Cleopatra (1963)

Dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Starring Elizabeth Taylor, Rex Harrison, Richard Burton

The most famous scene of Cleopatra is one that unfolds slowly, but in a sense it’s what we came for or, at least, what we knew we’d be getting when we saw Hermes Pan’s name pop up in the opening credits. Caesar (Harrison) has returned to Rome. A tremendous procession for the people to admire passes through, although the space they inhabit is so small that it is much more stage than parade. Dancers pop in, marked as exotic for the white Roman audience (and, I dunno, probably the presumed white audience in theaters) by their skin color. If not that, then their exuberant dancing, bright costumes or, in one notable case, her lack thereof.  Last of all is a huge group of men, three men abreast in two great lines, not segregated by race, proving a lesson that we might have learned from I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang: anyone who has to do this kind of labor is beneath the concept of race and only very slightly raised above the status of an animal. They haul, like human oxen, an immense sphinx towards Caesar. They shift their weight from one foot to another, lending each line a fittingly serpentine mood; surely this is as much a kind of dance as the shimmying and shaking which preceded it for several minutes. The sphinx they draw bears Cleopatra (Taylor) and her son Caesarion, a very short list of passengers for this enormous thing, although Cleopatra is resplendent upon this black conveyance which defies scale. (In length it is probably not much greater than a private prop plane, but in height I’m not sure what the right comparison is. And while we’re here: maybe I’m looking at this the wrong way, but is it insane for me to wonder how they got that thing out of there? Was it motorized? Did they hire every draught animal within fifty miles of Cinecittà to pull it away? Surely this was not the only take!) Cleopatra is dressed in gold, and it is an effect which suggests her godliness rather than her beauty; other costumes and makeup emphasized her attractiveness more than this ensemble, which places wings over her arms and hair. Her face is stern, although the face that unhinged Caesar months ago in Alexandria cannot be visible to the onlookers screaming and waving their arms and cheering down below. For his part, Caesar looks on approvingly as the sphinx comes ever closer; a shot from below as the ebony monster comes closer is almost terrifying, for we can visualize this thing made without brakes running us over at its pitiless pace.

We watch all of this, and we wonder who does this sort of thing? Is this the kind of celebration that only Caesar and Cleopatra could have dreamed up, both of whom had claimed divinity by this point in the movie? Is this the event which gusts awe into the mind of these frantic Romans, the memory of which might have stirred them up to live and die for country? No! The people who thought of it were not really Caesar or Cleopatra or whoever Hermes Pan’s antediluvian equivalent was: it’s the nutcases at 20th Century Fox who dreamed this up, and it’s the cuckoos in the cheap seats who eat it out of their hand, who marvel at Elizabeth Taylor or at what insensible grandeur people fabricated at a studio six miles southeast of the Forum. Cleopatra is no great movie, perhaps isn’t even really a good movie, but it’s an amazing movie, what happens when a business terrified of being overrun by the new distracting technology that keeps people in on a weekend—TV then, the Interwebs now—launches itself headfirst into undeniable spectacle. And what there is in this movie to wonder at is, by and large, the spectacular. It comes in multiple forms: the sets, the endless costumes, the extras. There’s the gaudy language, which sometimes works fairly well, sometimes gets butchered by people who don’t quite have the acting chops for the lines giving it the ol’ college try (looking at you, Roddy McDowall), and sometimes is accidentally hilarious. To wit:

Cleopatra: A woman, too, must make the barren land fruitful. She must make life grow where there was no life. Just as the mother Nile feeds and replenishes the earth, I am the Nile. I will bear many sons. Isis has told me.

Me, watching this movie: Okie-dokie.

Cleopatra: My breasts are filled with love and life.

Me, being supportive: Same!

Speaking of, there’s also Elizabeth Taylor, Elizabeth Taylor’s wardrobe, Elizabeth Taylor’s makeup, Richard Burton’s thighs while horseback riding, Richard Burton’s thighs while not horseback riding, and so on. It must dazzle us over and over again, bludgeon us with majesty like the emperors of old did to maintain their status, to let us know that we are incapable of such a production and that their ability to do so is proof of their grandeur. In one sense, it’s quite true, but watching this movie is to be stunned by the sheer size of it all and to remember that multiple cities in multiple Midwestern states claim that they possess America’s biggest ball of string.

How amusing it is, then, that if we were to think of something to praise in this movie it would have to be an actor who seems to have been plopped down in this movie from a more businesslike production elsewhere. When Joseph L. Mankiewicz made Julius Caesar ten years prior, the title character was played by Louis Calhern, who is something of a surprising choice for the role. Rex Harrison, who has much more to do in this picture than Calhern had to do in his, is equally surprising. The man who would be Henry Higgins for audiences the following year doesn’t necessarily seem like the general, the Rubicon-crosser, the doom of the Republic at first glance, and there’s something which feels a little wonky about watching him stare down at the burning heaps of a sandy Spanish victory. But then the movie takes a different tack for him. The picture plays up his epilepsy, for one thing, which it handles sympathetically enough, yet it’s clearly there to show that physically he is not the beefcake soldier we’ll find in Antony (Burton). In successive battle scenes it is not his great strength but his cunning that wins him wars. With a small force he holds out at the palace of the Ptolemies against the forces of Cleopatra’s Egyptian enemies, but where Cleopatra sees a likely defeat Caesar is unperturbed; he knows reinforcements are nearby, and all he must do is wait. In these scenes—which fill the better part of two hours!—Harrison simply fits. It’s there in his performance, the slight melancholy of a man who knows the end is much nearer the beginning and who is fighting for legacy as much as triumph; the quiet virility of a middle-aged man hunting down this buxom girl half his age; humor which lends perspective, short gray hair that shouts to us his weakness long before we see him succumb to a seizure.

In Harrison and Burton, Mankiewicz has two all-timers in declamation, and Harrison particularly makes the most of his opportunities. It’s the voice which allows him to be stern with Cleopatra when she acts, forgive us, like a petulant child just as much as the voice coolly commands “the turtle” into battle against young Ptolemy’s (Richard O’Sullivan) forces. Harrison’s star image is one that privileges his cleverness and of course the arrogance that comes along with it, but it usually falls short of megalomania. The megalomania fits much more neatly into the movie’s own enormous scope, but it doesn’t serve Harrison all that well. It’s more like madness than the final step of deification, that one accepts godhood in one’s own mind rather than by acclimation. That final step is one that Caesar takes in the second hour, long after the Roman has all but admitted to the Egyptian that he called himself a god because it was good politics. In that last gasp before his assassination, he expresses his frustration with the Senate’s intentions to do more than become a toga-wearin’ rubber stamp. He must not take in pieces but have the whole cake in one bite. Out of Harrison it’s heavy-handed, and it leads to a scene which, in performance if not technique, Mankiewicz already shot for Julius Caesar. The addition here is not uninteresting, as Taylor looks into a fire with horror as the events of Caesar’s murder and final approach to his supposed friend, Brutus, transpire. In practice it’s more lurid than affecting, and it’s a weak farewell to the movie’s strongest actor.

With Harrison, perhaps because he’s giving the better performance or more likely because the script is slightly ambiguous about Cleopatra’s motivations, Taylor is significantly better in that first half. With Antony in the second half of the picture, Cleopatra is simply lovestruck. Her imperial ambitions, while given some lip service, have faded. The son she had with Caesar is now more pretender than heir. Amazingly, she and Burton have very little chemistry between them, but the greater problem is that watching lovesick Taylor is never as interesting as watching Taylor scheme her way to the top. She has plans in BUtterfield 8, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf?, A Place in the Sun, and especially Giant. She is always much more interesting in each of these movies when she is plying herself towards something rather than being in love with her costar, and it’s much the same in Cleopatra, where the movie takes the story out of her hands and places it squarely in Burton’s Antony.

The first strike is, when Cleopatra can wangle it, seduction. (It doesn’t quite work on Caesar, since getting dropped out of a rug onto your face kind of limits how hawt you can be; everyone else gets the full blast.) In that zone, Taylor does well. There was always a chance that she was using Caesar more than loving him during their affair, and it certainly begins that way. (Seeing her later, wearing a necklace made of coins with Caesar’s face on them, romantic love isn’t really what comes to mind: this is more the tribute of a woman who has lost her father, not her lover.) In her early scenes with Harrison, Taylor toys with him. She spies into a room where the Roman leaders are going through her dossier, hears them disparage her wiles as unfair, and then goes right ahead and uses them on Caesar even though he knows they’re coming. Later in the picture, an onlooker at Actium says that Antony at sea uses the same tactics as Antony on land. Cleopatra is similar. The wants may be different, whether it’s joining Caesar to become the most powerful woman of the world or roping Antony in by paying for his campaigns.  She’s good as a statue, too. Her coronation is one of the highlights of the movie, a brief moment where her intensity sears through the screen: eyes wide, whites practically glaring off the camera, hair hidden under her headdress, equipped with the crook and flail of the pharaohs. This is the queen, the daughter and manifestation of Isis, the one who might through the force of her will and the armies of Rome, rule the known world the way that even Alexander could not. It’s a thrill to watch! Taylor proves that she can fill the screen like the silent goddesses of old, and (here it comes) maybe more silence would have helped the movie. Harrison’s got that great clipped voice, Burton has the ability to use his tone to layer sarcasm in with profundity. Taylor sounds fine, if a little inauthentic, in quiet moments. When Cleopatra wants something, or when she gets upset, she bleats. It’s not a bad quality in Taylor’s voice in itself, because in just three years she would be Martha and rattling off lines from Bette Davis movies and making all sorts of interesting guttural noises between drinks. But Cleopatra, the one who arrives on a black sphinx, the one who stares lasers into a distant wall, should not bleat. It is a problem that 20th Century Fox could not solve by throwing money at it.

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