“I am Isis. I am worshipped by millions who believe it.”
Financially strapped in 1958, the Fox studio rifled it shelves for a cheap re-tread winner. Theda Bara's Cleopatra was chosen. They still had the 1917 script - just a few pages. Perfect for Dorothy Dandridge, who Lena Horne called “our Marilyn Monroe.”
The real Marilyn would be suggested for the Egyptian queen before the end of the catastrophe...
By happenstance, house producer Walter Wanger approached the studio about a pet project about… “the quintessence of youthful femininity, of womanliness and strength.” He was quickly put in charge. But not of his plan: Elizabeth Taylor, Laurence Olivier as Caesar, Richard Burton for Antony. And Hitchcock directing!
“Who needs a Liz Taylor?”
grumbled Fox executive Joseph Moskowitz.
“Any $100-a-week girl can play Cleopatra.”
His studio would pay for those words...
The first $1m salary for an actress
was just for starters.
Fox wanted a more modest, $5m, affair... Audrey Hepburn or Suzy Parker, with Cary Grant as Caesar, Burt Lancaster as Mark Antony.
Following her favourite Hollywood movie, Rally Round The Flag Boys, 1958, Joan Collins was put into training to talk the talk and walk the walk like an Egyptian queen... in tests “opposite an actor who, though obviously chosen for his looks and virility, had as much acting talent as Minnie Mouse. Maybe less.”
Known as The Pouting Panther, Joanie was eager. Shaw's Cleopatra had been her entrance exam at London's RADA - the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. “It was a role perfectly suited to me.” However, head Fox Spyros Skouras, believed in “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth - a fuck for a part,” and chased her around his desk for his percentage. He kept saying her unwillingness was a career error. Her next lessons were with stripper Candy Barr for Seven Thieves.
A year later, new lists were drawn up...
Cleopatra . Gina Lollobrigida and, no longer in her shade, her former spaghetti-rival, Sophia Loren - and a younger version of them both, the 1955 Helen of Troy, Rosanno Podesta - were contacted urgently. As Wanger talked with “Carlo’s wife” (Sophia), Skouras was dining with La Lollo at director Rouben Mamoulian’s home. (Lollo rejected Mamoulian the way, previously in her career, she elbowed Fellini and Visconti!) Loren lost out because she wanted to shoot in Italy.... where the films seventually made, of course.
In LA, more calls went out to such unlikely Egyptian queens as Brigitte Bardot, Jennifer Jones, Shirley MacLaine, Dolores Michaels (an ex-dancer with a Fox contract), Kim Novak, Millie Perkins, Barbara Steele, Joanne Woodward… and Marilyn. And always there in the shadows, Wanger’s continual first reserve: Susan Hayward. 20th Century Panic!
Caesar . The studio’s chopice were: Yul Brynner, Cary Grant, Curt Jurgens, Frederic March... and And Noel Coward’s agent called! Oh and Sir John Gielgud, who had also been up for Julius in Caesar and Cleopatra opposite Vivien Leigh in 1945.
Octavian . Keith Baxter was Octavian, the future Caesar Augustus, in Pinewood before Roddy McDowall took over in Cinecitta for a weekly $2,500.
By August 1959, both Audrey Hepburn and
Liz Taylor had agreed to the head Production #J01
They had the same agent, Kurt Frings.
For Wanger, however, Liz was “the only woman who has the necessary youth, power and emotion... to play the most remarkable woman of all times.”
“She'll be too much trouble,” declared Skouras, who obviously had no more luck with chasing her around his desk than he had with Joan Collins.
Wanger called Liz in the UK, where she was making Suddenly, Last Summer , 1959, “I'll do it for $1m.”
Liz was joking. Fox was serious.
The deal was set (and Liz took her own sweet time signing it, ten months until July 28, 1960, as Skouras kept pissing her off). The pay was $125,000 for 16 weeks work plus $50,000 a week after that.
She could have been cheaper if only Skouras had known who she was...
During a New York meet, he kept calling her Cleopatra. Suddenly, she realised why: he didn’t know her name. “You’re paying me $1m,” said Liz, “and you don’t remember my name.”
That’s when she made an offer of considerable largesse. If he could say her name, she would give him back half her salary. Distraught from memory-lapse and his studio’s need for $500,000, Skouras could only um and er, hem and haw, and stick to his hymn-sheet. “Er... you are Cleopatra.”
So she was. And Mamoulian started shooting at the UK Pinewood Studios on September 28, 1960 with Peter Finch (Liz’s suggestion) and Stephen Boyd as Caesar and Marc Antony.
Finchey did one scene only
- in eight months.
“I had to stamp into a room at the head of my legionnaires. There was a man with an eagle right behind me.
I was petrified the bloody bird would whip off one of my ears.”
All that time Mamoulian was filming without a queen… After shooting ten minutes for $7m, he quit on January 18, 1961. Liz Taylor was as sick as (and of) the British weather from the start (coincidentally, during a battle with UK unions over her personal hairdresser) and then at death’s door, with staphyloococcus pneumonia, requiring an emergency tracheotomy on March 4, 1961.
As Liz fought for her life - “I was pronounced dead four times” - Susan Hayward was the first replacement choice of her mentor Wanger - inevitably, because he had rescued her career in the mid-40s with personal contract leading to an Oscar. “I owe him everything. If Walter wants me, no matter what the picture is, I’ll do it.”
She knew she was as wrong for the part as was the suggested model Suzy Parker. At least, Susan had played Bathesheba and Messalina, but as the budget grew, she withdrew telling Wanger he needed a super-draw, not just a star “as resilient as a trampoline.” (Wanger never gave up on Susan. At his 1968 death, he was preparing two movies for her).
Gina Lollobrigida - and, no longer in her shade, her former spaghetti-rival, Sophia Loren - were contacted urgently. In LA, more calls went out to such unlikely Egyptian queens as Shirley MacLaine, Kim Novak and...Marilyn. 20th Century Panic!
Having finished Esther and The King - exactly “the annual period schlock potboiler” she expected Cleopatra to be - Joan Collins was woken with a call from her agent. Could she be in London the same day?
“It’s Liz. They think she’s dying.
They want you to replace her.
They can’t afford to screw around anymore.”
Collins and her lover Warren Beatty agreed: “Shitty! Ghoulish.”
Next day, the agent called back: “You're off the hook. Liz is gonna to make it.” Meaning she would live, not merely make the film.
“They called me, too,” revealed Eartha Kitt in the 90s. "But they finally said Elizabeth Taylor would've to be dead in order for me to take her place. I could've saved that film, believe me."
New choices for Ceasar and Antony were both drowning with another trouble-strewn epic, Mutiny on the Bounty - Trevor Howard ("Sorry, one epic is enough") and... Marlon Brando!
Mamoulian’s successsor at the helm was an unwilling Joe Mankiewicz.
“Why would I want to make Cleopatra?
I wouldn’t even go to see Cleopatra.”
He was bribed into the job by the big bucks his career had never previously made when Fox bought his Figaro company. Joe started badly: his first choices, Marlon Brando and Trevor Howard, were unavailable. - drowning with another trouble-strewn epic, Mutiny on the Bounty. Joe’s next targets were anathema to Skouras. However, for $200,000 a week, Rex Harrison was allowed in as Ceasar (through the bedchamber curtains judging by the poster, when Fox finally decided to add him to it). And after promising him a playable part, $250,000 for three months work, $1,000 a week expenses, a villa and staff, plus $50,000 to spring him early from Broadway’s Camelot, Fox was able to sign Richard Burton to be Welshest Roman of ’em all.. (A lesser known Welsh actor, Michael David, had been the rank outsider in the first bunch of potential Antonys).
Before leaving New York for Rome (the shoot switched to Italy because Liz might actually show up work there), Burton was given good advice by Broadway king, Moss Hart. “You're rich now. Don’t waste your gift. The next five years may decide whether or not you’ll become the leading actor of the English-speaking stage.” Indeed.
Joan Collins said she would never have fallen for Burton. “Not only a womaniser but a scalp hunter. His skin left a lot to be desired.” She took great pleasure in refusing to be another scalp when he tried his luck during Sea Wife, 1957.
Marne Maitland became Euphranor, when Martin Landau was switched to Rufio, Hume Cronyn (Sosigenes) arrived in Rome with Burton on September 19, 1961; neither one worked until January 1962. Carroll O’Connor’s 15-week contract (for Casca) lasted ten months, with him working just 17 days as the three-month second shoot from September 25, 1961, stretched to July 28, 1962. The budget hit a then record $37m - for 96 hours of film over 272 days - leading to a 4hr 28mns final cut swiftly cut to 4hr 3mns for previews and slashed to 2hr 30mn for release.
“They could cut it up
into guitar picks if they want.”
Mankiewicz famously said the epic had been “conceived in a state of emergency, shot in confusion and wound up in a blind panic.” His director’s cut “of the toughest three pictures I ever made” was never fully seen until a 1995 revival in Paris.
This was Hollywood at its most recklessly stupid, with all the Fox bigwigs cowering before every tantrum of an outrageous diva, no better talented for the role than most others seen about it. Having won time off for her period, Liz wss soon having three/four periods a month. She always got her way, said her deposed husband, Eddie Fisher, simply by screaming.
Fox could only afford Liz and the $40m budget by selling its back lot (today’s Century City) for $43m. The film finally cost $44m (or $300m these days) and made only $39.8m. Fox sued Liz, blaming her scandale for an audience boycott. (The globally headlined Liz-Burton affair was over before the shooting but just kept on re-igniting, despite him beating her and having other lovers on the side).
She counter-sued Fox. . Of course, she did. After finding that the studio’s creative book-keeping included $3m for “miscellaneous” and sdaying “I ate 12 chickens and 40lbs of bacon every day for breakfast.”
Everything was settled out of court... with the first $1m salary ending up as $7m.
When Walter Wanger had first approached
Liz Taylor in 1958, she was Mrs Mike Todd.
Next time, he called upon Mrs Eddie Fisher.
By the end of his tempestuous and final production,
Another remarkable woman.