Friday, June 16, 2023

Flashback, June 1963: Budget-Busting ‘Cleopatra’ Barges Into Theaters


Cleopatra, conceived as a cheap, quick-and-dirty remake of a silent feature, premiered in June 1963 at New York City’s Rivoli Theater with 10,000 spectators. 

It’s hard to resist the conclusion, after the movie went from an originally projected $2 million budget and 64-day shoot to one coming in at $44 million (or nearly a half billion dollars in today's money) and taking three years, that many of these “fans” had turned out for the same reason that others have for centuries: to witness a catastrophe.

During its troubled shooting, the movie shed a director, producer, three screenwriters, two leading men, a cinematographer, and an on-location film set—and, most notoriously, the latest husband of the actress playing the title character, Elizabeth Taylor.

Midway through creating this post, I thought of headlining it “Anatomy of a Disaster.” That wasn’t the case when I first became of the film as a teen in the Seventies. Like many film fans, I initially became fascinated by the scandal that made the movie notorious: Ms. Taylor’s affair with her Marc Antony.

As I noted in this prior post about her eventual marriage to Richard Burton, photos had flashed around the world showing the couple in intimate off-set moments, producing palpable shock and swift condemnation. (The Vatican accused Taylor, already infamous for stealing Debbie Reynolds’ husband Eddie Fisher, of “erotic vagrancy.”)

But in more recent years, perhaps because of a lifetime spent in the business world, I have become more intrigued by how management lost control of the movie, leading to the near-bankruptcy of studio 20th Century Fox.

I wanted to know: How did this whole project get out of hand? What steps, if any, were taken to keep the situation from worsening, and why didn’t they work? And how did this affect the many people caught in its wake?

Maybe it was appropriate that the scandal-marred Cleopatra was the brainchild of Walter Wanger, a producer trying to live down his own past brush with notoriety: his shooting, in the most precious part of the male anatomy, an agent he believed was carrying on with his actress wife. Wanger hoped his peers would forget about the whole unfortunate business and his subsequent jail time for the same reason Hollywood usually did: a box-office winner.

Since 20th Century Fox already had starlet Joan Collins under contract, it only made sense to use her, argued company president Spyros Skouras. And they had a ready-made property whose intellectual rights it already owned: the 1917 silent film Cleopatra, starring Theda Bara. Cecil B. DeMille’s 1934 film starring Claudette Colbert as the legendary queen likewise confirmed that the public would be interested in this, he believed.

Ms. Collins even tested for the role. But a consensus quickly formed in 1959 that, rather than cast the English actress who was something of a poor-man’s Elizabeth Taylor, it was better to pursue the real thing.

Unconvinced that the role was meant for her, Taylor at first demurred. When Wanger relayed the offer again over the phone to Fisher, Taylor joked to her latest husband that she’d only accept it for $1 million, convinced that this would put Wanger off once and for all. Instead, the producer accepted her demand.

A 1962 report by a C.P.A. (cited in David Kamp's excellent "When Liz Met Dick," in the April 1998 issue of Vanity Fair) attributed the skyrocketing expenses till then to four factors: Taylor, lack of planning, corruption on the part of employees, and friction between American and Italian executives. In all its dryness, the following sentence still speaks volumes: "No effort was made at this time to review the first category, due to the danger involved.”

That may seem unfair to the actress, particularly given a number of circumstances beyond her control, but considering all that happened, much of what subsequently transpired did revolve around Taylor.

Ms. Taylor’s basic salary condition was 10 percent of the gross (with no break-even point). The take of the gross followed the precedent set by James Stewart with the 1950 western Broken Arrow, and the $1 million mirrored what Marlon Brando was receiving at the same time for another deeply troubled production, the remake of Mutiny on the Bounty.

At the start, Ms. Taylor’s expected windfall might not have seemed like such a gamble. The actress had retained her popularity with moviegoers from adolescence to adulthood, and her Oscar three years before for Butterfield 8 demonstrated the increasing respect she was receiving within Hollywood.

Moreover, the commercial and critical success of other recent epics set in ancient times (e.g., Ben-Hur, Spartacus) seemed to prove that, no matter how much money was spent or how much turmoil occurred on a set, audiences would still turn out in droves for spectacles they couldn’t find on their boxy black-and-white TV sets.

But Ms. Taylor’s final windfall ended up costing 20th Century Fox far more than expected. Here’s why:

* Her contract guaranteed her $50,000 for every week filming ran over the 16-week schedule—and it did three years for the movie to wrap up;

* She insisted the movie be filmed on 70mm Todd-AO, which her late husband Mike Todd created to compete with CinemaScope, and which she owned now;

*She (along with Burton and Fisher) sued Fox for their share of the gross.

When all was said and done, Taylor was believed to have walked away with $7 million—and that didn’t account for other expenses associated with her, including:

* $194,800 just for her costumes—the highest amount ever shelled out for an actress in a single role;

* $150,000 paid to Fisher for “junior-producer” duties that really amounted to taking care of his wife;

* $25,000 for Taylor’s personal physician, Rex Kennamer of Beverly Hills, to be flown in to Rome;

* an untold amount went for her American hair stylist to be flown to England—sparking a strike by the British hairdressers on the first day of shooting in that country.

Another Taylor demand--shooting outside the U.S., to make this a truly international epic--introduced cascading complications during production. Initially, lured by tax breaks offered by the British government, Fox decided that the on-site location should be not Rome, but Pinewood Studios, just outside London.

Nobody seems to have anticipated that the damp autumn weather in the UK--bad enough that the multitudes of shivering extras on the 20-acre lot would emit cold vapor into the air--would exacerbate long-standing health problems of Taylor, to such an extent that a cold would worsen into pneumonia and eventually require an emergency tracheostomy.

For the sake of their fragile star, Fox relocated the production to Italy, whose Mediterranean climate would be more salubrious for her now-impaired bronchial condition. Director Rouben Mamoulian, chafing at all the turmoil already surrounding the movie, threw up his hands and cabled his resignation.

According to Patrick Humphries' 2023 account of the multi-year fiasco, only a little less than eight minutes of all Mamoulian shot made it into the nearly four-hour Cleopatra initially released to theaters (nearly another hour would be cut to improve chances for profitability in general release), and the cost had already reached $7 million.

The studio gulped when it learned that it had to replace its original Caesar and Antony, actors Peter Finch and Stephen Boyd, because of prior filming commitments. At least they found two highly regarded substitutes in Rex Harrison and Burton.

But those sets made in England? Made of papier-mache, much of that "marble" had peeled away in the UK fog, rendering it unusable. The sets would have to be reconstructed from scratch in Italy.

The filmmakers were still intent on offering audiences every penny's worth. The triumphant procession of Cleopatra and her son into Rome, for instance, required dozens of scantily clad female dancers, along with a black, 30-ft. high marble sphinx, pulled by over 300 Numina slaves. 

Some (including the creators of the documentary “The Making of ‘Cleopatra’”) regarded it as one of filmdom’s most impressive sequences; but I see it as a slow-moving monstrosity—wretched excess, to be sure.

The presence of all those "slaves" gave rise to a scandal that attracted nowhere near the same amount of notice as the Taylor-Burton affair, but which in retrospect oddly foreshadows the #MeToo movement: the “Revolt of the Slave Girls.” 

After the production moved to Italy, multiple female extras who played Cleopatra’s servants and slave girls resorted to a strike to secure protection against the roaming hands of the local technical crew. Nobody had a phrase for it at the time, but it was a textbook case of sexual harassment.

Twentieth-Century Fox hired a special guard to protect the women and its own reputation—which, as it turned out, was probably one of the more justifiable expenditures in the production. 

Corruption was rampant in Italy. The studio found itself billed $100,000 for paper clips and $3 million for the vaguely termed "miscellaneous" expenses. Taylor remembered more than 30 years later, "They said I ate 12 chickens and 40 pounds of bacon every day for breakfast. What?”

Even after this move to a healthier climate, illness kept Taylor off the set at points—except that this time it wasn't because of pneumonia because of an overdose of Seconal after Burton made a belated, guilt-ridden, but brief attempt to break off the affair and return to his wife Sybil.

But production was also delayed because through much of the shoot, there wasn’t a settled script. Mamoulian, dissatisfied with both the first script and a rewrite commissioned by Wanger, ended up getting a third. 

Taylor did not like any of the three, and shortly thereafter Mamoulian was out and Joe Mankiewicz—who, like Taylor, found his initial lack of enthusiasm for the project oozing away in the face of an enormous salary offer—came on board.

At the heart of Mankiewicz’s acclaimed work as a director were his scripts, especially the Oscar-winning original screenplays he wrote for A Letter to Three Wives and All About Eve. He had also earned Taylor’s trust through his work with her a couple of years before on Suddenly Last Summer. 

But Mankiewicz had never helmed a movie of such complexity with so many moving parts, and he had never taken over a film so far behind schedule and so far over budget.

Most of all, for all the interference he may have encountered as an old studio hand, he had never experienced a situation till now where the studio believed that its very life rode on the success of the film. The meant their “supervision” was more incessant, more emotional, more desperate—and, because shooting was so far away from Hollywood, more fruitless.

Twentieth Century Fox had seen several films crash and burn over the last few years, leaving it in a big financial hole. It was rushing movies into production, whether the scripts were ready or not. If the film started to have problems, it might terminate it unexpectedly to maximize the cash needed for Cleopatra and another Fox film having cost overruns, the D-Day epic The Longest Day.

That was the case with the Marilyn Monroe film Something’s Got to Give. The star was constantly absent, it was true, but she was convinced that her termination represented the studio’s scapegoating of her for similar or worse problems stemming from Taylor on Cleopatra.

Firing Monroe wasn’t the only extreme measure Fox took to deal with its Cleopatra-induced cash-flow crisis. 

As the production delays for the movie reached an apogee, Skouras engineered the sale of Fox’s 260-acre Los Angeles backlot to the Aluminum Company of America for $43 million. That property was then developed into Century City, a sprawling office-building-and-shopping-center complex, in a deal regarded as a financial fiasco for Fox.

Insurance was also playing a role in what was transpiring. The 1958 fatal heart attack of star Tyrone Power while shooting a prior sword-and-sandals epic, Solomon and Sheba (a crisis I discussed in this prior post) lingered in the minds of Fox and other studios about securing the health of their leading actors. 

Wanger acknowledged afterward that preserving the health of Taylor (integral to the overwhelming majority of the film's scenes) guided much of the studio's decision-making. And both English and overseas insurers needed to be involved.

All this was happening thousands of miles away from Taylor, Burton, Harrison, and their colleagues. But the emotional environment was inevitably something Mankiewicz had to consider as he tried to remake the movie on the fly.

Moreover, Mankiewicz was, by day, directing a movie with more than the normal share of technical challenges and heightened emotional stakes among its principals, then returning to his room at night to write more scenes for the next day. If Taylor and Burton had had lovers’ quarrels the night before, one or both might be in no condition to come on set when they were supposed to.

As a result, Mankiewicz could not shoot scenes economically based on set availability, weather and similar conditions, the way on-location shooting has traditionally taken place. This left cast and crew members lingering for extended periods with nothing to do, for far longer than originally intended. (Actor Hugh Cronyn, for example, signed for 10 weeks, ended up in production for 10 1/2 months, using his spare time to tour the Italian coasts and Tuscany.)

His postmortem on the film—one of the only times he cared to comment on it at all in the remaining two decades of his life—was concise, hilarious, and true: Cleopatra was “conceived in a state of emergency, shot in confusion, and wound up in a blind panic.”

The disorder revolving around Cleopatra (and, to a lesser extent, The Longest Day) led Darryl Zanuck to stage a successful coup among the Fox board of directors against Skouras, who ended up out of Fox after two decades leading the company.

Skouras wasn’t the last person connected to Cleopatra to experience a termination:

*Despite an entreaty to Skouras’ successor Zanuck to let him continue to work on Cleopatra, Wanger was out as producer during the 1962 post-production period.

*Mankiewicz’ quarrels with the home office were pointed enough that Fox fired him at one point. Then the studio recalled that it needed him onboard because, after all this time, a final screenplay still had to be written—and, as the guiding light of the project, Mankiewicz was in the best position to do so. So he was rehired.

Even so, Zanuck disregarded the director's desire that the movie be released in two three-hour parts, focusing first on Cleopatra's relationship with Caesar, then with Antony. Back-to-back filming was an intriguing idea that would foreshadow how the Back to the Future, Matrix, Lord of the Rings, and Pirates of the Caribbean franchises would handle their releases. 

But Zanuck rejected the proposal--and, considering how much energy Cleopatra loses after Harrison's Caesar exits the movie, I'm not sure it would have worked, anyway. By the time the film was cut and re-cut for general release, several of those associated with it (such as Taylor) felt the final product was rushed and incoherent at points.

Cleopatra is not without its defenders, who correctly point to its excellent performances by Harrison and Roddy McDowall as Octavian, as well as to a box-office take that made it among the highest grossers of the Sixties.

But it took a decade--after all those audiences in cinemas and its sizable sale to network TV--before Fox made back its investment. Even then, the studio kept all future profits secrets so it wouldn't have to pay investors promised a percentage of its profits.

That was better than what Joe Mankiewicz experienced. “Cleopatra affected him the rest of his life,” remembered his widow, Rosemary. “It made him more sensitive to the other blows that would come along.” 

For this film professional he regarded his writing as essential to his directing assignments, he would never have another screenwriting credit. After three films made over the next decade, he spent his last 21 years “finding reasons not to work,” according to his son Tom--a devastating ending for a once-prolific and honored filmmaker.

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