Monday, July 18, 2016

Reeling Backward: "Cleopatra" (1963)

"Cleopatra" is remembered today almost entirely for its largeness -- its budget, its ambition, its length, the ego of its two stars, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, the scope of its fiscal disaster. It was the top-grossing film of 1963 but still nearly put 20th Century-Fox out of business due to spiraling costs: $44 million for production and marketing, the equivalent of $340 million in 2016 dollars.

The film single-handedly killed off the big-budget Hollywood period epic for a couple generations. Many careers were sunk or least laid low for a time, including director Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Though not Taylor and Burton, who scandalously carried on a public affair during the shoot while married to other people, eventually leaving their spouses to wed and star in a number of other notable pictures together.

Its name has become synonymous with the term "flop," often mentioned in the same breath as "Waterworld," "Ishtar" and "Heaven's Gate." Taylor's health often delayed shooting, including an emergency visit to the hospital where she received a tracheotomy, resulting in a scar that's visible in many shots. Her weight also fluctuated dramatically over more than a year of shooting as a result of her medical issues -- the London sets were torn down and rebuilt in Italy during the hiatus -- so that Cleopatra's double chin and waistline come and go from scene to scene.

There is in fact so much ridicule associated with "Cleopatra" that people tend to look past its magnificence.

Yes, at four hours and change it is entirely too long (especially with the curious omission of an intermission, direly testing patience and bladders). Things flow well until about the 2½ hour mark, when the brooding romance between the Egyptian queen and Mark Antony sends the film into a torpor, revived only at the end with the pair's dramatic deaths, recalling Romeo and Juliet.

It seems like there is a solid hour of screen time in which Burton does little more than swig from his ever-present flagon of wine and shout ineffectually at those around him.

Yet the grandness of its spectacle cannot be denied. The procession of Cleopatra into Rome should rightly be regarded as one of the most opulent, jaw-dropping moment in cinematic history. The scale of the sets, thousands of extras, Cleopatra's moving sphinx stage -- the mind boggles trying to take it all in at once.

"Cleopatra" may have cost a boatload, but the millions are right there on the screen to behold.

The story actually covers about 20 years of history, and fairly faithfully. Julius Caesar -- played by Rex Harrison in one of his best performances, I think -- comes to Alexandria while fighting enemies on all sides. He had previously installed teenage siblings Cleopatra and Ptolemy as co-rulers of Egypt, but the brother had pushed her out.

The much-older Caesar regards the young Egyptian girl as an impertinent pest, but in time he comes to see her as a prized pupil in the ways of leadership, and eventually something more intimate. Taylor plays Cleopatra as an intensely intelligent and calculating person, who absorbs the wisdom of Caesar and then puts it to her own use.

She bore him a son, Caesarion, and they wed despite Caesar already being married to a proper Roman woman. Upon being named dictator for life -- but still requiring the consent of the Senate to do anything -- he summons Cleopatra to Rome, resulting in the spectacle mentioned above. She is at the height of her powers, and Taylor positively thrums with authority and confidence.

Eventually Caesar is brought down and assassinated, and loyal right-hand man Antony shares leadership for a time with two others, notably Octavian, Caesar's cunning nephew. He's played by Roddy McDowell in a coy turn, clearly presented as homosexual, but a far superior politician and tactician than Antony.

Given stewardship of the eastern portion of the Roman Empire, Antony soon falls into Cleopatra's arms himself. Here, rather than using her wiles to distract a potential conqueror, Cleopatra seems to genuinely fall in love with the complex, proud Antony. Like Caesar he is accused by his peers of "going native," and is later summoned back to Rome and forced into a political marriage to Octavian's widowed sister.

Eventually Octavian, who would go on to become the first Roman Emperor, solidifies his power and maneuvers Antony into war, where his overconfidence undoes him in the naval Battle of Actium. It's an amazing sequence, with full-size ship replicas, flaming ballistas, the works.

Unmanned in defeat, Antony's despondency increases when his troops abandon him before a bold land attack against Octavian's legions. He took his own life and then Cleopatra took hers.

This all sounds fairly incredible, one woman at the center of so much pivotal history, but as I said the movie is actually pretty accurate to the known historical record. The film's major omission is removing any reference to the three children the pair had together, who were spared by Octavian and brought to Rome to be raised by his sister.

(Caesarion and Antony's other son by a previous marriage did not fare so well, literally dragged screaming to their executions.)

The cinematography, sets, special effects and costumes are lavish beyond imagining. The film won Oscars in all four categories, setting industry standards that could only be achieved today through the extensive use of CGI. "Cleopatra" also earned Academy Award nominations for best picture, sound, editing, music score and best supporting actor, for Harrison.

I was surprised by how much flesh there is in the film. Taylor appears nude twice, obscured by a towel during a massage and by the water of a bath. Various servants and such in the background are often scantily dressed. A dancer during the procession appears wearing only a thong and pasties over her nipples, which must have made quite an impression in 1963.

Martin Landau and Hume Cronyn are solid in supporting roles as cagey advisors to Antony and Cleopatra, respectively. Carroll O'Connor turns up as Casca, one of Caesar's leading murderers, and I admit encountering Archie Bunker in a toga was disconcerting.  Andrew Keir is a stalwart presence as Agrippa, a longtime foe of Antony's.

I'd been meaning to get to "Cleopatra" for several years, and am pleased by what I found. Like "Gone With the Wind," it's a terrific movie that got swallowed by a much longer film. The difference being that while the former is lavishly overpraised, "Cleopatra" deserves much better than to be regarded as a cinematic punchline.

Here is Hollywood moviemaking teetering at the end of its golden age, grand and gaudy, its flaws inseparable from its many virtues.

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