Joseph L. Mankiewicz hoped that the film would be released as two separate pictures, "Caesar and Cleopatra" followed by "Antony and Cleopatra." Each was to run approximately three hours. 20th Century-Fox decided against this, and released the film we know today. It runs just over four hours. It is hoped that the missing two hours will be located and that one day a six-hour 'director's cut' will be available.
A clerical error by 20 Century-Fox probably cost Roddy McDowall a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination for his performance in this film. The studio erroneously listed him as a leading player rather than a supporting one. When Fox asked the Academy to correct the error, it refused, saying the ballots already were at the printer. Fox then published an open letter in the trade papers, apologizing to McDowall: "We feel that it is important that the industry realize that your electric performance as Octavian in 'Cleopatra,' which was unanimously singled out by the critics as one of the best supporting performances by an actor this year, is not eligible for an Academy Award nomination in that category . . . due to a regrettable error on the part of 20th Century-Fox.".
Joan Collins was cast in the title role in 1958, but after several delays she became unavailable. After Collins' departure, producer Walter Wanger considered Audrey Hepburn as a replacement. Wanger then offered the role to Elizabeth Taylor. He called her on the set of her latest film, Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), and relayed the offer through Taylor's then-husband Eddie Fisher who had answered the phone. As a joke, Taylor replied "Sure, tell him I'll do it for a million dollars." In October 1959, Taylor became the first Hollywood star to receive $1 million for a single picture.
Elizabeth Taylor had met Richard Burton several years prior to their working together on the film, and had found him to be brutish and boorish. However, when Burton showed up for work on this film on his first day, it was with a hangover so severe that he had the shakes. Taylor had to help him around and administer to such basic needs as helping him drink a cup of coffee. This time, she found him to be very endearing.
The film is widely regarded as one of the biggest flops of all time. It was actually one of the highest grossing films of the 1960s. Once it opened, it was was sold out for the next four months. In 1966, ABC-TV paid 20th Century-Fox a record $5 million for two showings of the film, a deal that put the film in the black.
The filming of Cleopatra's entrance into Rome was delayed for months due to lighting problems. The American child actor who played her four-year-old son got taller during the delay. He was replaced by an Italian boy, complete with accent.
When the film finally broke even in 1973, 20th Century-Fox "closed the books" on "Cleopatra", keeping all future profits from this film secret to avoid paying those who might have been promised a percentage of the net profits.
A clause in Rex Harrison's contract required a picture of him to appear in any ad with a picture of Richard Burton. When a large billboard showed only Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, Harrison's lawyers complained. The studio trued to fulfill the contract by placing a picture of Harrison in the lower left corner of the billboard. Harrison was not satisfied. A third version of the same billboard on the Seventh Avenue side of the Rivoli Theatre was created with Harrison standing on Taylor's right.
Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz was fired during post-production phase. Since there was no actual shooting script (Mankiewicz wrote as he was shooting), Twentieth Century-Fox soon realized that only Mankiewicz knew how the story fit together. He was brought back to complete the project.
A group of female extras who played Cleopatra's servants and slave girls went on strike to demand protection from amorous Italian male extras. The studio eventually hired a special guard to protect the female extras.
Elizabeth Taylor's contract stipulated that her million-dollar salary be paid out as follows: $125,000 for 16 weeks work plus $50,000 a week afterwards plus 10% of the gross (with no break-even point). When the film was restarted in Rome in 1961, she had earned well over $2 million. After a lengthy $50 million lawsuit brought against Taylor and Richard Burton by 20th Century Fox in 1963 and a countersuit filed by Taylor, the studio finally settled with the actress in 1966. Her ultimate take for the film was $7 million.
The film's initial North American box-office take was $48 million, the highest-grossing film of the year. Fox's share of the receipts was $26 million, half of the total production costs. The film eventually recouped its budget through worldwide box office receipts and television sales, but the studio had to cut costs drastically to survive. the studio managed to stay afloat with the success of The Longest Day (1962). Twentieth Century-Fox then invested in the The Sound of Music (1965), which became the most financially successful film ever at that time, turning the studio's finances around.
According to Rex Harrison's autobiography, Twentieth Century-Fox custom-made his Julius Caesar boots while Richard Burton's boots were hand-me-downs from the previous attempt at making the film. Harrison was amazed that Burton did not complain.
After long days of shooting, Joseph L. Mankiewicz would retire to his private rooms to do rewrites. He initially begged for time off to do a proper rewrite, but Twentieth Century Fox was so deeply in debt that they couldn't allow for yet another delay in production. Mankiewicz resorted to daily injections to keep him going during the day, and different ones at night to help him sleep.
Joseph L. Mankiewicz's first cut ran 5 hours and 20 minutes. Darryl F. Zanuck's first reaction was that Mark Antony was ineffectual, many of the scenes were too long and the battle scenes were amateurish.
When Walter Wanger's first choice for director insisted that Julius Caesar was gay, Fox chairman Spyros Skouras told the producer not to hire him. Skouras reasoned, "To hell with history. I want a triangle with two men and one woman. Having one of the greatest men in history as a homo isn't box office!"
Soon after shooting began in England, Elizabeth Taylor became ill and could not work. Her presence was required for almost every scene, and production soon closed down. Director Rouben Mamoulian finally resigned on January 3, 1961. He was followed by Peter Finch and Stephen Boyd, who had to honor prior commitments.
Twentieth Century-Fox was in financial trouble in the late 1950s due to disappointing box-office returns of some major releases. Orders were given to search the Fox script library for a proven property that could be remade. The project chosen was Cleopatra (1917), a Theda Bara film that had been a smash hit for the studio. With no surviving prints, they based their judgment on an archived copy of the original script and some stills from the production. Then the studio needed a producer willing to handle the project. At the same time, veteran producer Walter Wanger approached Twentieth Century-Fox with an idea for a project he'd been planning for several years: the story of Cleopatra. In the words of David Brown, "We fell on him."
Ten people (7 art directors, 3 set decorators) won the Academy Award for Best Art Direction (Color). It remains the largest number of people sharing a single award in an annual category. In 1988 and 2006, 12 people shared a Scientific and Technical Award, which is not necessarily given each year.
Production moved from London to Rome following Elizabeth Taylor's illness, and the film's elaborate sets and props all had to be constructed twice. The production required so much lumber and raw material that building materials became scarce throughout Italy.
At the time, all Italian films were dubbed in post-production. Carpenters constantly hammered on the set during filming. Joseph L. Mankiewicz spent hours trying to make it clear to the Italian crew that silence was required on set at all times.
While filming Cleopatra's triumphant entry into Rome, a scene requiring thousands of extras and the transportation of a huge barge carrying the Queen of Egypt, Joseph L. Mankiewicz had to cut the scene, roll back the barge, and begin again because one camera caught an enterprising extra hawking gelato to his fellow extras.
Among the many scenes that were cut in the 194 minute version was Caeser and Cleopatra's visit to the tomb of Alexander the Great and another in which she uses Egyptian gold to bribe Roman senators into inviting her and Caesarian to Rome.
During the scene in which Cleopatra makes her entrance into Rome, Elizabeth Taylor's life had been threatened, after the Vatican had denounced her scandalous relationship with Richard Burton, by the thousands of Roman Catholics that were the extras. Soldiers packing guns lined the streets with barriers and cables to try and prevent an assassination. As Taylor came through the arch, the crowd broke through the barriers and cables all at once. But as Elizabeth and the film crew feared for her life, she realized that they were shouting "boccia Liz!! Boccia Liz!!" Declaring their love for the actress. Instead of remaining in the highly strung character of Cleopatra, Taylor began to cry and thank the crowd as she blew kisses. The scene had to be re-shot because of this.
This film has been cited as one factor that ended the Italian-made "sword and sandal" epics that had been popular since the late 1950s. Specialized suppliers raised their prices for goods and services supplied to this production. The higher prices were beyond the budget of Italian producers, so production values for their films dropped, and audiences declined.
During production, Twentieth Century-Fox chairman Spyros Skouras sold 1000 of his estimated 100,000 shares in the studio on a whim. When rumors of his lack of faith in the studio began to spread, he bought them back to squash the rumors.
Joseph L. Mankiewicz originally wanted black actor James Edwards as Apollodorus and encouraged the actor to physically get in shape for the role. Unfortunately Fox executives were not comfortable with the relationship between him and Cleopatra, so he was replaced by Cesare Danova.
Jack Hildyard was initially the film's cinematographer, but left at the same time as original director Rouben Mamoulian. When Joseph L. Mankiewicz came on board, he initially looked at hiring an Italian cinematographer, but the studio did not believe that there were any Italians sufficiently qualified to work on the film and pressured him to hire an American or British cinematographer. Freddie Young, Milton R. Krasner and Robert Surtees were all unsuccessfully approached for the position, before Leon Shamroy finally agreed to sign on.
During the early filming at Pinewood Studios, the harsh weather conditions of the English winter brought on pneumonia for the fragile Elizabeth Taylor. After a day at the set in which she had to be carried on and off because she was so weak, Taylor eventually collapsed in her hotel room at the Dorchester. The private doctor of Queen Queen Elizabeth II was summoned to her hotel room. According to Taylor, he apparently shook her violently like a rag doll and pounded on her rib cage, provoking no consciousness within her. She was given an hour to live and was said to be in a coma. An emergency tracheotomy was performed successfully at the hospital and Taylor slowly recovered. Filming proceeded a few months later, this time in Rome's hot climate.
With the scandal surrounding the affair between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, scant attention was paid to Rex Harrison. He got the last laugh when he became the only one of the film's three stars to receive an Oscar nomination for his performance.
Elizabeth Taylor said of the finished film, "They had cut out the heart, the essence, the motivations, the very core, and tacked on all those battle scenes. It should have been about three large people, but it lacked reality and passion. I found it vulgar."
The financial failure of the film was a key factor in the disintegration of the old "studio system", as studios passed responsibility for production costs to independent production companies instead of handling said costs themselves.
Darryl F. Zanuck was still a stockholder in Fox and became convinced that the film would destroy the studio. Fox's problems nearly led to the studio taking over the editing of The Longest Day (1962), which Zanuck was producing,note in order to increase the number of shows per day and make an even bigger profit. When Zanuck heard of this, that was the last straw; he staged a board-room takeover of the studio and won. As a result, Spyros A. Skouras was ousted from Fox and Zanuck took over. The Longest Day (1962) was saved.
While filming the sea battle in Iscua, a producer invited Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor for lunch on his yacht and placed hidden cameras in their room in the hope of capturing and then selling pictures of them kissing. Taylor spotted the cameras immediately and Burton had to be restrained from attacking the host.