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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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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at IFC.com

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.



Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…