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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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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

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

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.