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How filming the Cleopatra movie nearly broke Hollywood

How filming the Cleopatra movie nearly broke Hollywood

The Cleopatra film was to be Hollywood's big budget masterpiece. Instead, lavish spending and a scandalous romance was almost the undoing of studio cinema

It began in 1958 as a $2,000,000 vehicle for contract player Joan Collins with a 64 day shooting schedule. When Cleopatra was finally premiered five years later, the cost had reached an eye-watering sum twenty times that.

In the end, it was Elizabeth Taylor who, reluctantly, accepted the role as Queen of the Nile.

Legend has her bathing when her husband called through that 20th Century Fox wanted her as Cleopatra. Finally freed after a lifetime of studio contracts, Taylor said she’d do it—for a million dollars. To her amazement, the studio accepted, and she became the first star to hit that seven figure salary.

Even today, Cleopatra remains one of the most expensive films ever made (by today’s costs, around half a billion dollars) but the production is probably best remembered for "the scandal"—the romance between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor that held the world spellbound during the early 1960s.

Their romance knocked the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Berlin Wall off the front page.

Problems in Pinewood Studios

Cleopatra film set with Elizabeth TaylorThe Pinewood set was so cold that condensation breathed out by the extras was visible in the footage

Unbelievably, because of the generous tax breaks offered by the British government, in 1961 Cleopatra began filming at Pinewood Studios. Obviously Hollywood did not appreciate the problems of recreating the grandeur of ancient Alexandria in Buckinghamshire.

From the very beginning there were problems facing the production: the British autumn provided rain and fog. During filming on the 20 acre site, icy vapour could be seen coming from the shivering extras mouths. The Mediterranean it was not.

After two months at Pinewood, original director Rouben Mamoulian had managed just eight minutes of footage that would find its way into the finished film. And those 480 seconds came in at a cost of nearly $7,000,000.

"After two months at Pinewood, original director Rouben Mamoulian had managed just eight minutes of footage"

Not a single frame featured the film’s star. Throughout her life, Elizabeth Taylor had been dogged by ill health, and while filming in England she came closest to death—only an emergency tracheotomy saved her life.

So filming was abandoned at Pinewood. The original Caesar and Marc Antony (Peter Finch and Stephen Boyd) had long since jumped ship. The Hollywood studio was faced with a dilemma: did they bite the bullet and write off their investment, and abandon Cleopatra?

The decision was made to hire a new director, a new cast, and relocate the production to Rome. Once in Italy, what could possibly go wrong?

Rome's big budget decadence

Elizabeth Taylor as CleopatraElizabeth Taylor had three wigs per hairstyle, of which there were dozens throughout the film

Richard Burton had met Elizabeth Taylor before. He was overwhelmed by her natural beauty; she thought him arrogant.

When they came together for the first time on the set of Cleopatra on January 22, 1962, onlookers immediately sensed that they would be doing more than portraying the world’s greatest lovers.

Burton had been married to his wife Sybil since 1949, while the hapless Eddie Fisher  became the star’s fourth husband. The crooner was previously married to “America’s sweetheart”, Debbie Reynolds, and middle America was incensed when Fisher fell into Taylor’s arms.

It was to be the offscreen antics of Taylor and Burton that captivated the world’s press, but onscreen was not without incident either.

"The production ate up 5,000 wigs and 26,000 costumes"

The Roman Forum constructed for Cleopatra was twice the size of the original. The production ate up 5,000 wigs and 26,000 costumes. Cleopatra’s barge was built to sail at $277,000 ($2,000,000 today). It cost $17,000 to clear the set of cats.

The new director, Joseph L Mankiewicz had to look at a total of 96 hours of film. Because Taylor insisted it was shot in the Todd-AO format, the film had to be flown to Los Angeles to be processed, then back to Rome before Mankiewicz could even see what he’d shot days before.

When filming was finally finished, a visiting producer was offered Cleopatra’s sets for a musical—“Give me a chance and I’ll start a new country!”

Le Scandale—Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra and Richard Burton as Marc AntonyElizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton's romance onset shocked and fascinated the world

But it was the Burton/ Taylor romance, "le scandale", that kept the world intrigued. On visiting the White House, the President’s wife Jackie Kennedy was not alone when she asked: “Do you think Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton will stay together?”

Condemned by the Pope for “moral vagrancy”, the romance bloomed, which was why Mankiewicz’s original vision for the film was butchered.

He always saw it as two films—the romance between Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, then Cleopatra and Marc Antony.

"Condemned by the Pope for 'moral vagrancy', the romance bloomed"

But the studio knew that what the public wanted was Burton and Taylor. Poor old Rex Harrison’s role as Caesar was dramatically cut (shame, because he’s the best thing in it) and the six hour director’s cut was rushed out as a three hours and forty minutes version.

Cleopatra did not single-handedly destroy the studio system. But thanks to bad luck, hubris, ill judgment and star egotism, it was a nail in the coffin. From then on, audiences were drawn to films that relied less on star power, such as The Graduate, Easy Rider and Bonnie & Clyde.

Cleopatra did eventually make its money back, but only following its sale to television and subsequent video and DVD releases. Fox executive David Brown later wryly commented, “It did go into profit, but the studio went missing."

Cleopatra and the Undoing of Hollywood: How One Film Almost Sunk the Studios by Patrick Humphries is published by The History Press

The world premiere of Cleopatra was 12 June 1963 in New York. The UK premiere was held on 31 July 1963

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