Sunday, February 19, 2006


The Debacle that remains Cleopatra (1963)

At least in conception, Cleopatra was meant to be a resplendent groundbreaking epic, with lavish sets by John DeCuir, and, directed by two-time Academy Award winner Joseph L. Mankiewicz. That the film quickly degenerated into glaring example of colossal micro mismanagement speaks more to the fate of bad-timing and sad demise of the studio system. Even before cameras rolled on a single strip of useable footage in June of 1962, Cleopatra was already three times more expensive than the titanic Ben-Hur (1959). Rounded up in today’s dollars, Cleopatra is a $440 million dollar epic that, at the time of its release barely recouped half its initial cost. Yet, if the final results veered more accurately toward Newsweek’s review as “a series of coming attractions for something that will never come” the initial giddy anxiety that fueled excitement in the corporate boardrooms at 20th Century Fox at the start of the project easily rivaled its catastrophic box office returns.

Urged on by nervous Fox President, Spyros P. Skouras, executive David Brown explored the Fox script archives for a project that could be quickly and easily remade. The studio’s recent insidious run of back luck and anemic receipts on such misguided ventures as The Barbarian and the Geisha (1958) and Satan Never Sleeps (1962) needed to be offset. In actuality, Fox was no more or less well off in their feature ventures than most of its competition.

The success of television had uniformly cut theater attendance by nearly forty percent. With the added stress of being forced to divest the studio of its theater chain, Fox began to pillage its history to survive. Skouras sold the backlots to high rise development. But the financial reprieve from that sale was a temporary solution at best.

In his archival research, David Brown rediscovered Cleopatra – the 1917 Theda Bara star-maker that had yielded phenomenal profits for Fox during the silent era. At one point the project seemed destined as a modestly budgeted (under two million) sword and sandal quickie starring Joan Collins. Yet, two overriding factors prevented the project from proceeding as planned; gross naiveté on the part of Fox management and their acceptance of Walter Wanger to produce the film.

Wanger – once a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood - had been relegated to making B-movies after a crime of passion sent him to prison for four months. That crime involved an extramarital infidelity between Wanger’s wife (actress Joan Bennett) and her agent. Whereupon discovering the two, Wanger attempted to remedy their infidelity by shooting his wife’s lover in an area vital to the consummation of their affair. Although his marriage to Bennett did not survive this assault and incarceration, Wanger’s career thankfully did, and with the surprise1958 Oscar-winning hit, I Want To Live.

Given a mere sixty days to shoot Cleopatra with free reign over Fox’s list of contract players, Wanger instead spent pocket change to hire set designer, John DeCuir. Nicknamed “the city planner,” DeCuir’s pitch in inner-corporate salesmanship (including many paintings and models) easily convinced Fox executives that their initial haste in launching Cleopatra was indeed entitled more circumspection. With the film’s budget raised to $5 million the studio began courting such high hat talent as Sophia Loren and Audrey Hepburn.

Wanger, however, had already decided upon his lead: Elizabeth Taylor. Although the top brass at Fox quietly urged for further reconsideration, Wanger persisted in wooing the actress. Taylor had been viable box office in the past. However, by the rigid standards of 1950s propriety and decorum, Taylor’s string of nonchalant marriages (to hotel tycoon Nicky Hilton, actor Michael Wilding and producer Mike Todd) had dimmed her allure considerably. If Todd’s death in a plane crash temporarily bolstered public sympathy for Elizabeth Taylor – the widow – Taylor’s overnight liaisons with Eddie Fisher (then married to actress, Debbie Reynolds) proved cutthroat to her own popularity.

For her part, Taylor found Wanger’s offer absurdly amusing until he acquiesced to her off the cuff demand for a million dollar salary. Two other demands made by Taylor sealed the film’s costly fate: having it shot abroad, and, in Todd A-O; the superior but expensive widescreen process patented by her late husband.

The facilities eventually chosen were England’s Pinewood Studios – primarily due to the fact that the British government’s tax plan allowed Fox a considerable subsidy, provided that the project employ a certain percentage of British cast and crew. To this end, Peter Finch, Steven Boyd and Keith Baxter were cast opposite Taylor (as Caesar, Marc Anthony and Octavian respectively). $600,000 was spent transforming the backlot into the port city of Alexandria – an undertaking so vast in its scope and detail that Pinewood ran ads in cinemas to recruit its craftsman and construction personnel.

At the behest of Spyros Skouras, Hollywood veteran Rouben Mamoulian was assigned to direct. Although Mamoulian’s forte had always been the coaching of stellar performances from temperamental beauties, on Cleopatra, the director had decidedly met his match in Elizabeth Taylor. The two were chronically embroiled in heated debates over the script which Mamoulian preferred but the actress felt was clumsy and awkward. In between debating the point, Taylor’s health deteriorated. Carried to and from the set for screen tests only – Taylor eventually abstained from the shoot entirely, while Mamoulian attempted to photograph any and all sequences that did not involve her participation.

The production also ran into a union snafu over the presence of Hollywood hairstylist, Sidney Guilleroff – whom Taylor had insisted upon, but who was in direct violation of the agreement affording the production its British tax breaks. Costly delays, Taylor’s chronic absences, and, the erosion of exterior sets due to bad weather, eventually put a strain on all concerned. Assured of his own importance to the project, Mamoulian put forth an ultimatum to Fox that Taylor counterbalanced with one of her own; the result – on January 18th, 1961, the director was fired and replaced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz.

Indulging on a restful retreat at actor Hume Cronyn’s island home, Mankiewicz at first refused the project – then reluctantly accepted when Skouras finagled a deal worth several million dollars. To say that Mankiewicz’s involvement elevated the project to A-list status is an understatement. With his signing, rumors abounded that Cleopatra would be the greatest film of all time. After all, Mankiewicz had been the golden boy with back to back writing/directing Oscars for A Letter to Three Wives (1949) and All About Eve (1950). On February 1, 1961, Mankiewicz arrived in London. He was appalled by both the script and the condition of the sets at Pinewood. But an even greater concern lay ahead.

Brought on by England’s frigid damp conditions, on March 4, Elizabeth Taylor quietly slipped into a coma with a virulent strain of pneumonia at the Dorchester Hotel. An emergency tracheotomy barely saved her life. Her pending convalescence convinced Mankiewicz of two decisions; first – that he now had a film without a star, and second – that Taylor’s lengthy recovery had afforded him enough time to rewrite the script from scratch.

The English set was closed and dismantled. The production moved to Italy’s Cinecitta Studios in Rome where Mankiewicz personally supervised John DeCuir’s lavish reconstructions of Cleopatra’s palace and the Roman forum – the latter, built to three times its original’s scale, because DeCuir felt that the real forum was simply not impressive enough. With $12 million dollars already invested, Mankiewicz began his script rewrites based on Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra. Forced to recast the film – Rex Harrison, Richard Burton and Roddy McDowell assumed the roles of Caesar, Marc Anthony and Octavian. Burton’s involvement in particular, proved costly – with Fox buying out his Broadway contract in the musical Camelot for a whopping $250,000.

What began as a ten week production schedule quickly escalated into a ten month ordeal buffered by more bad timing and ill-planning. At one point, it was estimated that Cleopatra’s shoot was costing Fox $70,000 per day. After perusing the budgetary concerns and realizing that he could not go back to Fox shareholders with the bottom line, Spyros Skouras quietly fired Cleopatra’s accountant – installing one of his own to draft a faux budget that appeared more manageable on paper. In the mean time, money hemorrhaged from every facet of the production. Over 20,000 costumes were redesigned – only a fraction of which survived in their relocation from Pinewood to Cinecitta. On November 17, Elizabeth Taylor went into overtime at a cost of $50,000 per week.

Mankiewicz, a skilled, though a slow, writer, had penned only one third of the first draft of the script in long hand before being forced to begin shooting on September 29, 1961. Understandably, Skouras needed footage to justify the growing expenditures, but the net result of his haste was that Cleopatra commenced in sequential order rather than in a manner that maximized the efficiency of both its cast and crew. Assigned the thankless duty of discovering financial corruption on the set (and there was much to uncover), production manager Johnny Johnston suffered a fatal heart attack. His position remained unfilled for months, even as the set became a party Mecca for visiting dignitaries and the press corps.

Meanwhile, the cast once again grew restless. Extras complained to the union over their skimpy costumes; Rex Harrison threatened not to show up for work if his car and chauffeur were taken away to curb expenses, and, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton began what would eventually be labeled a legendary liaison in the annals of film history.

From his dressing room, Roddy McDowell telephoned Darryl F. Zanuck (the former President of Fox – currently making films independently in France) for any work to fill his hours. Zanuck obliged both McDowell and Richard Burton with cameos in The Longest Day, a WWII depiction of the allied invasion of Normandy. However, when Zanuck’s request for two million dollars to complete his own film was denied by the front offices in Los Angeles, the old mogul’s concerns turned on the mismanagement of the company.

As the Burton/Taylor romance sizzled both on and off camera, Burton’s wife of thirteen years, Sybil eventually discovered the truth and departed Rome in a huff to pursue divorce proceedings. She was merely hurt. But Eddie Fisher was humiliated by the affair and visibly distraught. With matters thoroughly exposed, the paparazzi laid siege on every movement the couple made, transforming the already elephantine side show into a three ring circus in unbridled excess and debauchery. The Vatican went so far as to demand that someone remove Elizabeth’s children from her custody. On the floor of Congress, senators bandied about the prospect of revoking her U.S. citizenship. In the meantime, Eddie Fisher was mobbed by the press in New York, to whom he was only too willing to provide the full story and regain – at least, in part – some of the empathy for his own damaged person and career.

While Fox executives relished the spectacular obsession from abroad (the film was almost a daily gossip item in the news), their worst fears had begun to be realized at home. After spending three million on Marilyn Monroe’s Something’s Got To Give – something indeed did. Monroe was fired from that film and the production permanently shelved. The loss meant that Fox had no new projects either in preproduction or ready for general release. From that moment on, except for a skeleton crew, 20th Century-Fox effectively closed its operations.

Zanuck had had enough. When asked to quickly rush The Longest Day into theaters for some much needed quick cash, the producer instead flew to Los Angeles, attacked the board of directors on their excessive spending, and effectively reclaimed control as head of the studio. Walter Wanger was stripped of his command on the set – a moot distinction since his health had forced him to relinquish almost all his duties to Mankiewicz months earlier. Mankiewicz was given three months to wrap production on Cleopatra – a daunting task even as Elizabeth Taylor finished her participation with a hefty $7 million dollar pay check. Moving his shoot to Egypt, Mankiewicz toiled relentlessly to finish the film’s battle sequences. Yet, even in his final flourish of creative genius, Mankiewicz was inexcusably hampered by Fox’s sudden penny pinching, and instinctively concluded that Cleopatra would never be a great film. He was, however, committed to making it a good one.

To this end, Mankiewicz envisioned two separate, three hour general releases; Caesar and Cleopatra, and, Anthony and Cleopatra. After prescreening his five hour rough assembly for Zanuck, a rupture in this artistic license occurred. Unimpressed by what he deemed as wanton wasteful extravagance with no melodramatic spark infused, Zanuck fired Mankiewicz on the spot, and began to hack into the raw footage himself.

Although a skilled editor, Zanuck was hampered in his frustrations by the fact that no final shooting script had ever been approved – hence, it was impossible for anyone other than Mankiewicz to know for sure where all the pieces fit. Rehired, Mankiewicz spent twenty hours a day re-cutting his opus magnum into one, four hour and thirteen minute epic. But Zanuck was still unimpressed by what he saw. Reluctantly, he reordered director and cast to El Maria, Spain to reshoot the film’s opening sequence in February of 1963.

Meanwhile, Fox’s publicity department crafted a national ad campaign with bizarre tie-ins in everything from geometric haircuts to Revlon eye make-up. Even Playboy Magazine got involved with an exposé on “The Chicks of Cleopatra.” Believing all this over inflated hype, New York’s famed Rivoli Theater cut a one million, two-hundred and fifty thousand dollar exhibitor’s check to Fox – the highest sum ever paid to premiere a movie anywhere in the world. Their blind faith was only superficially justified with sold out seating for the first four months of general release.

However, two books released just prior to the premiere, and chronicling the turbulent behind-the-scenes chaos; The Cleopatra Papers, and My Life with Cleopatra, did much to damage the film’s overall popularity. Yet even these literary assaults paled in comparison to Elizabeth Taylor’s outspoken public condemnation of the movie. Indeed, Taylor refused to attend the New York premiere – a glittering festivity hosted by Burt Parks and aired live as part of The Tonight Show.

She was forced by Fox into making an appearance for the British premiere in August of 1963, and afterward took her revenge by declaring outwardly that “the final humiliation was having to go and see it.” By then, Zanuck had cut the film even further to squeeze in at least two viewings per day at just over three hours in length. Any hope for the salvation of Cleopatra as one of the all time masterpieces of American cinema was henceforth dismantled – even if artist Andy Warhol did declare Cleopatra to be the most influential film of the sixties.

The irony behind this back story is that in reviewing the finished film in its longer, four hour U.S. incarnation – and forty years removed from all its backstage tabloid-fodder and international hype, there is a great deal to admire and absorb; much more than critics of its day or many since have ever given the film credit for. Wanger and Mankiewicz, whose careers never recovered from the humiliation of producing one of the costliest flops in movie history (the film took in a, then, record $24 million dollars that did not offset its $44 million dollar production costs) could be proud of the fact that what remains in tact today is arguably some of the most grandly amusing and sumptuously fulfilling spectacle ever put on the screen. To his dying day, Mankiewicz had hoped that Fox would eventually see the light and reassemble the story as two separate films – as he had originally envisioned.

It seems that perhaps at long last, that hope is on the verge of rediscovery – though it has come too late for Mankiewicz; he died on February 5, 1993. Beginning in 1995, Fox launched a world wide search for the missing footage – nearly three hours in all, and perhaps sitting somewhere in a vault or under a pile of discarded memorabilia, merely waiting for this day to arrive.

What a thrill then it would be to have the opportunity to re-judge Cleopatra as the masterpiece it might have been instead of the lavish claptrap it ultimately became. Will we ever see that day arrive? Perhaps we shall – as long as there are film scholars and historians that care, and dreamers who would like to remember something grander than what they received on June 12, 1963.