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Remembering Elizabeth Taylor: “Cleopatra”

Remembering Elizabeth Taylor: “Cleopatra” (photo)

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Another Elizabeth Taylor film, another Elizabeth Taylor performance as a powerful woman. Through three of these columns so far, I’ve been struck repeatedly by Taylor’s fierce, feminist independence onscreen, first as a teenage girl who enters the greatest horserace in the country, and then later as a jilted wife who fights to reclaim her distracted husband. Now we come to 1963’s “Cleopatra” where she plays the famous Egyptian pharaoh who delights in making powerful men like Julius Caesar and Mark Antony kneel before her as a display of her superiority. As Taylor’s star grew, so did the stature of the women she played, until here she plays one of the most powerful people, man or woman, in world history.

Today the film is more infamous than famous. With a final budget of over $40 million — $300 million 2011 dollars — it was the most expensive film made to that date. And while the shoot dragged on for months during delays and reshoots and production relocations and directorial replacements and star illnesses, the married Taylor began an affair with her also married co-star, Richard Burton, sparking scandalous headlines around the world. The public’s curiosity about the couple helped “Cleopatra” eventually break even financially, but there’s little evidence of their passion in the finished film. The biggest tangible impact the two had on “Cleopatra” was its length; director Joseph L. Mankiewicz wanted to release the film in two three-hour halves: the first about Cleopatra and her relationship with Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison), the second with Burton’s Mark Antony. But with so much money on the line, and audience interest so focused on Taylor and Burton, Fox ordered Mankiewicz to combine his movies into one four-hour picture.

That was probably the right business decision but it was the wrong artistic one. At 243 grueling minutes, “Cleopatra” is an epic in length only. Save one complex naval battle, and the truly memorable arrival of Cleopatra in Rome to the adoration of thousands of peasants, the film is most a procession of scenes in which people in old timey clothes bark at one another about loyalty and respect and the gods. Mankiewicz’s structural preference is evident in the film’s shifting focus: its initial lead is Harrison’s Caesar, who comes to Egypt to settle a dispute between Cleopatra and her scheming brother, then stays after he’s bewitched by her beauty. Later he returns to Rome and she follows, just in time for a recreation of the Ides of March assassination (with that great Italian icon, Carroll O’Connor, as one of the conspirators!). After Caesar’s death, Cleopatra flees to Egypt; Antony then travels to Alexandria to request the queen’s assistance with a food shortage, which sparks their affair and mutual undoing.

There is one argument to make in favor of “Cleopatra”‘s Nile-like length. As it exists, “Cleopatra” is essentially an ode to bigness. It gives us a taste — more than a taste really, more like an enormous gorging — of Roman and Egyptian decadence, ancient civilizations that were apparently towering monuments to their own narcissism. With its gargantuan runtime and opulent production design, “Cleopatra” is essentially the exact same thing. You might even say that Hollywood, in all its bloated self-importance, and commitment to spreading its products around the world, is the true modern inheritor of Caesar and Cleopatra’s wasteful greed and imperialism.

Or maybe these are just the rambling thoughts a bored man considers while sitting through a four hour film. This movie has all the subtlety — not to mention all the authenticity — of a whoopee cushion fart. There’s not much else to consider, especially once Burton arrives as Mark Antony. Like so many legendary on-and-off screen romances, Burton and Taylor don’t live up to their sensationalistic reputation, at least not here (Taylor actually has much better chemistry with Rex Harrison). The pair share exactly one romantic moment, the one where — HISTORICAL SPOILER ALERT!! — Antony dies in Cleopatra’s arms, and he tells her, “You and I will prove death so much less than love.” Most of the rest of their scenes consist of Taylor sneering at Burton and Burton shouting at Taylor. A little glimpse into their home life, perhaps? Either way, it’s tiresome when repeated this often.

Their big, blustery one-note performances border on camp, and it’s easy to imagine “Cleopatra” having evolved into a cult classic, if only it wasn’t so goddamn long. It’s sort of kitschy fun to watch Taylor get regal Rex Harrison and barking Richard Burton to supplicate themselves at her feet, basking in the glory that is Liz. Plus her thick eye makeup and hair extensions, not to mention her general air of manic superficiality, kind of make her look look like the prototype for “Jersey Shore” star Snooki. Take a look:

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Though Cleopatra’s royal station fits Taylor’s tastes as an actress, the part doesn’t provide her enough opportunities to play the sort of scenes she does best: where she’s fierce and ferocious and feminine all at once. As Cleopatra, she lays about the palace, ordering people to fetch her things and run he baths. That’s not the Taylor we want to see. We want her to be powerful, not pampered. One line caught my ear, though. Preparing for her death, Cleopatra asks a servant to deliver a message to Octavian (Roddy McDowell), Caesar’s successor as Emperor of Rome. “Words are wasted on such a man,” the servant replies. “I’ve wasted so many on so many men,” Cleopatra says in response. More on this line, and on the metatextual interplay between Taylor and her most famous roles, in our next and final column.

Previous Remembering Elizabeth Taylor Columns
“National Velvet”
“Cat On a Hot Tin Roof”

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Hard Out

Comedy From The Closet

Janice and Jeffrey Available Now On IFC's Comedy Crib

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She’s been referred to as “the love child of Amy Sedaris and Tracy Ullman,” and he’s a self-described “Italian who knows how to cook a great spaghetti alla carbonara.” They’re Mollie Merkel and Matteo Lane, prolific indie comedians who blended their robust creative juices to bring us the new Comedy Crib series Janice and Jeffrey. Mollie and Matteo took time to answer our probing questions about their series and themselves. Here’s a taste.

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IFC: How would you describe Janice and Jeffrey to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Mollie & Matteo: Janice and Jeffrey is about a married couple experiencing intimacy issues but who don’t have a clue it’s because they are gay. Their oblivion makes them even more endearing.  Their total lack of awareness provides for a buffet of comedy.

IFC: What’s your origin story? How did you two people meet and how long have you been working together?

Mollie: We met at a dive bar in Wrigley Field Chicago. It was a show called Entertaining Julie… It was a cool variety scene with lots of talented people. I was doing Janice one night and Matteo was doing an impression of Liza Minnelli. We sort of just fell in love with each other’s… ACT! Matteo made the first move and told me how much he loved Janice and I drove home feeling like I just met someone really special.

IFC: How would Janice describe Jeffrey?

Mollie: “He can paint, cook homemade Bolognese, and sing Opera. Not to mention he has a great body. He makes me feel empowered and free. He doesn’t suffocate me with attention so our love has room to breath.”

IFC: How would Jeffrey describe Janice?

Matteo: “Like a Ford. Built to last.”

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Mollie & Matteo: Our current political world is mirroring and reflecting this belief that homosexuality is wrong. So what better time for satire. Everyone is so pro gay and equal rights, which is of course what we want, too. But no one is looking at middle America and people actually in the closet. No one is saying, hey this is really painful and tragic, and sitting with that. Having compassion but providing the desperate relief of laughter…This seemed like the healthiest, best way to “fight” the gay rights “fight”.

IFC: Hummus is hilarious. Why is it so funny?

Mollie: It just seems like something people take really seriously, which is funny to me. I started to see it in a lot of lesbians’ refrigerators at a time. It’s like observing a lesbian in a comfortable shoe. It’s a language we speak. Pass the Hummus. Turn on the Indigo Girls would ya?

See the whole season of Janice and Jeffrey right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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Die Hard Dads

Inspiration For Die Hard Dads

Die Hard is on IFC all Father's Day Long

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIPHY

Yippee ki-yay, everybody! It’s time to celebrate the those most literal of mother-effers: dads!

And just in case the title of this post left anything to the imagination, IFC is giving dads balls-to-the-wall ’80s treatment with a glorious marathon of action trailblazer Die Hard.

There are so many things we could say about Die Hard. We could talk about how it was comedian Bruce Willis’s first foray into action flicks, or Alan Rickman’s big screen debut. But dads don’t give a sh!t about that stuff.

No, dads just want to fantasize that they could be deathproof quip factory John McClane in their own mundane lives. So while you celebrate the fathers in your life, consider how John McClane would respond to these traditional “dad” moments…

Wedding Toasts

Dads always struggle to find the right words of welcome to extend to new family. John McClane, on the other hand, is the master of inclusivity.
Die Hard wedding

Using Public Restrooms

While nine out of ten dads would rather die than use a disgusting public bathroom, McClane isn’t bothered one bit. So long as he can fit a bloody foot in the sink, he’s G2G.
Die Hard restroom

Awkward Dancing

Because every dad needs a signature move.
Die Hard dance

Writing Thank You Notes

It can be hard for dads to express gratitude. Not only can McClane articulate his thanks, he makes it feel personal.
Die Hard thank you

Valentine’s Day

How would John McClane say “I heart you” in a way that ain’t cliche? The image speaks for itself.
Die Hard valentines

Shopping

The only thing most dads hate more than shopping is fielding eleventh-hour phone calls with additional items for the list. But does McClane throw a typical man-tantrum? Nope. He finds the words to express his feelings like a goddam adult.
Die Hard thank you

Last Minute Errands

John McClane knows when a fight isn’t worth fighting.
Die Hard errands

Sneaking Out Of The Office Early

What is this, high school? Make a real exit, dads.
Die Hard office

Think you or your dad could stand to be more like Bruce? Role model fodder abounds in the Die Hard marathon all Father’s Day long on IFC.

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Founding Farters

Know Your Nerd History

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIFs via Giphy

That we live in the heyday of nerds is no hot secret. Scientists are celebrities, musicians are robots and late night hosts can recite every word of the Silmarillion. It’s too easy to think that it’s always been this way. But the truth is we owe much to our nerd forebearers who toiled through the jock-filled ’80s so that we might take over the world.

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Our humble beginnings are perhaps best captured in iconic ’80s romp Revenge of the Nerds. Like the founding fathers of our Country, the titular nerds rose above their circumstances to culturally pave the way for every Colbert and deGrasse Tyson that we know and love today.

To make sure you’re in the know about our very important cultural roots, here’s a quick download of the vengeful nerds without whom our shameful stereotypes might never have evolved.

Lewis Skolnick

The George Washington of nerds whose unflappable optimism – even in the face of humiliating self-awareness – basically gave birth to the Geek Pride movement.

Gilbert Lowe

OK, this guy is wet blanket, but an important wet blanket. Think Aaron Burr to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. His glass-mostly-empty attitude is a galvanizing force for Lewis. Who knows if Lewis could have kept up his optimism without Lowe’s Debbie-Downer outlook?

Arnold Poindexter

A music nerd who, after a soft start (inside joke, you’ll get it later), came out of his shell and let his passion lead instead of his anxiety. If you played an instrument (specifically, electric violin), and you were a nerd, this was your patron saint.

Booger

A sex-loving, blunt-smoking, nose-picking guitar hero. If you don’t think he sounds like a classic nerd, you’re absolutely right. And that’s the whole point. Along with Lamar, he simultaneously expanded the definition of nerd and gave pre-existing nerds a twisted sort of cred by association.

Lamar Latrell

Black, gay, and a crazy good breakdancer. In other words, a total groundbreaker. He proved to the world that nerds don’t have a single mold, but are simply outcasts waiting for their moment.

Ogre

Exceedingly stupid, this dumbass was monumental because he (in a sequel) leaves the jocks to become a nerd. Totally unheard of back then. Now all jocks are basically nerds.

Well, there they are. Never forget that we stand on their shoulders.

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC all month long.

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