When I first wrote about Cleopatra I was considering making her blonde.
Many historians had suggested she was fair. Her Macedonian heritage made it entirely possible.
But you can’t! my editor told me, when I first suggested it. Everyone knows she was a brunette with a bob!
She was referring of course to the woman people still consider the ‘real’ Cleopatra – Elizabeth Taylor.
It’s fifty years since that iconic movie was released and the film itself contained as much drama and tragedy as there was in its namesake’s lifetime.
Here are some things you should know:
1. The movie was the highest grossing film of 1963, it was sold out 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. Dang!
2. It was originally intended as a vehicle for Joan Collins. Audrey Hepburn, Susan Hayward and Dorothy Dandridge were also mooted. 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." 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 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 chilli 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 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 cash in on the moral outrage over Burton and Taylor’s affair. The film shown at the premiere was just over four hours. The other two hours are now missing.