Cleopatrawears its bad reputation as brazenly as Elizabeth Taylor flaunts that Nile-deep cleavage. It was infamous even before its release: for the then-gargantuan $44m budget that threatened to bankrupt Fox; and for the fact that Taylor nearly died of pneumonia during shooting, earned an unheard-of $7m and bagged co-star Richard Burton in real life.
Its off-screen dramas are still gripping, as laid out in this release’s excellent-if-excitable two-hour accompanying documentary. It’s stiff with authoritative production history rather than celebrity fluff; a must-see before the mammoth four-hour, two-disc haul of the movie itself.
Undeniably bloated and verbose, a muddle of opulent pageantry, interminable love scenes and botched battles, Cleopatraneeds context and patience to give up its guilty pleasures.
Chief among them in this handsome transfer is the staggering ’60s eye-candy of John DeCuir’s opulent Oscar-winning production design. Peacock-gaudy palaces, Cleopatra’s barge shimmering with real gold leaf and – best of all – her jaw-dropping entry into Rome seated on a giant sphinx, a sequence combining the va-va-voom of a Vegas floorshow with the scale of an Olympic Games opening ceremony.
Yes, the mini-skirted Richard Burton plays Mark Antony as a lovestruck sot prone to windy posturing, but there’s a copper-bottomed performance from Rex Harrison as compensation. His weary Caesar carries the film’s first half, romancing Taylor’s truculent queen by giving beleaguered writer/director Joseph L Mankiewicz’s hastily written dialogue dry wit and elegant topspin.
Roddy McDowall’s languidly villainous Octavian is also one of his best performances, though a clerical error (he was mistakenly entered for the Best Actor category) deprived him of an Oscar nomination.
But what draws your eye is Taylor. Despite her shrill and resolutely modern, melodramatic acting – more Valley Of The Dolls than Valley Of The Kings– she gives off extraordinary star wattage. As campy (“Do you smell anything burning,” she asks archly, as the Library of Alexandria blazes) as she is vampy (that lascivious wink at Caesar on her arrival in Rome), her allure is at nuclear strength.
As is her chemistry with Burton, so strong that Mankiewicz felt like an intruder filming their love scenes, though the on-screen impact was stunted by Darryl F Zanuck slicing radically into the six-hour director’s cut (they’re still looking for the off-cuts). With even its faults on an epic scale, such verbal, visual and literal extravagance gives Cleopatra a unique burnish, and an enduring importance in Hollywood history.