There are few Hollywood white elephants more elephantine than the Liz Taylor version of Cleopatra. As with all benighted work, it is easy to sneer at the results without thinking too much about what is in front of you. I have never seen it in a theater, but from my first video screening, I thought it was a handsome example of the big-budget spectacular. Writer-director Joseph Mankiewicz ably manages the unenviable task of writing a script with Shaw and Shakespeare looking over his shoulder. Taylor doesn’t exactly look Egyptian (or Macedonian Greek, as the film points out Cleopatra was) but then Rex Harrison and Richard Burton make suspiciously “Nordic” Romans as well. Which is another way of saying that expecting verisimilitude from a movie made to show off the stars and studio resources is more than a touch silly.
Hyperbolic fantasy saturates every corner of the movie. It was the most expensive film made in Hollywood up to that point, and don’t you forget it. It isn’t enough to have a full scale reconstruction of the port of Alexandria, or the Roman forum, or the Battle of Actium. Cleopatra’s barge is a floating palace, and, in perhaps a winking political comment, her bedroom is bigger than the Roman Senate. This isn’t so much an effort to create a “Realistic” ancient world as it is an over-ripe mish-mash of Lawrence Alma-Tadema and Gustav Klimt, refracted, perhaps, through a stroke book. With suitable apologies to Taylor, it is the very extravagance of the production that is the real star.
It is a Hollywood convention that ancient Romans should be played by British actors while all others are played by Americans. Cleopatra largely conforms to that convention, at least among the principles. (When it doesn’t, you rather wish it would, such as in Martin Landau’s strained performance as Antony’s friend Rufio.) Because the film plays to such preconceptions, you don’t question the impossibly clean environment or conflicting acting styles, but it is still difficult to see Taylor as anything other than Taylor. She’s actually quite good, particularly in the lighter, comic scenes, but one of the results of her casting is to make it all feel a little like a Beverly Hills costume party. Burton upsets the punch bowl with his usual self-disgust routine while Harrison seems to be entertaining the guests with a warm up for My Fair Lady, which admittedly works rather well.
Cleopatra’s very excess made me feel a touch of nostalgia for a time when the thousands of extras on screen were real people in costume rather than animated pixels. And for all the film’s commercialism, it offers a sophisticated use of generic conventions as expressed through literate dialog. Combined with the huge resources of the production, the results are as consistently entertaining as they are excessive. In other words, Cleopatra testifies to an era when huge budgets actually bought something bigger than the egos of the participants.