunch?

B.) Thirty-seven other mothers are waiting for your table, and not afraid to let you know it?

Mother’s Day is supposed to be “your” day, not a day where you make everyone else happy. That is your every day. Perhaps the best Mother’s Day gift is one you can give to yourself – “not” being Mom for one day (gasp!).  Send everyone in the house out of the house. Turn off your phone. Purchase your favorite wine. Order your favorite take-out. Put on your fuzzy slippers. Watch “Cleopatra” and feel like the queen you are. Take a tip from Elizabeth Taylor and enjoy your special day without apology. (Disclaimer: MIL is not responsible for any actions resembling those of Elizabeth Taylor.)


Twentieth Century Fox’s 1963 opulent epic “Cleopatra” starring Elizabeth Taylor, Rex Harrison and Richard Burton,  is one of the most expensive films made to date. A monumental film, full of intrigue, excess and scandal, two separate sets worth over $500,000 each was built., one of which was completely scrapped. Elizabeth Taylor almost lost her life, and “the affair of the decade” began that was so salacious even the Vatican got involved.  Although the production of the film was an enigma unto itself, the ultimate machination was the sordid fables of betrayal, passion, and destiny behind the camera.

For the Wikipedia version of the movie’s plot, you can go here. But it’s the stories behind the story that you really need to know.

Read on.


Television was in direct competition with studios, easily pulling patrons from theaters.  Twentieth Century Fox was badly in need of improving its earnings as a combination of ill-timed and unpopular films were eating at profits. The studio desperately needed a blockbuster to bring audiences back into theaters.  Reviewing their old storehouse of films, execs came upon “Cleopatra” and decided a quick remake would add much-needed revenue. Execs were on the lookout for a director, and when Walter Wanger approached unknowingly inquiring about the film, studio heads pounced on the opportunity.  Walter Wanger, a no-nonsense director, best known for his Oscar-winning film “I want to Live” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” spent six months in jail for a crime of passion. He shot his wife’s lover, where he could no longer consummate, after finding both of them in a car together.

Cleopatra movie set, Rome.

Fox originally wanted to shoot the movie on the backlot, but Wanger, using his own monies, created artist renditions of what the movie “could be” if executives decided to invest. Convincing the studio of his vision, the production began filming in London. The set was so expansive, enough laborers could not be hired.  Ads were placed on movie screens across the country for more craftsmen. Unfortunately, the wet London weather was not supportive of the tropical climate of Egypt, nor the warmer temperatures of Rome. New Palm trees were shipped in daily to replace wilted trees, sets also needed to be repainted as peeling statutes required daily care. Costumes and props were precisely created at great expense.  Seamstresses who created fashions for the Queen were employed designing four of the exact same embroidered coronation garbs for the film. If actors felt uncomfortable or had distaste with their props they easily discarded them, contributing to the financial waste of the film.

The English-born Academy Award-winning, violet-eyed stunning beauty, Elizabeth Taylor, led a tumultuously colorful life.  Taylor first performed before the camera at age 9 with Universal Studios, beginning her six-decade career. After being dropped from Universal, she went on to MGM where she garnered her most famous role as a child in National Velvet at the age of 12.  A lover of animals and an equestrian, Taylor chose an unbroken horse, trained it herself and kept the stallion after the film.

The “ultimate” costume created by Irene Sharaff

Taylor blossomed at MGM and by age 25 she was married three times. Her marriage to the bombastic, Oscar-winning Mike Todd, producer of “Around the World in 80 Days,”  who she claimed was the love of her life, ended excruciatingly tragically. Todd died in their private plane, “The Liz” crashing into the mountains of Grant, NM, his remains burnt beyond recognition. Taylor, devastated by the loss, was in such a state, her close friends held 24-hour suicide watches during her period of mourning.  Reaching for the closest person she could find to replace Todd’s memory she began an affair with Todd’s best friend, and best man, of their wedding, Eddie Fisher, who was at the time married to Debbie Reynolds, the parents of Carrie Fisher, best known to most as Princess Leia. Shortly after the affair began, the two married, garnering vicious backlash from the public.

Taylor, famous for living life determined on her own designs regardless of consequence was also a heavy drinker and checked into rehab twice during her lifetime. In her later years, she would become an AIDS activist due to the death of her good friend and actor Rock Hudson. Finishing her last film for MGM, which she described as a prison Taylor was presented the role of Cleopatra.  Finally free of the star-system, Taylor requested $1 million for a salary as a joke, the most paid for any lead role at the time. She stated when she requested the unheard of salary, she was in the bathtub and plunged herself under the water in hysterical laughter, when it was accepted. A shrewd woman, ultimately not only did Taylor garner a salary of $1 million for the picture and $50,000 a week in overtime, but also the movie was to be filmed in Todd-AO, a system that synchronized multiple soundtracks on 70 millimeter film originated by her late husband Mike Todd, which she now owned. When it was all said and done Taylor would earn a hefty $7 million, an unheard of amount for any actor of the time, male or female.

Elizabeth Taylor and Mike Todd.

Taylor, also known for her health ailments, fell sick in her hotel room, losing consciousness while filming.  By chance there happened to be a party taking place in the hotel where the best doctor

in London was present who attended to the actress.  An emergency tracheotomy was performed to save Taylor’s life.  The production crew shot around her scenes, however when that could no longer be avoided, coupled with the studio’s lack of responsibility in costs the production was hemorrhaging $100,000 per day.  Eventually, the London location was destroyed and the entire production moved to Cinecittà Studios in Rome, where the warmer climate worked much better with Taylor’s health. Once in Rome, due to the scope of the films set, the historical city suffered a shortage of building supplies.   

Richard and Elizabeth.

Richard Burton of Welch origin, intellectual, free-spirited, known just as much for his Shakespearean love of language as for his excessive drinking habit and philandering ways, boasted of sleeping with all of his leading ladies except Julie Andrews. Twentieth-Century Fox’s executives paid a quarter of a million dollars to release Richard Burton from his contract as the lead in the Broadway production of “Camelot,” co-starring Andrews. Burton who excessively enjoyed his fame took full advantage of his good fortune. After his first considerable financial success, he purchased homes for members of his family ensuring there would be no need to worry about their security. A life-changing event added to the darkness of the already volatile star. His eldest brother, whom he held in high esteem, accidentally fell in Burton’s home, broke his neck, became a quadriplegic and later died.  An unfortunate event of which Burton blamed himself creating a toxic concoction, adding to his life-long self-destructive behavior.

After out of control spiraling costs, and an unreasonable filming schedule Wanger was fired from the picture and replaced with Academy Award-winning director Joseph Mankiewicz,  known for his films, “The Barefoot Contessa,” “All About Eve,” and “Sleuth.” Taking on the taxing role, Mankiewicz was given an injection upon waking, and another at night to rest. He directed during the day and completed rewrites at night. Ultimately the six-hour epic was unmercifully cut to a little over three hours in order to make it digestible for audiences, and of course, to add more viewings to theatre patrons. Mankiewicz and many others, including Taylor was unhappy with the final product.

Lord Antony (Richard Burton) in Cleopatra’s bath.

Taylor met Burton once before filming “Cleopatra” finding him lewd and brash, but when Burton showed up on the set heavily hung over, Taylor’s mothering instincts kicked in. To say that sparks flew would be a gross understatement. A more accurate description would be the collision of two comets.

“We couldn’t keep our hands off of each other” – Liz Taylor  

Both Burton and Taylor were married at the onset of their affair.  Taylor, still the wife of Fisher, both their spouses were present on set. According to eyewitnesses, neither spouses stood a chance. Taylor reported that Fisher, upon learning the news of the affair, would stay in his night clothes for days, not bathing in a clouded depression. Eventually, he would leave Rome, and be welcomed by the American public, who seemed to forgive him for his extramarital affair, as a result of  Taylor’s current scandal. Burton attempted to hold on to his marriage as long as he could but was flagrant with his affection for Taylor. Neither Taylor nor Burton tried to hide their relationship. Once during a kissing scene, the director yelled “CUT!” several times before the couple drew apart. After receiving public forgiveness for her home-wrecking affair with Fisher, during her near-death experience, the public once again turned on Taylor, for her new conquest. The Vatican called for her children to be taken from her and it was suggested her English passport to be revoked. Burton and Taylor, unaffected would go on to have a tumultuous, alcoholic-filled, smoldering, unapologetic love affair, the likes of which had not been played out with such brazenness. Taylor and Burton’s magnetism to one another was so apparent, their vapor-lock romance was clearly destined.

 

Rex Harrison and Elizabeth Taylor.

They would marry.  

Twice.

Sets created by Academy Award-winning John De Cuir, “Cleopatra” is saturated in extravagance. One, in particular, was her lavish gold barge, feminine in architecture, pink incense surrounds it, handmaidens throw petals into the water as a sign of welcome, it is both alluring and seductive.  The banquet held for Lord Antony is luxurious where Cleopatra flexes her feminine mystique in an attempt to beguile Antony, of which she, of course, succeeds.

Cleopatra’s barge.

However, there is another scene …THE scene, the unforgettable scene of Cleopatra’s entrance to Rome. Even if you don’t watch the entire film, this epic display in particular, it’s worth seeing for its sheer opulence. Its original footage was scrapped due to a temperamental cameraman who was convinced the position of the sun during the current season did not allow for the proper composition.


The final scene was filmed six-months later. Like any good queen who has successfully seduced the Emperor of Rome, her entrance is preceded by the exotic and scantily clad representatives of her empire.  Her entry is an absolute spectacle and all eyes are glued to its pageantry in anticipation. Just as the crowd can no longer hold their excitement, approximately 200 bare-chested soldiers rock in unison pulling a 70-foot long, 35-foot high black Sphinx on which Cleopatra is seated at its feet, stone-faced garbed in the iconic 24-karat gold cape, made to resemble the wings of a Phoenix, embellished with thousands of gold beads and sequins, designed by Boston native and five-time Academy Award-winner Irene Sharaff.

Taylor sits atop a gold throne towering at least 25 feet over the crowd below.  Seven-thousand extras and armed guards were required for this scene as execs feared for Taylor’s life, given the stern scolding of the Vatican. Extras were to yell “Cleopatra!” upon her entrance, instead possibly enraptured in the moment, they yelled “Liz, Liz!”

Inside Cleopatra’s barge.

“Cleopatra’s” reach went much further than simply theatre seats. Taylors costumes and make-up style caused international ripples within the fashion community.  Major companies like Hanes, Maidenform, and Revlon, recognized the craze and seized the opportunity. Fashion designers created dresses inspired by the “Cleopatra look.” The film even helped to propel the famous geometric haircut by Vidal Sassoon whose career was fatefully poised.

Learn more here about how 1963 “Cleopatra” changed the fashion landscape:


The many costumes of Liz Taylor.

“Cleopatra” Facts:

  • 26,000 costumes were created for the film
  • Taylor had 65 costume changes
  • The film was extremely influential, popularizing snake rings, arm cuffs, geometric haircuts and maxi dresses, as well as the “Cleopatra Eye” makeup trend
  • Female extras complained about their overly-tight and revealing costumes, which they said provoked wandering fingers among the male ensemble. The studio eventually hired a special guard to protect them
  • Millions of dollars-worth of props and other equipment were stolen by studio employees
  • A master shot was spoiled because the camera caught an enterprising extra hawking gelato to his fellow extras
  • Before the role was offered to Elizabeth, actresses who were considered included Sophia Loren, Joan Collins, and Dorothy Dandridge
  • To keep Elizabeth happy, 20th Century Fox regularly had chili from the Beverly Hills restaurant Chasen’s air-freighted to Rome for her
  • Cost $44 million to make. Recouped $22 million upon release
  • Once the movie opened it was sold out for four months
  • “Cleopatra” took three years to film

And so, all you mothers out there, here’s the thing: You devote yourself to your family 364 days a year. Don’t you deserve at least  24-hours that completely belong to you? (Don’t forget to return the favor on Father’s Day) Savor a day of leisure. Be like Liz. Drown yourself in royal empowerment. Enjoy an afternoon of opulence, lavishness and excess with an equally compelling, yet inconceivable backstory to match.

No apologies.  

No regrets.

No guilt.  

Happy Mothers Day!

[FYI: “Cleopatra” is available on several movie streaming services in luding Amazon Prime, YouTube and Google Play.]


Constance Cherise is a classic film columnist, disco era junkie, nostalgia aficionado, travel-ready foodie, free-spirited freelancer. Contact her at constance.cherise@gmail.com