Cleopatra 60 years later. The Epic that nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox

Elizabeth Taylor’s life had been threatened after the Vatican had denounced her scandalous relationship with Richard Burton. During the filming of Cleopatra’s entrance into Rome, the thousands of Roman Catholics who were extras became a serious concern. Soldiers packing guns lined the streets with barriers and cables to prevent an assassination. As Taylor came through the arch, the crowd broke through the barriers and cables. But as Taylor and the movie crew feared for her life, she realized that they were shouting “Bacio Liz!! Bacio Liz”, declaring their love for the actress. Instead of remaining in the highly strung character of Cleopatra, Taylor began to cry and thank the crowd as she blew kisses, and the scene had to be reshot.

Cleopatra 60 years later. The Epic that nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox

Like Cleopatra of the Imperial Roman Empire, Cleopatra the movie nearly affected the course of history. This literary Epic, nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox. Budget overruns due in part to turmoil on the set of the epic had forced the studio to completely shut down for six months and sell off a huge chunk of its backlot, which would eventually be turned into Century City.

During early filming at Pinewood Studios, the harsh weather conditions of the English winter brought on pneumonia for the fragile Elizabeth Taylor, where she eventually collapsed in her hotel room. An emergency tracheotomy was performed successfully at the hospital and Taylor slowly recovered. This setback helped to hold up the shoot for months, necessitating relocation of the production to the hot climate of Cinecitta Studios in Rome. Co-stars Peter Finch and Stephen Boyd were replaced with Rex Harrison and Richard Burton; and lacking a workable screenplay, the producers brought in Joseph L. Mankiewicz, four-time Oscar winner and a late choice to save the project, to replace Rouben Mamoulian.

Then there was the notorious affair with Richard Burton, that would lead both parties to leave their spouses, which Taylor would refer to as “Le scandale”.

Interestingly, with all of the attention surrounding the adulterous affair between Taylor and Burton, cost overruns and production troubles, very little attention has been focused on the important role of the Seventy-nine sets which were constructed for this movie. In fact, it is the sets themselves that define this movie as “Epic”.

Then there was the budget for Elizabeth Taylor’s costumes, $194,800, was the highest ever for a single-screen actress. Her 65 costumes included a dress made from 24-carat gold cloth. 26,000 total costumes were created for the film. Elizabeth Taylor’s overall take of $7 million for her role is equivalent to approximately $64.3 million in 2022 dollars. Adjusted for inflation, this is one of the most expensive movies ever made. Its budget of $44 million is equivalent to over $425 million today.

The movie was supposed to be released as two separate movies, “Caesar and Cleopatra”, followed by “Antony and Cleopatra”. Each was to run approximately three hours. But the studio did not want to wait an additional 6 months to capitalize on the Taylor-Burton affair. So, they released it in one colossal hunk, slicing out a lot of substance from the script.

It should be noted that the presentations of Cleopatra that were shown during June of 1963 were the original 4-hour version.  Only a couple of weeks into its release, the studio shortened the film by nearly an hour and circulating prints were edited to conform to the revised cut and/or replaced with newer prints.  All subsequent bookings were of the shorter cut regardless of whether or not it was roadshow or general release.

In the end, Cleopatra turned out to be the highest-grossing movie of 1963. It received nine nominations at the 36th Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and won four: Best Art Direction (Color), Best Cinematography (Color), Best Visual Effects and Best Costume Design (Color). Once it opened, it was sold out for the next four months. In 1966, ABC paid Twentieth Century Fox a record $5 million for two showings of the movie, a deal that put the movie in the black. But it wasn’t until 1973 when Fox claimed this movie finally broke even, and Fox “closed the books” on it, keeping all future profits secret to avoid paying those who might have been promised a percentage of the profits.

All in all, I love this movie and I find the making of it almost as interesting. This is one movie meant to be seen on the big screen!

Written and lived by… Donnie Norden

The Roman forum built at Cinecitta was three times the size of the real thing.

The dress that Elizabeth Taylor wears for the moment when Cleopatra arrives in Rome cost $6,500 to make in 1961!

The affair hardly came out of nowhere. Taylor had been taken with Richard Burton since catching him on Broadway as King Arthur in “Camelot.” The studio considered numerous actors for the role of Marc Antony, but Taylor only had eyes for Burton, so the studio bought out his “Camelot” contract and Taylor got her man.

During Cleopatra’s entry into Rome, the shots of the entry of Cleopatra’s giant sphinx, and the parade that precedes it, were filmed several months apart, posing problems in matching the lighting. The American child actor who played her four-year-old son got taller during the delay. He was replaced by an Italian boy, complete with a thick, inappropriate accent.

Joseph L. Mankiewicz said a master shot was spoiled because the camera caught an enterprising extra hawking gelato to his fellow extras.

Sir Michael Hordern who played Cicero, remembers the doves that were supposed to fly out of the miniature pyramid when it opened had grown very drowsy in the Roman heat and remained inside, a crew member had to hide inside to shoo them out at the right moment.

The budget for Elizabeth Taylor’s costumes, $194,800, was the highest ever for a single-screen actress. Her 65 costumes included a dress made from 24-carat gold cloth.

Writer and director Joseph L. Mankiewicz was fired during post-production, due to the quarrels with the then, newly reinstalled Fox President Darryl F. Zanuck, over the nature of editing the movie’s length. Since he wrote the script as he was shooting, Twentieth Century Fox soon realized that only Mankiewicz knew how the story fit together. He was then brought back to complete the project.

Elizabeth Taylor demanded that this movie be shot in the large, 70mm Todd-AO format system. She owned the rights to the system as the widow of the format system’s creator Mike Todd.

Production moved from London to Rome following Elizabeth Taylor’s illness, and the movie’s elaborate sets and props all had to be constructed twice. The production required so much lumber and raw material that building materials became scarce throughout all of Italy.

Roddy McDowall was playing a teenager in the first half of the film, despite being in his mid-30s.

Elizabeth Taylor’s overall take of $7 million is equivalent to approximately $64.3 million in 2022 dollars.

The life-saving emergency tracheotomy that Elizabeth Taylor received after being hospitalized in England, left a noticeable scar on her neck which can be seen in this image. Obviously, this would have been a historical error and great care had to be taken to cover it during shooting. On a personal level though, Taylor became quite proud of her scar (She called it her “war wound”) and made very little attempt to disguise it in public, something that annoyed studio publicists.

Cleopatra biggest controversy was the adulterous affair between the stars Taylor and Burton. It marked a turning point in Hollywood; the public would no longer buy the studio system’s sanitized version of the stars’ lives, nor would the stars allow the media moguls such control over their personal lives.

Knocking back some spirits in between takes.

Burton was an inveterate womaniser; he’d had numerous affairs but always returned to his wife Sybil. Everyone assumed this dalliance between him and Liz would be just as short-lived and that it would simply blow over. By February rumours of the affair had gone worldwide and Sybil Burton and Eddie Fisher couldn’t ignore them any more – they both fled Rome in the hope of forcing the couple apart.

Sharing a seat, in between takes.

One of the first pictures captured of the two by the paparazzi

As soon as they resumed filming the chemistry between them was too much. “I feel as if I’m intruding,” Director Mankiewicz said one day as his shouts of “Cut!” “Cut!” went unnoticed by Taylor and Burton during a love scene.

Original Pinewood Studio set that had to be demolished when production was moved to Rome.

Cleopatra’s navy required huge numbers of boats and ships. It was said at the time that Twentieth Century Fox had the World’s Third Largest Navy!

A group of female extras who played Cleopatra’s servants and slave girls went on strike to demand protection from the Italian male extras. The studio eventually hired a special guard to protect the female extras. In the gossip press, it became known as “The Revolt of the Slave Girls.”

A clerical error by Twentieth Century Fox probably cost Roddy McDowall a Best Actor in a Supporting Role Academy Award nomination. The studio erroneously listed him as a leading player rather than a supporting one. When Fox asked the Academy to correct the error, it refused, saying the ballots were already at the printer.

Hume Cronyn was originally signed to be on the movie for 10 weeks. He stayed with the production for 10 and a half months.

Sir Rex Harrison offered up his own salary to help the production and finish the movie. Mankiewicz refused to let him do that.

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A lot of the promotional artwork used in Cleopatra omitted the image of Rex Harrison. A clause in Sir Rex Harrison’s contract required a picture of him to appear in any ad with a picture of Richard Burton. He got the last laugh when he became the only one of the movie’s three stars to receive an Oscar nomination for his performance.

When a large billboard showed only Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, Harrison’s lawyers complained. The studio tried to fulfill the contract by placing a small picture of Harrison in the corner of the billboard on the Seventh Avenue side of the Rivoli Theatre. Harrison was not satisfied!

The updated poster showing Sir Rex Harrison’s full image, and his previous image was covered up with “Tickets Now On Sale At Box Office”.

Seventy-nine sets were constructed for this movie

In Anzio, while building the Alexandria set, a few construction workers were killed by an unexploded mine left over from World War II.

An aerial view of the Alexandria set

“HOT SET”Pretty risque for 1963!

One of the final scenes of the movie filmed in Egypt. Egypt initially refused to let Elizabeth Taylor in because she had converted to Judaism when she married Eddie Fisher. They changed their minds when they realized the movie’s presence would put millions of American dollars into the economy.

The death of Cleopatra and nearly the death of 20th Century Fox.

A Press Conference to discuss the plans to sell off and develop the 20th Century Fox Studio Backlot.

A picture of the 20th Century Studio backlot which would become Century City.

Century City Plaza Hotel under construction.

The Premiere shown in theatres (Movietone News).

European Premiere in London. Filmgoers wait to enter the theater for the 1963 premiere of Cleopatra starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and Rex Harrison.

New York premiere at the Rivoli Theatre.

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton did not attend any of the US premieres.

Hollywood premiere at the RKO Pantages Theatre.

Souvenir coins given out at the premiere. These coins are a replica of the necklace of gold coins of Caesar and Cleopatra used in the movie.

Christmas of 1963. RKO Pantages is still showing the Roadshow engagement of Cleopatra.

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