For her role as the Egyptian queen in Fox’s gargantuan Cleopatra, Elizabeth Taylor audaciously asked for and received, the first $1 million contract in the film industry.
The role was first offered to starlet Joan Collins, who turned it down. By now, Taylor was the world’s top female screen star, but even she couldn’t turn this film into a box-office hit.
In the entire history of the movies, there had been no greater fiasco . . . Cleopatra should have taken weeks to make but it took years.
Filmed between September 1961 and August 1962 – with re-shoots in February and March of 1963 – the epic stripped Italy of construction materials to build the set, used thousands of extras (at one point they were being sprayed with make-up in groups of 50) and cost a ludicrous amount of money.
It’s doubtful whether anyone can remember the original budget but it eventually came in at $44 million – to that point the most expensive movie Hollywood had ever made.
In 1963, $600,000 could have paid for a decent-sized movie. Cleopatra spent that much just for sets at Pinewood studios in England – sets which they then abandoned in order to move the production to Italy. By the time shooting moved to Rome, Cleopatra had already cost $7 million for just seven minutes of film . . .
At the height of its excess, Cleopatra was costing more than $100,000 per day to film (there were 26,000 costumes for example!) and the entry of Cleopatra into Rome itself was one of the most expensive scenes ever filmed.
The public probably remembers Cleopatra for one thing – it was the vehicle for the most publicised romance of the day, the love affair between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
The Burton v Taylor soap opera devoured this over-priced epic. Their fighting provoked a four-month shutdown at Fox and cost the studio 2,000 jobs.
Dick and Liz came up smelling of roses, but for all the evident passion between the two, none of it shows on the screen.
Rex Harrison starred as a noteworthy (if lightweight) Caesar, while Richard Burton was a variable, sometimes impressive, Anthony.
Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz called it “The most difficult three films I’ve ever made”, going some way to explaining why they don’t make’em like they used to.
Joseph L. Mankiewicz