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

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!