Cleopatra is so loaded with its own legend — the cost and production overruns; the shifting of cast, crew and locations; the notorious affair between costars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton — that the movie itself, despite being gargantuan, gets overlooked. I don’t know if you can say that Cleopatra is worth every penny, but I do think it’s something special, and not just as a bloated Hollywood novelty item.
In fact, even the four-hour version is anything but turgid. Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who took over for Rouben Mamoulian, is a wordsmith first (see All About Eve), and it was something of a shock to discover that Cleopatra runs on a steady stream of sharp dialogue and smart repartee. This is especially true of the first half, in which Rex Harrison’s Julius Caesar arrives in Alexandria with an authorial panache, serving as a lightly comic foil for Taylor’s upstart, ambitious Cleopatra. There is romance, yes, but also the sense that Caesar, an amiable but strategic statesman, is grooming her for political purposes. (Although, as we’ll eventually learn, she’s the one grooming him.)
As a spectacle, though, let’s give Cleopatra its due. Unlike contemporary extravaganzas, the money is on the screen, not in the computer code. The movie opens with Caesar overlooking a vast Roman battlefield littered with bodies, and if you look closely you can see countless extras writhing on the ground for miles. There are battle sequences at sea, as well, yet the showstopper — appropriately — has nothing to do with the men and their war machines but with Cleopatra’s arrival into Rome, as Caesar’s welcomed mistress. With poor Calpurnia (Gwen Watford), Caesar’s wife, in the audience, an elaborate, nine-minute parade of dancers, soldiers and musicians passes by, culminating in Cleopatra’s entrance on a towering replica of a sphinx, being pulled by some 100 bare-chested men. Encased in a gown and cape of gold feathers (except for a few areas left strategically bare), she looks like a superwoman who has dripped down from the sun. After being carried down to Caesar on the backs of more men, she calmly approaches him, playfully bows and then gives him a wink.
Taylor brings a brashness and carnality to the proceedings, without ever downplaying Cleopatra’s intelligence.
That anachronistic wink defines Taylor’s performance, which is distinctly at odds with the British polish of her costars (never mind that they’re equally anachronistic to the movie’s history). Rather than a posh, Shakespearean seriousness, Taylor brings a brashness and carnality to the proceedings, without ever downplaying Cleopatra’s intelligence (a key early touch is her disdain for Caesar’s outdated maps). If Cleopatra never quite strays into camp for me, it’s because Taylor’s presence, which at first seems out of place, eventually engulfs the movie. She single-handedly turns what could have been a polite and dusty historical drama into a living, breathing portrait of political and romantic intrigue. At its heart, Cleopatra is a tale of two men being manipulated, and possibly loved, by a powerful and conflicted woman.
The other man is Burton’s Mark Antony, Caesar’s would-be successor. Burton has a Shakespearean technique too, but it’s hardly buttoned down. Sweaty and roaring, his Antony is more of an emotional match to Taylor’s Cleopatra. If there was sensibility and affection to her pairing with Caesar, there is an impetuous passion to her affair with Antony. And so their alliance is rockier, especially when Antony seems more content to enjoy the comforts of Cleopatra’s Alexandria than play political chess back in Rome against his rival (Roddy McDowall). Cleopatra, of course, is interested in both the pleasures and the politics.
Did Cleopatra need to cost this much? Be this long? Did Taylor really need to have 65 costume changes, as the story goes? Maybe not. Yet without all those things, I think this portrait of a female conqueror — and that’s what Taylor’s Cleopatra is — would have been diminished. Engaging in extravagance to portray a famously extravagant historical figure is something of a movie cliché, if not a Hollywood Achilles’ heel. But Cleopatra makes the case that such indulgences might also be necessary.