The review is a bit late, and hastily written today, but I just got home (it’s about midnight) from watching Cleopatra, on the big screen, for its 50th anniversary. Despite it’s excessive runtime, Cleopatra is the quintessential movie to see in a theater due to its epic scope; they don’t make movies like this anymore. This historical epic follows Queen Cleopatra of Egypt (Elizabeth Taylor) as she struggles to gain power, while at the same time seducing Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) and Mark Antony (Richard Burton). I won’t go into the dark, convoluted history of the making-of this movie which has been better documented in other places. Suffice it to say this was a disaster to film, almost bankrupted 20th Century Fox, and created an international scandal when Taylor and Burton started their tumultuous affair. Thankfully, what ended up on the screen is nothing short of spectacular. Epics do benefit the most from being shown in a theater because the audience is able to take in the sheer scale of the movie. Every piece of scenery is beautiful and let’s not get started on the costumes which are simply divine. The fight scenes, the big boat battle in particular, are breath-taking when viewed in their proper aspect ratio. The shoot may have been hellish but you can see this is a movie that has the grandeur that a large budget can provide. With that, the movie is burdened by the huge egos and the personal drama happening backstage. At a massive four hours, the movie suffers when Burton and Taylor take center stage. The first two hours details Cleopatra’s relationship with Caesar, and the strife between Cleopatra and her younger brother. This first section moves briskly, possibly to get to Burton, and is filled with political back and forth. Having studied up on Cleopatra when I was younger, I was sad at how easily her brother is disposed. There was far more scheming and fear for Cleopatra’s life, and here it’s a relatively minor issue. From what I’ve read, various subplots and characters were deleted (with an original cut of six hours!), so it’s understandable where elements were deleted. However, I found Harrison to be an engaging Caesar, although his relationship with Cleopatra doesn’t have nearly the heat or sexual intensity as it does when Mark Antony arrives. The last two hours are entertaining, but the focus turns away from Cleopatra, and becomes more a slice of popular culture. Once Antony shows up, the movie becomes the “Liz and Dick Show” which is fun, but isn’t taken as seriously with what we know about them now. When Antony has a drunken rant about running away from his men to be with Cleopatra, you start to wonder just how many times these two had a similar argument? There’s no denying these two were passionately in love, but it does slog down the movie in having them both go on and on about how much they love each other. In terms of the acting, I was blown away in some cases, and hopelessly disappointed in others. Harrison is a good Caesar, but his character doesn’t have much to do other than proclaim he’s a deity and die. I have to wonder if what was cut came from his section, because he never feels like a fully integrated character. Richard Burton is amazing as the theatrical Mark Antony. When he raises his voice he commands, he literally booms throughout the theater. At times, I wanted him to do outright Shakespeare because his voice is just commanding. Mark Antony is a man torn between love and honor; who fears that he’s losing his ability to command because of his love for Cleopatra. He’s a soldier who fears being labeled as “mushy,” and Burton is given more than a few monologues by which to detail this. The scene stealer, to me, had to be Roddy McDowall as Octavian. I’ve read he lost out on an Oscar nomination due to a clerical error and that’s a shame because his performance is as excellent (and less histrionic) than Burton’s or Harrison’s. Octavian is the villain desiring to live up to, and become, the next Caesar. I’ve always seen McDowall play the hero, and here he is the villain who doesn’t understand, or is an outright sociopath who doesn’t care, about his actions. He spends quite a bit of time sleeping, and the quizzical look on his face after Cleopatra finds out he murdered her son (meanwhile he believes she’s in the dark) is haunting. I was scared of the man in certain sequences which I could never have believed. Now, let’s talk about Elizabeth Taylor. Taylor is one of the most beautiful women in the history of Hollywood, and she is a good actress…this isn’t a role she’s good at. She’s gorgeous, and she wears the costumes as if they’re sewn into her flesh (her body isn’t the only one on display; there’s quite a bit of nudity in this film), but she never comes off as anything above screechy. When Burton or Harrison overact its theatrical and showy; when Taylor does it, it’s funny. She’s never terrible, just naïve in the role. Her snide one-liners with both men come off as a scheming ex-lover and not a domineering Queen. At the time, I doubt I could find a better alternative actress, but Taylor is the weakest link in the cast. Overall, Cleopatra is far better than its given credit for (and has enough men in short skirts to make it worth a view alone!). The story is long, and once Burton and Taylor get together it becomes tiresome to watch, but it cements its status as a classic. The film will be released on Blu-ray next Tuesday, so if you missed it in theaters, the Blu is the next best thing.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.