It’s never a good sign when a movie is most famous for what happened off screen, and “Cleopatra” may be the all-time champ of off-screen famousness. Celebrating its golden anniversary this year, it’s showing twice at the Kendall on Wednesday. “You have to see ‘Cleopatra’ if you have any remote interest in film history,” writes the film scholar David Thomson (no fan of the movie). This might be your only chance to do so on a big screen — and, in fact, the best thing about “Cleopatra” is Leon Shamroy’s splendid, Oscar-winning cinematography.
Ah, but Shamroy’s work is up on the screen. It’s the off-screen stuff we were discussing. Bad enough (or juicy enough) that the production went so absurdly over budget that it almost bankrupted 20th Century Fox. “Cleopatra” became the most expensive movie ever made, a title it kept (adjusted for inflation) for more than 30 years, until “Waterworld” came along. The $44 million cost of “Cleopatra” then is more than $320 million now.
Far worse than the budget — and far, far juicier — was what happened with the film’s two stars. Not since Paris ran off with Helen of Troy had an illicit romance raised such a ruckus as Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton abandoning their respective spouses. Now it’s true that the Trojan War lasted 10 years, but so did the Burtons’ first marriage (their second lasted two).
Even before it opened, “Cleopatra” was legendary. Half a century later, to the extent the movie is remembered at all, it’s for the legend. So what about the film itself? Well, even though the production was a fiasco, the movie isn’t awful. Roddy McDowall’s peroxide Octavian and the dance numbers (yes, there are dance numbers — choreographed by Hermes Pan, no less) are as close as the movie gets to outright camp. Actually, outright camp might have been more entertaining. The Trojan War can’t have felt as long as “Cleopatra” sometimes does at 243 minutes. Things could have been worse. Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s original cut lasted six hours.
This “Cleopatra” may not be Shaw, and it’s certainly not Shakespeare. But Mankiewicz was a pro and he had impressive help. The script is credited to him, Sidney Buchman (“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”) and Ranald MacDougall (“Mildred Pierce”). Ben Hecht pitched in, too. For the most part, the dialogue manages to split the difference between archaic diction and modern. Not always, though. “Without you, Antony,” Taylor declares to Burton, “this is not a world I’d want to live in, much less conquer.”
Mankiewicz, who wrote and directed “All About Eve,” is a man not otherwise associated with sword-and-sandals epics. Presumably, his having directed the MGM “Julius Caesar,” with Marlon Brando as Mark Antony, was why Fox turned to him when Rouben Mamoulian was fired. But that was a very different treatment of this material. Mankiewicz’s ill-suitedness shows in the film’s action setpiece, the Battle of Actium. He did know a thing or two about movies, though, and one of the surprises watching “Cleopatra” is seeing the relative fluidity of Mankiewicz’s camerawork and how he keeps his actors from getting lost in the unfriendly expanses of 70mm Todd-AO.
The actors had other ways of getting lost. Rex Harrison, as Caesar, seems slightly amused by the proceedings. When Taylor’s Cleopatra famously emerges from that carpet, you expect him to ask her where the rain in Egypt mainly falls. Harrison has a consistent twinkle in his eye. No one else here twinkles. Poor Burton seems mildly embarrassed, or even pained.
In terms of screen iconography, Taylor was meant to play Cleopatra the way those presidents’ faces were meant to be on Mount Rushmore. Not just beyond amusement and pain, she’s beyond good and evil. The quality of her performance hardly matters (it’s not that bad, in fact). Her just being Elizabeth Taylor is what counts. She’s raison d’etre and decor rolled into one. In each scene she has a different hairstyle. The amount of eye makeup she wears could part the Red Sea (oops, wrong epic). During the Battle of Actium she appears to be wearing a pagoda on her head. You keep waiting for Alex North’s sumptuously dreadful score to quote from “The Mikado.”
What Taylor’s not wearing in most scenes is anything much over her bosom. Really, “Cleopatra” isn’t about ancient history or romantic passion or even Fox making a profit (which it didn’t). It’s about Taylor’s breasts. Or it is if screen time and prominence of display are any criteria. Forget IMAX. “Cleopatra” is in what may be the most imposing projection format in film history: asp’s-eye view.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.