Cleo from 2 to 6:30: My First Impressions of the 1963 “Cleopatra”

Cleopatra

Cleopatra (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1963)

Today, I saw, for the first time – in a movie theater, no less! – this “great” example of 1960s studio excess, thanks to the Cinemark chain’s re-release of the movie in celebration of its 50th anniversary.  If you’ve ever read Peter Biskind’s book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls – or any other solid history of the end of the studio era – about how a group of young and aesthetically radical filmmakers were (briefly) granted the keys to the filmmaking kingdom at the end of the 1960s, then you’ll know that those keys were so granted at least in part because of bloated star-driven films like a Cleopatra, which cost so much money to make that even with good box office results it nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox. You can read more about its troubled production and cost overruns here and here, if you’re curious.

I was particularly interested to see the film since I had just read Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins – a book that uses the 1962 production of Cleopatra as a major plot point, and Richard Burton as a major character – for my book club. It’s a delightful book about love, memory, loss and rebirth, that jumps back and forth between 1962 and the present. In it, Richard Burton emerges as larger than life, so I wanted to see what he was like on screen in this specific film (I’ve seen him in plenty of other pictures).

One major question that I have to ask – and my limited online research has not provided great results – is: how the hell did this get past the censors? There’s a lot of nudity (or almost nudity), including one of Liz Taylor’s butt cheeks and the side of her breasts, and at least one exotic dancer dressed merely in panties and nipple pasties. What red-blooded straight male could object, you might ask (and I don’t), but I do wonder how it made it into the film. It’s possible that, post-premiere, when the film was cut from 4 to 3 hours (see production articles above), such titillating shots were removed. Still, it’s strange to me that they were allowed in there in the first place. From 1934 until 1968 (when something close to our current ratings system was put in place), the Production Code Administration ruled on whether or not films would receive its stamp of approval. If they didn’t get approved, most theaters wouldn’t play them. One of the reasons that the Production Code was abandoned in 1968 was because more and more producers and directors were flaunting it, so perhaps Cleopatra fits into that history. This online article makes that argument, anyway.

So let’s talk about the film, and my impressions:

  • It’s long. With the 12-minute intermission, I was in the theater for almost 4 hours and 30 minutes, or from 2 to 6:30pm.
  • It’s bloated. Its length is not justified by any story reasons. In fact, it’s amazing how two-dimensional both Cleopatra and Mark Anthony remain at the end of the experience.
  • Rex Harrison is terrific as Caesar. He conveys just the right sense of authority and charisma, coupled with world-weariness, to make a compelling ruler. Once he’s gone, the picture loses its most vital player.
  • Lovely as she could be at the time, Elizabeth Taylor is miscast as Cleopatra. She’s too 20th-Century American. She is not helped by the many ridiculous wigs and outfits she is made to wear, nor by the over-the-top eye shadow. All of this merely serves to make her look more out of place, much as Sean Connery only looked more Scottish in You Only Live Twice when they dressed him in a kimono and pinned his eyes to make him look Japanese (ha!). For the record, I think Taylor is a fine actress, and have enjoyed her performances in films as diverse as Father of the Bride, GiantCat on a Hot Tin Roof, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and Reflections in a Golden Eye. I just don’t think she works in this movie.
  • Richard Burton does not a strong Mark Anthony make. If you want to see a much better Anthony, I suggest that you watch HBO’s Rome, in which James Purefoy blew me away. The problem with Burton is that he seems to be acting in his own bubble. He’s not reacting to anything anyone does or says. Once in a while, he’ll deliver a speech in a stentorian voice, which briefly shows us why he was such a star, but then it’s back to giving a hermetic performance that stands apart from those of the other actors (many of them fine). Interestingly enough, this self-absorption is a hallmark of his character in Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins, so maybe Walter was on to something . . . Again, as with Taylor, I have seen Burton in many films in which I have life him, such as Bitter Victory, BecketWho’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (where self-absorption actually served his character well) and Where Eagles Dare, to name but a few.
  • As a result of the miscasting of Liz and Dick, their love story is actually the weakest part of the film. I do not for one minute believe Cleopatra’s love for Mark Anthony, or his for her, whereas I completely buy the attraction between Cleopatra and Caesar.
  • Other performers that I enjoyed were, in no particular order: Martin Landau as Rufio, Hume Cronyn as Sosigenes, and Roddy McDowall as Octavian. I had fun noticing Desmond Llewelyn (the original James Bond “Q”) in the Senate, as well.
  • The production design was mind-blowing, and my favorite scene in the whole film was Cleopatra’s arrival in Rome (and not just because of that exotic dancer and her pasties . . .). I may not have liked Liz Taylor’s hair and costumes, but I loved the sets.
  • I also liked the scene-framing device of the freeze frames that go in and out of murals. That was a very nice touch.

And that’s about it. I recommend this very funny review of the movie, on pp. 229-234 of Nathan Rabin’s My Year of Flops: One Man’s Journey Deep into the Heart of Cinematic FailureI’m not unhappy to have seen the film, even though I could have spent the day outside (and it was a beautiful day). Still, I must say that if you ever want to see a film that paints – in much less time (90 minutes) – a far more fully realized portrait of its main female protagonist, watch the 1962 French New Wave classic Cleo from 5 to 7, instead.

I’ll be seeing, at press screenings this week, two upcoming summer films – After Earth and The Way Way Back (I am particularly excited about this one) – so stay tuned for more reviews of new films, coming soon.

Thanks, as always, for reading!

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