Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Hollywood Romans #8 -- Cleopatra

Cleopatra – The Eternal Queen

“Whether we like it or not, Cleopatra was not really that important. Her world was one utterly dominated by Rome, in which her kingdom had at best a precarious independence.”1

This may indeed be the case, but given recent events it would seem the Queen has never been more popular, a fact that would please her to no end.

Last year saw the publication of two new biographies on Cleopatra and this year the release of a YA novel about her daughter.2

Likewise, Hollywood has not been idle on the Cleopatra front with two new films currently in development. 

Capitalizing on the publicity of Stacy Schiff’s book being the first biography of Cleopatra to be written by a woman, and thus bringing a new perspective to the Queen, Cleopatra A Life was optioned by Sony Studios for a new film starring Angelina Jolie.  This helped to push Schiff’s book up the NY Times Best Seller list where it has remained for several months now. Of course Hollywood then proceeded to under cut themselves, as is usually the case, by hiring Brian Helgeland to write the screenplay and David Fincher to direct.3  So much for the female perspective.  Worse still, Sony plans to film Cleopatra in 3D.

While Sony’s film might be the first 3D Cleopatra, Steven Soderbergh’s will be the first musical Cleopatra. 

Set in 1920’s Chicago and staring Catherine Zeta-Jones as Cleopatra and Hugh Jackman as Mark Antony, this project too, like the Sony film, currently sits in Development Hell. However, unlike the Fincher film, Soderbergh’s project may never make it before the cameras.  Last year Zeta-Jones cut back on her schedule to care for her husband, and this year she is herself undergoing treatment for a bi-polar disorder.  Although Soderbergh might recast the parts, he was hoping to capture the same energy of his hit film Chicago so it seems unlikely he will drop Zeta-Jones.  Like the Sony project, Soderbergh’s Cleopatra will also be filmed in 3D.

What has attracted Hollywood to Schiff’s book in particular is her supposed “revisionist” view of the queen.  No longer the sex kitten, oriental temptress or emasculating whore, she is now the shrewd politician, the able statesman and the steadfast warrior.  The idea that this is a ‘revisionist’ or even enlightened new view of Cleopatra is patently false. Schiff’s portrait of the Queen is largely the same as that painted by Goldsworthy or the one presented by Michael Grant in his excellent 1972 biography.  Schiff adopts a somewhat more romantic view of Cleopatra’s position in a world dominated by Rome than does Goldsworthy who presents a more realistic, and historically sound view of the Queen.

What is different here, or so we are lead to believe, is Hollywood’s view of Cleopatra, with the Sony film being, if not a repudiation of the 1963 Fox film starring Elizabeth Taylor, then at least a film with a new emphasis on Cleopatra the astute politician rather than Cleopatra the femme fetal.

A Hollywood icon with more than 80 films to her credit, Taylor will always be, for better or for worse, associated with Cleopatra and with the Fox film that has become legendary for its excess and its failure. 

Indeed, never one to miss an opportunity to capitalize on any event, good or bad, the Fox Movie Channel has taken full advantage of Taylor’s death last February by showing the longer “Premiere” version of their film on a semi regular basis, several times a day, on different days of the week (the last being Easter Sunday just past).  So it seems appropriate, given all of this recent Cleo activity, that we say a few words about Hollywood and Cleopatra, and in particular, the 1963 Cleopatra.

Cleopatra The Vamp

Of course, Shakespeare set the tone first, and influenced heavily by both the Bard and by Shaw, Hollywood has turned out over 50 feature films and TV shows about Cleopatra beginning in 1917 when Fox released Cleopatra staring Theda Bara.  The screenplay, by Adrian Johnson, was based upon the stage play Cleopatre by Victorien Sardou and Emile Moreau.

At the time Ms. Bara told the press, “I felt the blood of the Ptolemys coursing through my veins.” And Fox for their part capitalized on Bara’s reputation (manufactured by the studio of course) calling Cleopatra the “greatest vamp of all time” to which Bara added obligingly, “I Live Cleopatra, I breathe Cleopatra, I am Cleopatra!”  4

With that kind of endorsement you would expect the film to be a major success and while it did turn a profit, it was not the blockbuster Fox had hopped for. 

Filmed in Southern California, with pyramids built in Ventura County, the city of Alexandria in the beach community of Venice, and the Battle of Actium staged at Balboa Beach, it is rumored that the “lengthy script was solid and historically accurate.”  However, we will never know for ironically, the last person to ever watch this film was Cecil B. DeMille who screened it in 1934 while preparing for his own film about Cleopatra.  The 1917 film was then returned to the Fox film vault in New Jersey where a nitrate fire destroyed the majority of Fox’s pre-1935 film collection.5

The DeMille Treatment

Perhaps we see echoes of that earlier film in DeMille’s 1934 production for Paramount Studios.  Certainly, DeMille was a known stickler for historical accuracy and, like many productions before and since, he spared no expense to bring Egypt to life in Southern California.

His quest began with the purchase of the 16 volume French Military Survey of Egypt commissioned by Napoleon and ended with the use of a live asp to bite the actress playing Cleopatra (the venom having already been removed).  In between DeMille went to great lengths to get the “look right” including having the crew scrape the frost off of the studio’s refrigeration pipes because the Romans used snow to cool their wine, or flying grapes up from Argentina, where they were still in season, after the ten crates already on hand had gone bad.  Indeed, DeMille could be a tyrant about details:

At one point he saw that an extra was wearing a belt that was not historically accurate.  Using his trademark megaphone, he demanded
before the entire company that his secretary send a memo to the
production department complaining about the error. 6

For the part of Cleopatra DeMille cast Claudette Colbert, an actress he had worked with before on The Sing Of The Cross.  He felt that her sophistication, beauty and sense of humor were attributes that made her perfect for the role of
Cleopatra. 7   Indeed, Colbert brought those strengths to bear in her performance but, in a foreshadowing of Cleopatra films as yet unmade, Colbert was in “fragile” health, having suffered appendicitis, and she missed most rehearsals, being replaced by her stand-in.

As Julius Caesar, DeMille cast Warren William who gives a marvelous performance.  He invests Caesar with humor, intelligence and a certain ‘world-weariness that seems in keeping with the historic Gaius Julius.  Henry Wilcox, in his first leading role, plays Mark Antony and although he brings a good deal of energy and bravado to the role, he does not impress in quite the same way as does William or Colbert.

The film was a box office hit here in the US, bringing in $120 million against a production cost of just over $12 million (in 2005 dollars).  American audiences enjoyed the lavish spectacle and appreciated the historical detail, but Europe was not impressed.  At the 1935 premier in Rome, Daily Variety reports the film was met with “boos, catcalls and derisive laughter.”

Cleopatra as Comedy

It would be almost ten years before Cleopatra again appeared in a major feature film, an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s play Caesar And Cleopatra starring Vivian Leigh as Cleopatra. True to its theatrical source (the screenplay was written by Shaw himself) the film is played for laughs and though the cast is a capable one it is Claude Rains, as Caesar, and Flora Robson, as Fatateeta (Cleopatra’s major domo), who show the best comic timing.  There is no attempt at realism and the film looks very theatrical both in production design and cinematography. 

Although one can appreciate Shaw’s wry sense of humor, and at first glance his play would seem to reinforce the stereotype of Cleopatra as sex kitten, Shaw has written the Queen as a young woman much smarter than her friends and enemies give her credit for. Aided by Fatateeta, the Queen uses that underestimation to advantage, and is able, in the end, to secure her position and her future, for the moment at least.

As with all films about Cleopatra, this production too spared no expense on costumes and sets in an attempt to “get the look right.” The resulting look, while obviously expensive is typically “Hollywood Roman” and not historically accurate by any stretch of the imagination.  Reportedly the most expensive film ever made in the UK (to that date) it was a box office failure and nearly ended the director’s career.  What’s more, in yet another ominous foreshadowing, Vivian Leigh suffered a miscarriage during the shoot that delayed production for several weeks.

Flora Robson, Stewart Granger and Vivian Leigh

If for no other reason, this film is worth watching for the ample display of George Bernard Shaw’s prodigious wit, and while I am personally not enamored of Vivian Leigh’s performance, there are many who find it to be not just enjoyable, but actually better than her turn as Scarlet in Gone With The Wind.  That said, in terms of historical fidelity, there is no need to look here.  Enjoy the humor – ignore the lack of history.

With the box office failure of Caesar And Cleopatra, the Queen took a hiatus from Hollywood until 1963 when she returned in a big way.

Cleopatra the Extravagant

Much has been written about the now legendary and infamous 1963 Fox production, and reading through the list of woes it is a wonder any film emerged at all, good, bad or indifferent. 

A Few highlights:

Cost: Originally conceived of as a “B” film, a modest re-make of the 1917 Cleopatra, starring Theda Bara, with a budget of $1- 2 million, the production quickly grew, the budget ballooning to a then astronomical $44 million.

Cast: Although the first director originally wanted Dorothy Dandridge for the part of Cleopatra, Taylor was cast early on and for a very handsome salary including profit participation and overtime.  The first cast also included Peter Finch as Julius Caesar and Stephen Boyd as Mark Antony.  I must say that this casting seems far more interesting and I would love to have seen that production.  However, delays caused by Elizabeth Taylor’s ill health, including an erroneous announcement of her death, and weeks in the hospital, compelled both Finney and Boyd to withdraw from the production.  The weeks of footage already shot with those actors was now useless.  As with the health related delays on the 1917, 1934 and 1945 Cleopatra productions, so too did 1963 suffer from bad luck, or Cleopatra’s curse, depending upon how romantic you are. 8

Dorothy Dandridge

 Directors:  When the production shut down due to Taylor’s hospitalization, Fox fired the first director, Rouben Mamoulian (almost as if this bad luck was his fault) and started casting about for a new one.  They first approached George Stevens but he declined and so they settled on Joseph L Mankiewicz who already had several Academy Awards to his credit and had actually directed a previous film about Caesar and Antony, the 1953 film of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.  Mankiewicz quickly re-cast the parts of Caesar and Antony with Rex Harrison and Richard Burton respectively.

Location: The Mamoulian production was working on lavish sets in England despite warnings about the weather.  Mankiewicz heeded the warnings, moving the entire operation to Rome and using locations throughout the world including Spain, Italy, Egypt and even Malibu in Southern California.  This ran production costs up considerably.

Writers: After the change in directors the first screenplay was scrapped and Mankiewicz set about rewriting the entire film, shooting during the day and writing through the night Although giving story credit to Plutarch, Suetonius, Appian and “other” ancient sources it is difficult to believe that Mankiewicz actually read any of their works, so at variance with history is his screenplay.  His take on Caesar’s final days in Rome is, to be kind, fanciful.

Lovers: That Antony and Cleopatra were lovers is well known, and it quickly became well known that Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were too.  However, unlike Cleopatra who was not married when she and Antony “joined forces” Taylor was married.  In fact the spouses of both Taylor and Burton were on location and this resulted in all sorts of fire works including a bout of fisticuffs between Taylor’s then husband, Eddie Fisher, and Burton.  Of course like Octavian, who used the Cleopatra – Antony affair to boost his fortunes, so too did Fox use the fire works, on screen and off, to promote the film.  In Hollywood all publicity is good publicity.

The Final Cut:  After throwing out the several weeks of film shot by Mamoulian, Mankiewicz and his team still shot 633,000 feet of film over a 200 day shooing schedule.  Even then, Darryl F Zanuck, who was once again running the studio, sent Mankiewicz out to re-shoot the opening battle sequence, which looked too cheap.  That was after Zanuck had fired and then re-hired Mankiewicz to finish editing the film.  It seems that no one else could make anything out of the 120 miles worth of footage. 9

The rough cut that Mankiewicz screened for Zanuck and Fox executives was just under 6 hours in length.  Mankiewicz wanted to release two films of about 3 hours in length each: Caesar And Cleopatra followed a year or so later by Antony And Cleopatra.  But Zanuck was having none of that.  Besides, the Fox publicity department wanted to cash in on the Taylor – Burton affair while it was still hot.  They could not wait a year or more.  So Mankiewicz cut his film again to a still epic 243 minutes.  This is the version that premiered in New York on June 12, 1963.  It was subsequently re-cut several times but has, thankfully been restored to the full 243-minute length.  This is the version currently showing on the Fox Movie Channel.  In fact, there is talk of finding the missing elements and restoring the film to Mankiewicz’s original 6-hour cut.  So far a few minutes have been found, but this is a task that will take Fox many years to complete.

Contrary to popular belief, the film did not bankrupt Fox, or even come close to doing so.  Although the film did cost $44 million, Fox had taken out insurance on the production and received payments of over $13 million bringing net production costs down to $31 million.  Still, despite being Fox’s highest grossing film of 1963 the studio did not make a profit on Cleopatra until 1966 when ABC paid the then hefty price of $5 million for the broadcast TV rights.  As of 2005, Cleopatra has enjoyed a US Box Office take of $435 million (in 2005 adjusted dollars).

The film received nine Academy Award nomination and won four, including Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design and Special Effects.

However … What about the film itself?

I wish I could say that this is a great film, an epic that will stand the test of time, a DVD that belongs in every home video collection -- but I cannot.

Frankly, this film is a mess.  Yes, it is a feast for the eyes, and as spectacles go it might be worth sitting through at least once for the sheer experience of it, but films are nothing more than another medium for story telling and this film of Cleopatra manages to take a great story and render it not only barely comprehensible, but frankly rather boring.

The epic film, in the hands of a master, can be a truly great work of cinematic art.  A number of Kurosawa films come to mind, as do the works of Stanley Kubrick, David Lean, and Francis Ford Coppola.  No doubt each viewer would add his own favorites to the list and given the subjective nature of art personal likes and dislikes defy scholarly criticism or popular tastes.

For me, having watched the 1963 Cleopatra several times, I would, if given a choice, not sit through it again. 

Since 1963, Cleopatra has appeared in several TV series, most notably in the 1999 mini-series, Cleopatra, starring Leonor Varela as the Queen paired with Timothy Dalton and Billy Zane as Caesar and Antony respectively, and in the HBO-BBC series Rome, where Lyndsey Marshal played Cleopatra opposite Ciaran Hinds as Caesar and James Purefoy as Antony.

In both of these TV productions the actors playing Cleopatra do a reasonably good job, in particular Ms. Marshal, though once again history took a back seat to drama and neither character, as written, garnered much praise for accuracy.

So, given the somewhat checkered results, both box office and critical, for Cleopatra films, why would Hollywood want to embark on yet another trip down the Nile?

Cleopatra is such a compelling character, and her life and times filled with such momentous events that it is wonder more films about her are not in the works.  It may well be that, like Alexander the Great, Cleopatra is simply too big for the screen and no film is up to the task of capturing her.  One might as well attempt to capture lightning in a bottle.  Yet Hollywood will continue to try and we will continue to watch those attempts in the hope that maybe, just maybe, this next film will get it just right.

The “Evolution" of Cleopatra’s appearance:

As Goldsworthy points out in a recent article from the Guardian, Cleopatra would be dressed not in the Egyptian style of a thousand years earlier, but rather  "She would have dressed more in the Greek style and the problem for Hollywood is that Greek dress looks pretty much like Roman – lots of people in sheets." 10

Indeed, when shown the photo of Ms. Marshal (above) and asked “Who is this?” my ten year old grandson answered without hesitation, “Cleopatra!” 

“How do you know it’s Cleopatra?”

“By her headdress,” he replied.

And so it is, like the Hollywood Romans, whose costumes continually drive the historians crazy, so too Cleopatra will continue to be costumed in ancient style otherwise we might not recognize her.

End Notes

  1. Antony And Cleopatra by Adrian Goldsworthy, c2010 pp. 10-11. 

This is by far the best biography of this famous pair to be published to date.   In fact, the thirteen page introduction alone is worth the price of admission.  Goldsworthy writes in a lively and fluid style that, coupled with his solid researcher and command of the source material, makes for an entertaining and informative read.

2. Those books are:
Antony And Cleopatra by Adrian Goldsworthy, c2010
Cleopatra – A Life by Stacy Schiff, c2010
Cleopatra’s Moon by Vicky Alvear Schecter, c2011

3. David Fincher is only the latest director selected to helm this project.  Also on board at one point or another were James Cameron and Paul Greengrass.  There is a rumor that Jane Campion was under consideration and though intriguing, it remains unconfirmed.  At this point the only female still involved with the project, besides Jolie, is Amy Pascal, the Sony Studio chief in charge of production.  As for Fincher as director, this too could change but the film’s producer, Scott Rudin, worked with Fincher on The Social Network so this could be the team that sees this project through to completion.

** It should be noted that Jolie has asked Ang Lee to direct the film and, fresh from his Oscar win for Life Of Pi at the 2013 Academy Awards , it seems that Lee will accept the offer and direct the new Cleopatra film.  Considering how many directors this project has seen, it might be best to wait until the premier to see who the actual director is.

4. George Lucas’s Blockbusting edited by Alex Block & Lucy Wilson, c2010 p47.

5. George Lucas’s Blockbusting, p47.

To misquote Austin Powers, “It is amazing how much southern California looks just like ancient Egypt.”

6. George Lucas’s Blockbusting, p185

7. George Lucas’s Blockbusting, p185.

8. Antony And Cleopatra by Adrian Goldsworthy, c2010 p

Paired with the broadcast of the 1963 Cleopatra on the Fox Movie Channel is an episode of their in-house movie news magazine, Fox Legacy, hosted by Philip Roth.  Roth is a former Fox studio executive whose credits include Titanic.  At one point during this half hour show Roth mentions that Dorothy Dandridge was considered for the role of Cleopatra and comments that this might have been a more historically accurate casting, thus raising yet again the bogus question of Cleopatra’s ethnicity.

There is no question about her ethnicity.  The issue was dealt with by Michael Grant in his 1972 bio of the Queen, and once again by both Goldsworthy and
Schiff in their respective books published last year. 

The announcement of Jolie’s casting in the role of Cleopatra occasioned a new round of chest thumping and pontification about Cleopatra’s ethnicity that generated a lot of heat but very little light.

As for the coins that Antony & Cleopatra issued to pay Antony’s army, Goldsworthy notes:  "A coin image was a statement of power intended to prove you were the rightful ruler, which meant you wanted to look like a Ptolemy,"

9. George Lucas’s Blockbusting, p184

10.  “Jolie's Cleopatra will show Egypt's queen as more than a sex kitten”
By Vanessa Thorpe, The Guardian, January 9, 2011  See: Link above in Note #7

Books & Links Of Interest

Cleopatra by Michael Grant, c1972, ISBN: 0785818286

Antony And Cleopatra by Adrian Goldsworthy, c2010, ISBN: 9780300165340

George Lucas’s Blockbusting edited by Alex Ben Block & Lucy Autrey Wilson, c2010, ISBN: 9780061778896

This Review was first posted on the Ancient Warfare Magazine web site, May 2011.

(c) 2011 by David L Reinke

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