In case you have been completely oblivious, Elizabeth Taylor died this week. With her passing comes the death of the movie star. Taylor was an icon on and off-screen, from her tumultuous personal life, her philanthropy, and most importantly, her skill. She won two best actress Oscars in her career and was the first actress to ever make a million dollars. Even when she retired from the screen (her last film appearance was, in all things, as Fred Flintstone’s mother in law that 1993 live action Flinstones film) she remained in the public eye for her work with AIDS charities. She was one of the most inspirational Hollywood personalities of all time, and that influence is only likely to grow.
But I must be honest. I am fairly unfamiliar with her filmography. I have not seen Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf nor Butterfield 8. So, now comes the time try to familiarize myself. It’s moments like this that I realize how limited any one’s movie experiences can be. There is always more to see.
So, with that in mind, I am going to review what is simultaneously considered to be Taylor’s best and worst film, Cleopatra.
Cleopatra has gone down in history as a box office fiasco, but was actually quite acclaimed when it was released (it was the highest grossing film released that year and was nominated for nine Oscars, including Best Picture). It also became famous for Taylor’s on set affair with Richard Burton. But the film was also quite acclaimed at its release and was nominated for Best Picture. IMDB had a poll after Taylor’s death, and this film was still what most people recognized her for. I have no idea what I should expect with this film. I suppose I will have to just sit back and try to join the cult of Elizabeth Taylor.
I am sure you know the story of Cleopatra. The Egyptian queen (Taylor) seduces Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) in an attempt to gain power. But Caesar is assassinated, so Cleopatra turns her attention to Marc Anthony (Richard Burton) but this ends in disaster when Octavian (Roddy McDowell) is named heir, causing a battle between those who support him and those who support Marc Anthony. This story is recounted elsewhere, if you want to go and remind yourself.
I am not kidding when I say that this is Elizabeth Taylor’s worst film. It has the problem that every single Hollywood epic has – a lack of immersion. Never once was I convinced that I was watching ancient Romans and Egyptians. I was watching costumed thespians spout lines for four hours. Did I mention that? Cleopatra has a four-hour running time, and is one of those films where you feel every second of it. I cannot say that this is a film to be watched for any sort of enjoyment. By hour three, your eyes will start to glaze over before you realize that there is still another hour to go. None of the actors demonstrate any chemistry with each other (despite the fact that there was apparently as much sex going on on set as average night at Studio 54). Something like this, especially considering the amount of talent involved, really should be better.
I can see why it has the subsequent reputation of a box office disaster (even if that is not the case at all). It is a highly ambitious film that helped end the traditional notion of the Hollywood epic and had more repercussions off-screen than on. Masterpieces are never built. They are grown. Someone should have told the producers of this film that piece of wisdom.
But this is also Taylor’s best film, as it seemed to fit her talents the most. Cleopatra was the same sort of feminist that Taylor exemplified someone who lured people in with her physical attributes (which caused people to underestimate her) before using her keen abilities to utterly dominate them. Cleopatra was a woman who slept her way to the top, true, but she changed the face of an empire in doing so. It’s actually quite amazing how much the story of Cleopatra mirrored the story of Elizabeth Taylor filming Cleopatra. I am surprised that the directors did not go ahead and make THAT film. That has been the story that fascinated the public for decades now.
There several breathtaking moments in the film, each of which centers around Taylor. Note Cleopatra’s entrance into Rome. Or, a scene in which Cleopatra, alone, calls out Anthony’s name, before becoming so angry that she takes a dagger to many pieces of furniture. Or a scene in which Cleopatra confronts Anthony. The whole is not good, but the parts are certainly there, and are built around Cleopatra’s almost Iago like ability to manipulate people to her will. Someone in this film, buried under layers of a production gone wrong, is the very showcase that director Joseph Mankiewicz and Taylor wanted all along. Taylor seems to know what the film, even if the other people involved did not. As a result, she comes through as the best. Whenever the film is trying to be a historical drama, it is presumptuous mess that is only acting like a good film (the equivalent of a paint by numbers Mona Lisa, if you will). Whenever Taylor herself is onscreen, Cleopatra becomes as good as it thinks it is.
Although I personally do not look forward to doing so again, Cleopatra is a film that must be seen by all, especially in the wake of Taylor’s passing. She was one of the best actresses of all time, and it is possible to see why watching this film. Even such presumptuous trash such as this manages to become a classic and required viewing simply based on Taylor’s performance. How many other Hollywood stars can boast such a feat? I honestly cannot think of any. It will be a long time before another actress has the same impact that Taylor managed to have.