Cleopatra (1963): Notorious, Scandalous Epic Starring Liz Taylor and Richard Burton

Fox’s screen version of the legendary Egyptian queen, played by Elizabeth Taylor at the height of her popularity after winning the 1960 Oscar, is legendary, famous, and notorious–but for the wrong reasons.

The wrong writer-director, Joseph L. Mankiewicz (“Letter to Three Wives,” “All About Eve”), was brought in to salvage the wrecked production, which Rouben Mamoulian had begun shooting before being fired by producer Walter Wanger.  Though Mankiewicz is credited as solo helmer, many others contributed to (or intervened with) the muddled end result.

Much maligned, “Cleopatra” has entered pop culture lore as a spectacular flop on any level, commercial as well as artistic.  Among other things, it’s “the movie” that almost crashed its studio, Twentieth-Century Fox.  With figures adjusted for inflation, “Cleopatra” might still be the most expensive movie ever made, based on its budget of $44 million (back in early 1960s).

The cast is incongruous, featuring alongside Taylor a mix of British and Hollywood stars, screen and stage thespians, such as Richard Burton, Rex Harrison, Pamela Brown, Hume Cronyn, Cesare Danova, Martin Landau, and Roddy McDowall, each delivering his lines in a different method.

With an epic running time of 242 minutes, the movie is not just excessively long, but also exceedingly verbose; after all, Mankiewicz’s specialty has always been in writing witty dialogue.

The narrative centers on the life and times, love affairs and tragedies of the Egyptian against the backdrop of the all-mighty Roman Empire.  Cleopatra woos and wins the love and political support of Julius Caesar. Their plan to create an empire tying the Occident to the Orient appears to be sound until Caesar’s assassination by his own Senate.  Undaunted, Cleopatra changes her allegiance to the Emperor’s right hand man, Marc Antony, and the couple embark on a torrid romance.  It all ends in tragedy when Antony is killed by the scheming Octavian.

For a while, devoid of any dramatic momentum, the movie attracts attention to its huge sets and lavish costumes.  The sheer architectural scale and gold leaf opulence may explain why the picture won four technical Oscar Awards (see below).

And the knowledge that this is the film that introduced Taylor to Burton, both married at the time (she to actor Eddie Fisher), and led to the most scandalous love affair in film history, taints our perception of the picture today.

The only actor who keeps his head and dignity above the muddle is Rex Harrison, as the great Caesar, who arrives in Egypt to claim both queen and country. Noble and arrogant, Harrison enunciates his part as if he were doing a witty George Bernard Shaw play, which may explain why he was the only actor in this film nominated for an Oscar.

Cleopatra is trashy and torrid, with enough kitschy set-pieces, like the Cleopatra’s arrival in Rome on a giant golden Sphinx, and campy dialogue (replete with double-entendres), which helps turn our viewing into guilty pleasure.

However, the broader and complex political context is vague and shallow (like select chapters from an old high-school history book), and gets lost in the maze of a spectacle. The lush and extravagant costumes can conceal only up to a point the boredom of the text and the slow pacing of the dialogue, which often has little to do with the plot perse.


Oscar Nominations: 9

Picture, produced by Walter Wanger

Actor: Rex Harrison

Cinematography (color): Leon Shamroy

Art Direction-Set Decoration (color): John DeCuir, Jack Martin Smith, Hilyard Brown, Herman Blumenthal, Elven Webb, Maurice Pelling, and Boris Juraga; Walter M. Scott, Paul S. Fox, and Ray Moyer

Costume Design (color): Irene Sharaff, Vittorio Nino Novarese, and Renie

Music Score (Original):  Alex North

Film Editing: Dorothy Spencer

Special Visual Effects: Emil Kosa, Jr.

Sound: James Corcoran and Fred Hynes


Oscar Awards: 4


Art Direction

Costume Design

Special Visual Effects

Oscar Context

Artistically, “Tom Jones” was superior to all the other nominees in 1963: Kazan’s personal drama, “America, America;” Mankiewicz’s “Cleopatra,” which sank Fox financially; Ford’s tired and old-fashioned anthology, “How the West Was Won;” and “Lilies of the Field,” which won Sidney Poitier the Best Picture, thus depriving Albert Finney of the honor.