Hosted by Robert Culp, this two-hour program combines film clips, behind the scenes footage, and recent interviews to create a look at the troubled 1958-1963 production. The interviews include a few surviving (at the time) actors such as Hume Cronyn and Martin Landau, plus 1995 bits from Roddy McDowall. Written by
Superb Documentary on a Legendary Much-Maligned Epic
The most famous and beautiful woman of the mid-20th century, Elizabeth Taylor, plays the most famous and powerful woman of the ancient world, Cleopatra. At the peak of her box office appeal, Taylor commands a million dollars to take the role and, during filming, falls passionately in love with the actor playing Mark Anthony, Richard Burton. Such stories create headlines and sell tabloids. "Cleopatra: The Film that Changed Hollywood" is a riveting feature-length documentary that details the complex runaway production of arguably Hollywood's most publicized motion picture.
Directors Kevin Burns and Brent Zacky set "Cleopatra's" troubled production history within the context of late 1950's Hollywood, when the idea to remake Fox's 1917 Theda Bara "Cleopatra" was first floated. With only a dusty silent-movie script, the studio engaged producer Walter Wanger, who had long conceived an epic film about the Egyptian queen, and the production escalated from an anticipated B-movie "sword and sandals" epic with Joan Collins into the most costly film of the era. Luck did not shine on Fox or Wanger; the studio teetered on bankruptcy and the veteran producer never made another movie. Filming in England was aborted by weather and the star's illness, which led to millions in losses and little usable film. New sets were constructed in Rome, Rex Harrison and Richard Burton replaced Peter Finch and Stephen Boyd, and Joseph L. Mankiewicz replaced Rouben Mamoulian. However, the changes took a heavy toll on studio executives and 20th Century Fox coffers, and the new director had no usable script. Burns and Zacky go into great detail, and the documentary is compelling throughout, not just for fans of the film, but also for anyone interested in Hollywood history.
Keith Baxter, cast as Octavian during the London shoot, provides much insight into the English fiasco during his interview. Joseph L. Mankiewicz's wife and two sons add further depth and emphasize the stress endured by the Oscar-winning director, who was producing in the morning, directing in the afternoon, and writing during the night. Drugs kept him stimulated, and drugs put him to sleep. Mankiewicz conceived a grand masterpiece, and he was crushed when Darryl Zanuck, head of 20th Century Fox, fired him and cut the film from his intended six-hour two-film vision down to the 246-minute roadshow version and, subsequently, even further to a 196-minute general-release print.
Elizabeth Taylor was not only the star of the film, she emerges as a woman as shrewd and intelligent as the queen she portrayed. Her contract resulted in at least a $7 million salary; gave her director approval; earned her licensing fees for the Todd-AO process, which she inherited from her husband, Mike Todd; and put her name alone above the title. Of course, the story of "Cleopatra" is indelibly entwined with the romance of Taylor and Burton, and the love affair is well documented, but neither salaciously nor to the exclusion of the studio politics and mismanagement that played a major role in the runaway costs. Unfortunately, Taylor was not interviewed for the documentary, although Roddy McDowall, Hume Cronin, Martin Landau, and publicist Jack Brodsky provide a wealth of memories and anecdotes. Much maligned as a flop, the film was the highest grossing movie of 1963 and eventually turned a profit after the initial TV sale; subsequent cable, video, Laserdisc, DVD, and Blu-ray sales are pure gravy. Among the finest Hollywood documentaries and arguably the best on a single motion picture, "Cleopatra: The Film that Changed Hollywood" is a must see for students of Hollywood lore and those who want to separate myth from fact about the production.
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