Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor and Film #139: Cleopatra

(Herbert Ritt's stark capture of Taylor after she had undergone surgery for a brain tumor.)

The recent passing of that movie icon known as Elizabeth Taylor got me musing on her place in my love of film. I never thought of her of one my favorite actresses per se but I definitely regarded her as one of my favorite cinematic faces. This chiefly arrives as such: throughout my life I think I've heard my mother Lynn fawn over Taylor's beauty about a thousand times, and it's always stayed with me (I can hear Lynn's voice softened with amazement even now). And when you're looking at any photo of Taylor, moving or still, it's impossible not to be taken aback at this lady's extraordinary visage.

Yeah, there're the much-sited violet eyes and the sorta freaky double-set of eyelashes that made her, in early studio opinions, too mature for childhood roles. But then you gotta take into account her sculpted nose and cheekbones, steadfast jawline, and milky skin against such jet black hair--they ultimately made just as much an impression. Then there's what existed below Taylor's delicious neck: an always voluptuous (if not always consistent) figure, topped with a delicious bosom. Then we had her voice--occasionally whiny yet steadfast and dignified, with an expert blend of American and British accents. And then, finally, the most important selling point lay beneath it all: regardless of its tone, Elizabeth Taylor's voice was always backed by a gob-smacking spirit that could not be vanquished.

Elizabeth Taylor as the dreamily horse-obsessed--nay...absoulutely IN LOVE--title character in National Velvet.

Elizabeth Taylor played her physical instruments with an invariably fierce certitude; I don't think she ever attempted to portray one wilting lily on screen. If you look at her cinematic output--from 1943's Lassie Come Home and her 1944 breakthrough National Velvet to 1994's execrable The Flintstones (and this delineates her basic problem--couldn't she have had enough taste to go out on something more obviously worthy?)--Taylor was nevertheless always assaying a brawny feminine character who knew what she wanted and usually got it. In fact, it'd obviously be safe to characterize Elizabeth Taylor as an early role model for the modern liberated woman because it's clear--at least on screen--that she could rip the spine out of any person, male or female, who dared stand between she and her goals.

Elizabeth Taylor framed by Haskell Wexler's expert cinematography in a rare outdoor scene from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Off screen, things didn't always go so smoothly for Taylor. Fate had given her beauty, but it could also seem diametrically opposed to her. She was dogged by monstrous health problems (she almost died during the production of Cleopatra, and she had a neckline scar to show for it), and her 9-marriage love life was famously tumultuous (I often wonder if she ever got over being widowed so early from second husband, Around the World in 80 Days producer Mike Todd, who died in a mid-career plane crash). But she was always ready to begin again after any sort of setback, and so she became equally loved for her resiliency. And always her exploits were treated as the doings of some kind of odd royalty (even extending to her long friendship with the King of Pop, Michael Jackson). The world instantly understood when, in the 60s, after she and Richard Burton reconciled post-first-divorce, he gifted her with a series of the largest diamonds in the world, out of a way-healthy passion and also probably because he rightfully surmised that these rocks only looked at home on her. Elizabeth Taylor was the very definition of larger-than-life, and these were her additional geological benefits for playing Cleopatra:

The famed 33.19-carat Asscher-cut Krupp Diamond, purchased in 1968 from the second wife of steel magnate Alfred Krupp)

The 69.42-carat pear-shaped diamond, absolutely perfect, from a Harry Winston mine and later deemed the Taylor-Burton Diamond)

And here's that stone laying upon that jewel of a bosom: this is the very essence of wealth here.

It's for this reason that, in choosing a single movie for readers to watch in commemorating her passage, I've settled on Cleopatra. It's not my favorite of her movies or of her performances (I, of course, prefer her headstrong Leslie Benedict in George Stevens' Giant, or her wearily braying Martha in Mike Nichols' Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). But 20th-Century-Fox's 1963 epic about the epic Egyptian queen and her dalliances with the Roman power duo Julius Caesar and Marc Anthony remains the star's most iconic and strangely appropriate role. In fact, I wonder if Cleopatra isn't really about Taylor herself.

(Here Taylor stands with a clearly-defined scar at her neck, which she received after an emergency tracheotomy garnered in London two years into the production of Cleopatra. This is, by the way, a frame grab from the movie itself, and is in itself a tribute to Taylor's personal and professional resilience.)

I don't wanna read too much into Cleopatra because I don't want to seem foolish. But writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz was a very clever guy who was clearly working beneath his intellectual abilities with Cleopatra, despite having filmed a very successful Julius Caesar starring a late 1950s Marlon Brando as a Shakespearean "Friends, Romans, Countrymen" version of Marc Antony. And in being such a smart guy, I have to surmise that Manckiewicz forced himself, after the original director (the not inestimable Rouben Mamoulian) had been fired and after tens of scriptwriters had come and gone--into finding something sizzlingly interesting in the project. Against all circa-1963-release opinions, I think he succeeded. To me, Cleopatra is all about the star power of Elizabeth Taylor. How else could one explain the endless, obsessive single-shots of Taylor enjoying her record-setting 65 costume changes in the film (Madonna is the only person who's now bested her; her role in Evita required 85 wardrobe changes).

We need to also look at the fact that Taylor was the first star to demand $1 million for their appearance in a film. She beat that upstart Brando, and everyone else, to the punch. In the end, she really ended up making $7 million, due to all the production delays. In 2010 dollars, this would amount to $47 million for one movie. This makes her EASILY the highest paid actor in movie history. But then, one has to wonder, what was this all about? And surely Mankiewicz wondered this, too. I think he thought "What the hell have I gotten myself into?" (especially after Taylor and Burton hooked up) and that he finally decided that Cleopatra was REALLY about how Elizabeth Taylor had conquered the moviemaking world.

This would explain what surely must be the greatest scene entrance in film history. There she was, resplendent in Irene Sharaff's golden costume that alone cost $6500 to produce (or $45,600 in today's money--still, now, the second most expensive single costume in cinema history), surrounded by thousands of cheering extras, carted on a massive black sphinx that somehow fits perfectly through the heightened Roman arches on its way to Julius Caesar's feet. And all she has to do throughout all of this is look regal and then give a sweet wink to Rex Harrison's Caesar upon her decent (one of the warmest moments in the film). If she was not a movie star--THE movie star--upon this world-shaking happening, then who was?

I hated Cleopatra when I first watched it in my early 20s. I liked it more in my 30s. And now, in my 40s, I find it to be a vastly better film. It's sliced into two parts (which Mankiewicz wanted to release as two separate movies, thereby setting a precedent that's been enjoyed by the makers of The Lord of The Rings, Superman, and a few more Hollywood epics). Unfortunately, Mankiewicz didn't get his way. He wanted to release the first part of his original six-hour cut as Caesar and Cleopatra, with the final half being titled Antony and Cleopatra. But the Fox execs wouldn't cotton to that; they couldn't imagine keeping the public waiting for what they so desperately wanted. And the execs were probably correct: the second half of Cleopatra is much less satisfying than the first, because Cleopatra's romance with the more older, smarter man--Caesar--is so much more moving and believable.

It might have been a more monetarily lucrative choice had the 20th-Century-Fox sided with Mankiewicz on this, because the first half of Cleopatra--which would have constituted the first film--is MUCH more compelling than the second half. Really--and I am being totally up front here--the second half is dramatically absolute shit, enlivened only by the power of all-knowable gossip and obvious screen craft. This said, the first half, with the excellent Rex Harrison and his equally-matched-for-pure-production-value co-star, the relative ingenue Taylor, is legitimately and emotionally exciting. But the Burton half falls heavy like a meteor, even though it was obviously closer to the truth. (Taylor and Burton were married twice!, for God's sake). As the show stands now, at 4 hours, you can bet that lust-hungry audiences would've exited the second half in a bitter mood if it stood as it does today. Here it should be stated that there are two more hours of Cleopatra to be discovered, because the production was filmed by Mankiewicz as two separate three-hour movies. This is a project on which some media excavators have made some headway; it's possible that we night see a fully reconstructed Cleopatra one day--one that might really surprise us.

The first part of the 4-hour-3-minute Cleopatra (still the longest American studio film ever released) involves the title character so much more than does the second half. Watching it now, one feels the excitement of seeing her--SHE that is known as Elizabeth Taylor--so much more than is experienced in the second half of the film (even though her scenes with Burton, gussied up by their on-set romance, were really supposed to be the audience draw). And Cleopatra's relationship with Rex Harrison's regal, enchanting, deservedly-Oscar-nominated Caesar is a thousand times more interesting than her trifling with her lifelong lust Marc Antony, who ultimately impresses us as a ball-busted idiot. Taylor/Cleopatra is easily more at home with the wisdomed greatness of Harrison/Caesar than with the sniveling Burton/Antony. Caesar, in his time on screen, is on an even keel with Cleopatra. Even with his character's historically-inacurate demise, Harrison shares the screen with Taylor.

But when the film turns to her relationship with Antony, in both arenas, it feels like we're watching the stomping, scooting, what-do-I-do-now? natterings of a high-school romance. Burton's Antony comes across as an uncontrolled ego feral with the want of something he doesn't deserve, and Taylor's Cleopatra doesn't know what the hell to do, either (even though she says she's been in love with him since she was a kid--something that I don't think is illustrated in the film at all). But this feeling becomes more complex when taken with the fact that Burton and Taylor really did begin a rollicking romance that would put any like-minded present-day Hollywood liason to shame (only Pitt and Jolie come anywhere close to this world-wide fascination these days, and they have way more scruples than this pair did). What's worse is that Cleopatra/Taylor seems to look down at Burton/Antony even while she also desperately requires congress with his body.

I have to wonder what Mankiewicz saw in all of this wacky, expensive falderall. He had a clever sense of humor, after all. And he surely must have seen that, before Cleopatra, Elizabeth Taylor was seen as an actress foremost. During and after Cleopatra, as Mankiewicz surely saw, she was perceived as a star almost literally smack dab in the firmament. So I speculate whether Mankiewicz saw this as an amusing conflict, and thus sculpted his movie appropriately. In the film's first half, he gives her a plethora of sharp lines:

CLEOPATRA: The corridors are dark, gentlemen. But you mustn't be afraid. I am with you.

CLEOPATRA (upon Caesar's surprise entrance): Oh. It's you.

CLEOPATRA: I promise you: you won't like me this way.

I think Mankiewicz saw Taylor as a fascinating addendum to his long line of female heroines (including Gene Tierney's title role in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, the ladies examined in A Letter to Three Wives, Susan Hayward in House of Strangers, Linda Darnell in No Way Out, Bette Davis and Anne Baxter in All About Eve, Ava Gardner in The Barefoot Contessa, and both Katherine Hepbern and Taylor herself in Suddenly Last Summer). I wonder if maybe Taylor's Cleopatra was the fulfillment of some strange lifelong dream of Mankiewicz's. He had been surrounded by the best of the best, actress-wise, and the Egyptian queen Cleopatra marked the absolute apex for him. It was a troubled production, far outside of his usually more intimate range, and yet Mankiewicz found a way to get through all of the millions being spent in order to locate the heart of the project. And he did so with a sense of humor that, really, could not be brooked. For instance, I adore his visual commentary on Taylor's gorgeous eyes as he places them in the middle on one large violet eye while Cleopatra witnesses Caesar's epileptic fits:

As I am older now than when I first saw it, I see Cleopatra as a movie about an "actress" who was once at home with other "actors" (like Rex Harrison, with whom I identify with more now that I am hitting middle-age) but who is, by the end of the movie, distracted by love and loss, embodied in the drunken, utterly powerless Richard Burton, and thus now more interested in "stars". Here was a man who'd captivated Taylor for an entire decade--the longest romantic relationship in her life--and he thus captivated the entire world, because he'd captured this beauty's heart. Even in saying this, Burton and Taylor clearly had a lot of fun together partying, and arguing, and drinking, and spending money, and breaking up. The relationship was the sort of adventure for which all people pine. The two were the ideal movie-star couple, throwing loving barbs at each other right in the middle of official press conferences. The two were dangerous together (which is what made Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? so fascinating; I'm always touched at remembering Taylor, after her Oscar win for Virginia Woolf being so miffed at the fact that the Academy failed to give Burton his much-deserved Best Actor Oscar; she thought he deserved the award so much more than she.) [NOTE: I met Edward Albee in the mid-1980s while at Georgia State University, and when I asked him what he thought of Taylor in the role as Martha, he downright drubbed her as being too young for the role.]

(This scene, with Burton's stressed, diminished Marc Antony grabbing the goblet of wine away from Queen Taylor, strikes me as being incredibly intimate.)

It's here that I have to comment on the clear perks of Mackiewicz's Cleopatra. You can't watch the movie without catching yourself marveling at each individual shot. In front of the camera, you have actors like Martin Landau (as Antony's redoubtable best friend Rufio), Carroll O'Connor (now surprising. pre-Archie Bunker, as the first to plunge a knife into Caesar), Hume Cronyn, Andrew Keir, Michael Hordern, and the excellent Roddy McDowall. McDowall was Taylor's contemporary in the truest sense, having been the lead in her first major film Lassie Come Home (after which they were lifelong best friends). Here, he mesmerizes us if only for a short time as Octavian, the heir to Julius Caesar's throne and thus Marc Antony's enemy. McDowell delivered a hammy but enjoyably snotty performance, and Taylor loved him for it. She was heartbroken when an Oscar nomination escaped him, just like she was when the Oscar eluded her co-star Richard Burton for his role as George in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Leon Shamroy's chiariscuro photography--constantly a special effect unto itself--is absolutely amazing, and in the truest sense of that overused word. This is combined with John DeCuir's clearly incredible production design (achieved before that very term had even been born) along with longtime pro Jack Martin Smith and an endless team of cohorts. Then you have the costumes by Sharaff, Vittorio Nino Novarese, and Renie. Even if you're sometime bored by the script, you always have something sumptuous to look at.

(Antony's memorably silent--what else could be done, after Shakespeare?--eulogy for Julius Caesar--a story which Mankiewicz had already filmed in the 1950s with Marlon Brando as Antony)

And then you have Richard Burton's single magnificent moment in the movie: where, in fighting for what Cleopatra has deemed his most rightful place at the head of Rome, she (at least to him) seems to be abandoning her place at his side. To me, the movie's most memorable line belongs surprisingly to Burton, who delivers it with snorting gusto: "She's going! Cleopatra's going! Leaving me!"

Yeah, it's true. The character of Cleopatra gets hopelessly lost in this convoluted story about the Caesar that won her and the wanna-be Caesar that shucked her away. And, yeah, the tale becomes dutifully dull in its denouement. But throughout Cleopatra, you can feel the outstandlingly erotic, dark-eyed pull of Elizabeth Taylor, and of all the hearty male desire that surrounded her flesh. It's definitely not Taylor's most gripping performance. But it's her most significant one, for sure, and perhaps her most revealing, because ultimately she could not escape the role. Even though her movie output afterwards was with few exceptions totally unmemorable, she was forever regarded as American royalty, which suited her fine. She busied herself with putting her name on the most successful perfume of all time, and by being a champion for the sick (via her pet cause, AIDS). As her final moment in that most mammoth picture of hers certifies, Elizabeth Taylor was worthy of having all of us, too, die at her feet in worship.

And, finally, I offer the three greatest Elizabeth Taylor moments:

(from George Stevens' A Place in the Sun, 1951)

(from George Stevens' Giant, 1956)

(from Mike Nichols' Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, 1966)

...George and Martha. Sad, sad, sad...


Lisa said...

Wonderful appreciation of Taylor. I was always fascinated by her, even while not particularly liking many of her movies, and her output is more intriguing when viewed in the context of her own fame. It's more incredible that she did ANYTHING of real worth, considering how much of a movie star she was. I love parts of "Cleopatra" and surely it must be watched just as you say. I love Alex North's score, love the scene changes...lots to like, and what a supporting cast. I'd watch the multi-multi hour version, at least once! I had lots of Taylor books because I was once upon a time studying Roddy McDowall's career, and they were such good friends for all their lives, until his earlier death. And I too think that the death of Mike Todd was a horrible blow that perhaps set her on a different path than if he had lived. What he would have done to keep her happy...hard to imagine anything he wouldn't have done, and couldn't, as it turned out. Really tragic...genuine tragedy...lots for one woman to absorb and yet keep going with flair. Great tribute, Dean!

Dean Treadway said...

I knew you'd understand this post, Lisa. As always, thank you.

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