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On June 12, 1963, 20th Century Fox unveiled the Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton epic Cleopatra at its premiere in New York. The Hollywood Reporter’s critic appraised the film in a review originally titled “‘Cleopatra’ is Colossal Box Office Attraction — Wanger-Mankiewicz Production Vast Popular Entertainment; Performances Outstanding; Elizabeth Taylor Tops.”
New York — Power and passion are the twin and intertwined themes of Cleopatra, and they have never burned with greater intensity or amid such opulence as they do in this extraordinary film. The 20th-Fox presentation, produced by Walter Wanger and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, will be one of the most popular films ever made. Now that the picture has finally reached the screen; now that the production difficulties and the vast personal publicity are ended; now it is possible to assess what is on the screen. What is there, in acting and spectacle, combined with the astonishing interest in the film itself, makes one thing certain: Cleopatra will be one of the biggest grossing pictures in Hollywood history; it may be the biggest. It is a safe, calculated guess to state that it will reach and surpass its break-even point.
Exalted aims and unlimited means to attain those aims predicate similarly exalted standards by which to measure the result. Cleopatra is not a great movie. But it is primarily a vast, popular entertainment that sidesteps total greatness for broader appeal. This is not an adverse criticism, but a notation of achievement.
Intense Public Interest
To see Cleopatra at its first preview, this reviewer journeyed to New York via Washington. It may not be as reliable as Gallup or Nielsen, but he talked with literally dozens of people about the picture before seeing it. Knowing his mission, he was asked about it, as if reviewers somehow have prescient knowledge. With astonishing frequency, from scions of inherited wealth in the Virginia hunt country, from New York cab drivers, from transcontinental airline stewardesses, the query was framed in the exact, same words: “Is it as good as they say it is?” Who said? There had not been at that point any comments published on it by impersonal observers. It must mean there is a special reservoir of interest. Another fact worth noting is that among these questioners, there was only a negligible correlation between thoroughly-ventilated private lives of two of its chief actors and the worth of the film itself. It seemed evident that there is no moral judgment on Cleopatra. It seemed evident also that vast numbers of people intend to see the film themselves to make whatever judgment they intend to make.
The movie is billed as “Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ ‘Cleopatra,'” and it is certainly his conception and design that is now the finished product. Mankiewicz has said that he wanted a story of people, one in which the spectacular background did not overshadow the human beings. He has divided his story into two parts. They could be subtitled, respectively, “Cleopatra and Caesar,” and “Cleopatra and Antony.” The first section is concerned with Caesar’s education and affair with the young queen. The second deals with events following his death, Cleopatra’s dream of infusing Anthony with Caesar’s genius and the crashing debacle this brought on.
The screenplay, according to the credits is “based on histories by Plutarch, Suetonius, Appian… and ‘The Life and Times of Cleopatra,’ by C.M. Franzero,” putting the latter gentleman in rather heady company. One can assume the screenplay writers — Mankiewicz, Ranald MacDougall and Sidney Buchman — also were aware of plays by Dryden, Shakespeare and Shaw. It is the premise of the film that Caesar was a man of genius, in war, in government, even in love. He educated Cleopatra in all these arts and in the process of the last, gave her a son, Caesarion. She learned her lessons, but after Caesar’s death, tragically misinterpreted some of them, and forgot others. Caesar realized power was all. Cleopatra assumed, erroneously, she could have both love and power. She picked a loser, Mark Antony. She opposed a winner, Octavian, better known to history as Augustus Caesar. The film ends with the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra. As Dryden said, “All For Love; The World Well Lost.” Being the kind of man he was, Antony probably agreed. Being the kind of woman she was, Cleopatra probably didn’t. But she was realist enough to know what the end of a rope looked like when she saw one.
Immense and Breathtaking
It is spread against spectacle that is probably the last of its kind ever to be seen on any screen. It is immense and breath-taking. There is, unforgettably, Cleopatra’s entry into Rome, sheathed in cloth of gold, a living Isis, perched high on a mammoth ebony Sphinx, preceded by writhing troupes of exotic dancers of many races and few clothes. There is her arrival at Tarsus to charm Antony, on her great, golden barge. There is her departure from the battle of Actium on the same barge, believing Antony dead. There are standing sets whole acres in area, fleets of warships, hundreds of soldiers and townspeople. There are interiors of unrivaled magnificence. To preserve the historic nature of the story, Mankiewicz uses a charming device of bridging scenes with ancient friezes which dissolve into living action they are painted to represent.
It has been said that the costuming is suggestive. There is one shot of Cleopatra in which she is indisputably naked, lying face down on a divan. There is a bath scene of considerable latitude. Her costumes have the deepest and widest cleavage perhaps seen in an American film. Morality is not this reviewers purlieu, but the costuming seems accurate to the period and done for this reason and not pruriently.
As to the performances, they are the reason the picture is as good as it is. Rex Harrison’s Caesar is crisp, humorous, authoritative. Caesar’s epilepsy is shown, and this is an illness difficult to portray and maintain the image of the sardonic conqueror. Harrison does it superbly. Richard Burton’s Antony is effective in a totally different way. His faults, said Shakespeare, were as the spots of heaven; he was as loved for them as for his virtues. He was one of history’s great Romantics. He believed his troops would follow him out of love, and they did, until the money ran out and the power went to Octavian. Burton (Antony) deserted his command at Actium to follow Cleopatra. He grew up too late, but he was en engaging boy. The supporting roles have not been developed as well as they might, but it was perhaps an insupportable task. The trouble is when Cleopatra or Caesar or Antony is off the screen, the spectator is irritated waiting for one or the other to return. Only Roddy McDowall, as Octavian, surmounts this difficulty. Octavian, in McDowall’s superb performance, is a mighty man with the soul of a disgruntled bookkeeper. His meanness is — in McDowall’s shrewd and balanced portrait — a virtue following the blazing, impractical romanticism of Cleopatra and Antony. The world wanted a rest.
There are other good actors, notably Pamela Brown as the high priestess; Hume Cronyn as Cleopatra’s chief advisor; George Cole as Caesar’s mute servant; Cesare Danova, Cleopatra’s adoring aide; Kenneth Haigh as Brutus; Robert Stephens as a key Roman senator; Isabelle Cooley as one of Cleopatra’s attendants. Also Andrew Keir, Martin Landau, Francesca Annis, Gregoire Aslan, Martin Benson, John Hoyt, Herbert Berghof and John Doucette.
Elizabeth Taylor’s Film
When all credits are distributed, however, it is Elizabeth Taylor’s film. Cleopatra cements a claim already made and now unquestioned: Miss Taylor is the supreme star of the screen. Her beauty has never been more radiant. She carries a small scar at the base of her throat. Again, it is one of those “spots of heaven.” She has the strength for a queen. Her shudder when she learns, inadvertently, of her son’s death — and with it all her ambitions — is one of those inspirations that is unforgettable.
John De Cuir’s production design is worthy of a queen and several kings. Leon Shamroy’s photography, in Todd-AO and DeLuxe color has this master’s customary perception, although it is too bad he was not allowed to get into his frame more of the grandeur and scope that was there for the taking. Jack Martin Smith, Hilyard Brown, Herman Blumenthal, Elven Webb, Maurice Pelling and Boris Juraga are listed as art directors with De Cuir. Ray Kellogg and Andrew Marton did the second unit direction, with second unit photography by Claude Renoir and Pietro Portalupi. Irene Sharaff did Miss Taylor’s stunning costumes. Hermes Pan composed the flashing, vital dances. Alex North did the music, and it is passionate, martial, gentle. Set decorations were by Walter M. Scott, Paul S. Fox and Ray Moyer. Sound was by Fred Hynes, James Corcoran, Bernard Freericks and Murray Spivack. Lionel Newman was music associate. Dorothy Spencer has accomplished an incredible editing job.
Colossal is the word for Cleopatra. — James Powers, originally published on June 13, 1963.
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