Few women in history have captured popular imagination like the last pharaoh of the Ptolemy dynasty of Egypt – Cleopatra.
Yet so much of what we know – or think we know – about her is informed by legend, myth – and Elizabeth Taylor.
For instance, many historians have suggested she had a fair complexion, that she was possibly even blonde.
Yet, ask anyone in the street and they will tell you: she was a brunette with a bob!
It’s fifty three years since the iconic movie about Cleopatra was released. It’s practically history.
Remarkably, the making of the film contained as much drama and tragedy as there was in its namesake’s lifetime.
Here are some things you should know about the Cleopatra – the movie and the woman:
1. The film was the highest grossing film of 1963, it played to full houses for four months and earned US $26 million - yet it almost bankrupted Fox Studios - because it cost $44 million to make (the equivalent of about a third of a billion today). The original budget was 2 million. So a slight overshoot then.
2. It was originally intended as a vehicle for Joan Collins. Audrey Hepburn, Susan Hayward and Dorothy Dandridge were also mooted. And the first choice for Caesar was Peter o’Toole with Marlon Brando as Antony.
3. When Taylor’s husband Eddie Fisher answered the phone and called out to her that Fox wanted her to play Cleopatra, she said, as a joke: "Sure, tell them I'll do it for a million dollars." It was an astronomical amount in those days. But Fox took her seriously and paid up.
4. Elizabeth Taylor was the first woman to be paid one million dollars for a movie. After extra payments for delays in the shooting schedule, she pocketed seven million, the equivalent of almost fifty million today.
5. Taylor fell ill during shooting in London and almost died. Surgeons performed an emergency tracheotomy to save her life. The scar can be seen in some shots.
6. Filming began in London but it was too cold and wet. All the exotic plants died so the shooting was relocated to Rome. The original set was finally used for the British comedy, Carry on Cleo.
7. When they sacked the first director, Rouben Mamoulian, the studio wanted Hitchcock to replace him. He made The Birds instead.
8. Burton showed up on the first day of shooting so badly hungover that Taylor had to help him drink a cup of coffee. At first he couldn’t stand her – he referred to her as ‘Miss Tits.’
9. The production required so much lumber that building materials became scarce throughout Italy.
10. A group of female extras who played Cleopatra’s slave girls went on strike to demand that the Italian male extras stop pinching their butts. The studio eventually hired a guard to protect them.
11. Fox had fresh chili from Chasens in Los Angeles air freighted to Italy for Taylor, just to keep her happy.
12. Taylor and Burton began an adulterous love affair on the set, and it soon made headlines around the world. Even the Vatican weighed in.
13. In Mark Antony's bath scene, you can see a bright yellow plastic sponge floating on the water. (At least it wasn’t a rubber duck!)
14. Filming of Cleopatra’s triumphant entry into Rome, requiring thousands of extras, had to be re-shot because one of the extras could be seen selling ice cream.
15. While building the set of Alexandria in Anzio, several construction workers were killed by an unexploded mine left over from World War II.
16. Egypt initially refused to let Elizabeth Taylor into the country because she was Jewish. They relented when they realized how many dollars they could make out of it for themselves.
17. The scene showing Cleopatra's navy required huge numbers of ships. It was said at the time that Twentieth Century-Fox had the third largest navy in the world.
18. Taylor and her female extras went through eight thousand pairs of shoes in the course of the year while shooting the movie. (Beat Kim Kardashian by one!)
19. There is no final battle sequence, as in the shooting script, because Fox ran out of money.
20. Director Joseph Mankiewicz was fired after shooting but rehired for the editing because no one else could work out how to cobble the six hour mess of a movie together.
21. Taylor won a Guinness World Record for most costume changes in a film, which she held until Madonna pipped her thirty three years later in 'Evita'.
22. The finished script was as thick as the Beverly Hills phone book.
23. The original cut of the movie was 6 HOURS LONG!! Mankievicz wanted the film released as two separate pictures, “Caesar and Cleopatra” and “Antony and Cleopatra,’ each of 3 hours, but the studios wanted to instead cash in on the moral outrage over Burton and Taylor’s affair. The film shown at the premiere was just over four hours.
Sadly, the deleted two hours is now missing …
And if you’re interested in Cleopatra the woman, you might be interested in this:
“This is the riveting story of Egypt’s last and greatest queen … creating a vivid portrait of an unforgettable woman who thrived and triumphed in a world ruled by men.”
– Publishers Weekly
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