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Trivia / Cleopatra

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  • All-Star Cast: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Rex Harrison, Roddy McDowall, Martin Landau, George Cole...need more?
  • Billing Displacement: One that was just a clerical error. Roddy McDowall was mistakenly listed as one of the leads, which accidentally disqualified him from getting a Best Supporting Actor nomination.
  • Box Office Bomb: Although it did well at the box office, 20th Century Fox only got half of the $57 million in profits, the rest of it going to movie theaters. The profits only started to come with the TV broadcasting rights. With its budget of $44 million (over $350 million when adjusted for inflation in the 2010s), this film nearly put the studio out of business. It remains the only film to be the highest-grossing of its year and still lose money.
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  • Creator Backlash: Elizabeth Taylor reportedly threw up when she saw the finished product for the first time.
    They had cut out the heart, the essence, the motivations, the very core, and tacked on all those battle scenes. It should have been about three large people, but it lacked reality and passion. I found it vulgar.
  • Creator Killer:
    • Barely averted. 20th Century Fox nearly went bankrupt as a result of this film's bloated production; it rebounded only because The Sound of Music was such a phenomenal success. More importantly, it proved to be one of the final nails in the coffin of the studio system.
    • The film ultimately did lead to at least one victim: Walter Wanger, the once-successful Hollywood producer, never made another film again after this. Joseph L. Mankiewicz' career also went into a spiral until he directed Sleuth in 1972, a critical and commercial success. Mankiewicz retired immediately after Sleuth, allowing him to rest on his laurels.
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  • Deleted Scene: Originally intended by Joseph Mankewicz as a six-hour film to be Divided for Publication until Executive Meddling ordered it to be released as a single four-hour film. Since the mid-1990s, Fox has been hunting down the remaining two hours to create a Director's Cut.
  • Genre-Killer: It killed the Sword & Sandal epic for over three decades, until Gladiator restored it.
  • Life Imitates Art: In the second part of the movie, there is hardly a scene where Mark Antony is not drinking. Richard Burton had serious problems with alcohol, including on the set.
  • Money, Dear Boy: Elizabeth Taylor jokingly said that she'd only do the film for $1 million. To her surprise, Fox paid up.
  • Never Work with Children or Animals: Michael Hordern describes the filming of the 9-minute sequence where Cleopatra enters Rome in his 1994 autobiography. He remembers that 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, so a crew member had to hide inside to shoo them out at the right moment, not a pleasant job as the birds defecated liberally.
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  • Old Shame: Joseph L. Mankiewicz tried to have his name taken off the credits, claiming he only did the film as a favour to his friend Elizabeth Taylor.
  • The Other Marty: The young actor playing Cleopatra's son had to be recast because the sequence of her arriving in Rome took so long to film - that he had grown quite a bit.
  • Prop Recycling: According to Rex Harrison's autobiography, 20th Century Fox custom-made his Julius Caesar boots while Richard Burton's boots were hand-me-downs from the previous attempt at making the film. Harrison was amazed that Burton did not complain.
  • Recycled Set: Sets that were originally built at Pinewood Studios in England, only to go unused when production moved to Italy, would later be used by the makers of the parody Carry On Cleo.
  • Romance on the Set: Elizabeth Taylor's and Richard Burton's romance on set was one of the most famous and scandalous in movie history. Not in the least because they were both still married.
  • Those Two Actors: This was the first of six movies that Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor made together.
  • Troubled Production: Where to even begin?
    • The whole reason the film was made was to alleviate the financial woes plaguing 20th Century Fox at the time. Darryl Zanuck, the founder and long-time executive of Fox, left the studio in the mid-1950s to produce independent films in Europe. His replacement, Spyrous Skouras, lacked Zanuck's vision; he was an exhibitionist, not a producer. Thus, the studio pumped out unsuccessful films, including rare flops for bankable stars such as John Wayne, Elvis Presley, and Marilyn Monroe. Skouras then decided on a remake of a successful property to pump up some much needed profit, and chose Cleopatra, a 1917 film starring Theda Bara. They initially planned a $2 million, 64-day project to be shot at the backlot, but the studio was so impressed with sketches and models of proposed sets that the budget was increased to nearly $5 million.
    • After Joan Collins bowed out of the lead role in 1958, Elizabeth Taylor sarcastically offered to take it for a million dollars - and to her surprise, 20th Century Fox agreed. The weekly costs that were included in Taylor's fee ballooned out of control when she became gravely ill with pneumonia during initial shooting at Pinewood Studios in England in 1960, putting a halt to filming for many months, and leading her to be paid over $2 million before any usable footage had been shot. Taylor's illness and the resulting delays led to the resignation of the original director (Rouben Mamoulian) and the actors cast as Caesar (Peter Finch) and Antony (Stephen Boyd).
    • Even leaving aside Taylor's extended sick leave, few things went as planned during the abortive Pinewood shoot. The producers had frequent clashes with the studio's labour unions, the film crew did not realise until after settling on Pinewood as the venue for indoor filming that there were fewer available soundstages than anticipated and the ceilings were too low to accommodate the sets as originally planned, and the outdoor sets deteriorated rapidly in the cold, wet English weather. The footage shot at Pinewood ended up being discarded as the filming moved to Cinecittà Studios in Rome so the English weather would not impair Taylor's recovery. (The sets were still used by the producers of the Carry On films in 1964's Carry On Cleo.)
    • Production in Italy was just as problematic. The costumes and sets had to be completely re-designed and re-built, leading to a shortage of lumber and other building materials throughout Italy. Millions of dollars' worth of props and other equipment were stolen by studio employees, while a group of female extras went on strike as a result of being constantly groped by lecherous male extras. Two construction workers building the Alexandria set were killed by an unexploded World War II land mine. The constant delays and re-shoots in filming the epic-scale scene of Cleopatra's entrance on a barge into Rome (started in October 1961, finished the following March) required the recasting of Cleopatra's son as the original child actor had grown significantly taller during the delay.
    • When Joseph L. Mankiewicz was brought on board to direct at Taylor's insistence, the film was already nearly a year behind schedule, $5 million over budget, and had not a single frame of usable footage to show for it. The script was only half completed, and Mankiewicz had to write the rest as filming went along, shooting the script as new scenes were written and editing the resulting footage later rather than editing the script first and then shooting the resulting scenes. The catastrophic budget overruns meant the climactic Battle of Actium sequence had to be re-written to take place almost entirely off camera. So great was the strain of writing and directing that Mankiewicz required injections to both get through each day and sleep at night.
    • To complicate matters, the film marked the beginning of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton's tempestuous relationship and eventual marriage (and subsequent divorce, re-marriage, and re-divorce); as both were already married, the resulting scandal and moral outrage added bad publicity to the already toxic combination of massive delays and cost inflation. However, the affair created enough fascination with the public that Fox decided to assemble a publicity campaign that focused almost entirely on Taylor and Burton, with scant attention at best devoted to Rex Harrison as Caesar.note 
    • Things didn't improve during post production. Mankiewicz initially planned to assemble two three-hour films, Caesar and Cleopatra and Antony and Cleopatra, but Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck believed that the public interest in seeing Taylor and Burton on screen together might fade if the second film were released later, while interest in the first film (in which Burton would only appear in a few scenes) would be minimal, so he ordered the films edited into a single four-hour film - requiring more re-shoots to smooth over the changes. Mankiewicz was eventually fired during editing, but had to be re-hired when it became obvious that he was the only person who could make sense of the raw footage.note 
    • The film finally staggered into cinemas in June 1963, with a final production cost of $44 million (over $300 million adjusted for inflation) - money Fox knew it had little chance of recovering. Despite lukewarm reviews from critics and audiences, the film had the highest box office take of 1963 and was nominated for ten Oscars (including Best Picture), winning four, but it would not break even until ABC paid $5 million for two television screenings in 1966 (at the time, a record fee for film broadcasting rights). The already financially troubled 20th Century Fox almost went bankrupt, selling parts of its studio lot and needing the successes of films such as The Longest Daynote  in 1962 and The Sound of Music in 1965 to offset their losses. Cleopatra also killed interest in the sword and sandal epic genre for nearly a generation, and was a key factor in the disintegration of the old "studio system", as studios passed responsibility for production costs to independent production companies instead of handling said costs themselves.
  • What Could Have Been:
  • Writing by the Seat of Your Pants: In keeping with the chaotic production, there was no shooting script. Joseph L. Mankiewicz wrote as he was shooting. At one point, he was fired and then rehired because he was the only one who could put the film together.


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