This is an exhaustive but artlessly written feature I did for VF’s 1998 Hollywood Issue, about Cleopatra, which remains, in dollars adjusted for inflation, the most expensive film ever made. Striking, how much Elizabeth Taylor’s behavior and travails back then evoke the Lohanista vignettes reported in the papers now.
The person who truly knew more than anyone about what went down during this production was Roddy McDowall, who acted in the film and was close to both Taylor and the Burtons, Richard and his first wife, Sybil. McDowall agreed to meet with me, and he could not have been sweeter in explaining that, as much as he enjoyed chit-chatting, he could never, ever blab about his dear friends, even decades after the fact. Roddy was a bust as a source, but I admired his loyalty.
UPDATE ON MARCH 23, 2011: As a result of Elizabeth Taylor’s passing today, Vanity Fair has linked to this story from its site. I realize now that a chunk of its final segment is missing from this post. Sorry about that. We have technicians working on the problem.
Rivoli Theater, New York City, June 12, 1963
Back in the studio, Johnny Carson was in stitches. The Tonight Show had taken the unusual step of hooking up by live remote to the world premiere of Cleopatra, and the man he’d deputized to stand outside the Rivoli Theater in Times Square, Bert Parks, couldn’t elicit a single upbeat comment from the film’s director, Joseph L. Mankiewicz. “Congratulations, Mr. Mankiewicz!” said Parks, agleam with Brylcreem and headwaiter unction. “A wonderful, wonderful achievement!”
Mankiewicz, a stocky, impassive-looking man, had the mien of a Wall Street executive strong-armed into addressing his wife’s garden club. “Well,” he said warily, “you must know something I don’t.”
The studio audience roared with laughter. Carson’s chuckling bled over the audio track. Parks persevered. “I want to ask you,” he said conspiratorially, “whether you are personally going to control the sound on the showing of Cleopatra tonight? That’s the rumor!”
“No,” said Mankiewicz, “I think everything connected with Cleopatra is beyond my control at the moment.”
The studio audience roared again. “Is some of the tension gone?” said Parks, changing tack. “Do you feel a little more at ease now?”
“No, I, uh ... ” Mankiewicz smiled thinly. “I feel as though the guillotine were about to drop.”
With that ringing directorial endorsement, the four-hour epic Cleopatra unspooled before the public for the first time. It was a crack-up to Carson and company because poor Parks was evidently the only man in town willing to keep up appearances, to pretend that the world had trained its cameras on the Cleopatra premiere because it heralded the arrival of a spectacular new filmed entertainment in Todd-AO with color by DeLuxe. The truth was that everyone had come to see the train wreck. Everyone knew that Cleopatra was an extraordinarily botched production that had cost $44 million—an unheard-of sum for 1963 which was all the more astounding considering that Hollywood’s previous all-time budget record setter, Ben-Hur, had only four years earlier cost a mere $15 million, chariot race and all. Everyone knew that Cleopatra had nearly gutted the studio that made it, Twentieth Century Fox. Everyone knew that it had taken two directors, two separate casts, two Fox regimes, and two and a half years of stop-start filmmaking in England, Italy, Egypt, and Spain to get the damned thing done.
Above all, everyone knew that Cleopatra had given the world “Liz and Dick,” the adulterous pairing of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, irresistibly cast as Cleopatra and Mark Antony. Never before had celebrity scandal pushed so far into global consciousness, with Taylor-Burton pre-empting John Glenn’s orbiting of the Earth on tabloid front pages, denunciations being sounded on the Senate floor, and even the Vatican newspaper publishing an “open letter” that excoriated Taylor for “erotic vagrancy.” When she signed on for the role, Taylor had already been four times a bride, once a widow, and once a purported home wrecker, but it was during the making of Cleopatra that she truly transcended the label of mere “movie star” and became, once and for all, Elizabeth Taylor, the protagonist in a still-running extra-vocational melodrama of star-crossed romance, exquisite jewelry, and periodic emergency hospitalizations.
“It was probably the most chaotic time of my life. That hasn’t changed,” says Taylor, who has seldom discussed the Cleopatra experience publicly. “What with le scandale, the Vatican banning me, people making threats on my life, falling madly in love ... It was fun and it was dark—oceans of tears, but some good times too.”
For old Hollywood, Cleopatra represented the moment when the jig was up. No longer would anyone buy the studio system’s sanitized, pre-packaged lives of the stars, nor would the stars and their agents bow in obeisance to the aging moguls who’d founded the place. It was the moment when every schnook on the street became an industry insider, fluent in Varietyese, up to speed on Liz’s “deal” ($1 million against 10 percent of the gross), aware that a given film was x million dollars overbudget and needed to earn back y million dollars just to break even. Heaven’s Gate, Ishtar, Waterworld—the modern narrative of the “troubled production” began here, though none of these films would come close to matching Cleopatra for sheer anarchy, overreach, and bad Karma. Here, too, originated the mixed-blessing concept of “the most expensive movie ever made”: in strict economic terms, Cleopatra still holds the title. Last year Variety estimated Cleopatra’s cost in 1997 dollars to be $300 million, a full $100 million more than Titanic’s. Even if you perform a straightforward consumer-price-index conversion of the $44 million figure, Cleopatra’s adjusted-for-inflation budget comes out at $231 million.
Mankiewicz called Cleopatra “the toughest three pictures I ever made,” and his epitaph for the film—that it was “conceived in a state of emergency, shot in confusion, and wound up in a blind panic”—is one of filmdom’s most famous quotes. Even now the movie’s survivors talk of its making almost as if they’re discussing a paranormal experience. “There was a certain ... madness to it all,” says Hume Cronyn, who played Sosigenes, Cleopatra’s scholarly adviser. “It wasn’t anything as clear as ‘Richard Burton is moving out on his wife, Elizabeth is leaving Eddie Fisher.’ It was much more complicated, more levels than that.... Paparazzi in the trees.... We were weeks behind.... Hanky-panky going on in this corner and that.... There were wheels within wheels within wheels. God, it was a messy situation.”
Although it ended up turning a small profit and winning modest critical acclaim, Cleopatra had grim aftereffects on many of its principals. Mankiewicz would never again attain the brilliance and prolificacy of his late-40s-to-late-50s peak, during which he pulled off the still-unmatched feat of winning four Oscars in two years: for writing and directing A Letter to Three Wives (1949) and All About Eve (1950). “Cleopatra affected him the rest of his life,” says his widow, Rosemary, who worked as his assistant on the film. “It made him more sensitive to the other blows that would come along.” Mankiewicz would make only three more features, concluding with the minor gem Sleuth in 1972, and then spend his final 21 years disillusioned and idle, “finding reasons not to work,” in the words of his son Tom.
Taylor and Burton, in Cleopatra’s aftermath, would marry each other twice, make one good movie together, Mike Nichols’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and otherwise fritter away their acting careers on a series of blowsy, drink-sodden exhibitions of international jet-set filmmaking: The V.I.P.s, The Sandpiper, The Taming of the Shrew, Dr. Faustus, The Comedians, Boom!, Divorce His, Divorce Hers.
As for the film’s producer, the 68-year-old legend Walter Wanger, he would never make another movie. He had meant for Cleopatra to be a happy culmination of a distinguished career that had begun in 1921, when he persuaded Paramount to put Rudolph Valentino in
And where on this magical night at the Rivoli were the two people everyone wanted to see, Taylor and Burton? In England, where Burton was filming Becket. “We’d just had it with Cleopatra by then,” says Taylor. “The whole thing. It was years of my life.” A few weeks later, however, Taylor reluctantly hosted a London screening of the film. She dutifully sat through the picture, mortified by the memories it evoked and the butchery, as she perceived it, of Mankiewicz’s vision. Immediately afterward, she hurried back to the Dorchester Hotel, where she was staying—and threw up.
An Inauspicious Beginning: New York, Los Angeles, 1958–59
“He would never have pulled the plug on >Cleopatra. That would have been like giving up a child.”
—Stephanie Guest, daughter of Walter Wanger
Everyone in the movie business loved Walter Wanger—he spoke well, was Dartmouth-educated, wore Savile Row suits, and was reliably couth and hail-fellow-well-met, the antithesis of the shouters who ran things.
Wanger had wanted to do a Cleopatra picture for years. There had been others—a 1917 silent version with Theda Bara; the opulent Cecil B. DeMille version of 1934, featuring Claudette Colbert; and, in 1946, a soporific British adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s play Caesar and Cleopatra, starring Claude Rains and Vivien Leigh. But Wanger hoped to surpass them all with an intelligent treatment and a star in the lead who was, in his words, “the quintessence of youthful femininity, of womanliness and strength.” He found his ideal Queen of the Nile in 1951, when he saw Elizabeth Taylor in George Stevens’s A Place in the Sun.
But that year Wanger was not in the best position to do a deal. After a couple of decades as one of Hollywood’s more successful independent producers, responsible for such films as Queen Christina, with Greta Garbo, and John Ford’s Stagecoach, he’d fallen upon a hitless period, the ignominy of which was compounded by the discovery that his wife, the actress Joan Bennett, was having an affair with her agent, Jennings Lang of MCA. On December 13, 1951, in an act that froze Hollywood in disbelief, Wanger staked out Bennett and Lang in the MCA parking lot, pulled out a pistol, and shot Lang in the groin. That Wanger got off as lightly as he did—serving only a four-month sentence at a Southern California “honor farm” in mid-1952—was in large part a testament to how well liked he was: Samuel Goldwyn, Harry and Jack Warner, Walt Disney, and Darryl Zanuck contributed to his legal fund.
By 1958, Wanger’s comeback was in full swing (he had recently produced Don Siegel’s thriller Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Robert Wise’s I Want to Live!, for which Susan Hayward would win the 1959 Academy Award for best actress), and his thoughts returned to his dream project. On September 30 he took his first meeting about Cleopatra with Spyros Skouras, then the president of Twentieth Century Fox. Skouras, a snow-haired contemporary of Wanger’s, was amenable, but he envisioned something more modest than what Wanger had in mind. During their meeting, Skouras had a secretary excavate the ancient script for the soundless 1917 Cleopatra—produced by the Fox Film Corporation, Twentieth Century Fox’s progenitor—and said, “All this needs is a little rewriting. Just give me this over again and we’ll make a lot of money.”
Fox was not a well-run operation in the late 50s. All the studios were suffering from the rise of television and the court-ordered dissolution of the studio system, but Skouras and company were having a particularly rough time of it—an internal report published in 1962 reported a four-year loss of about $61 million. “We were the only people who could put John Wayne, Elvis Presley, and Marilyn Monroe in movies and not have them do any business,” says Jack Brodsky, a Fox publicist during the Cleopatra years.
One reason for Fox’s weak programming was the departure in 1956 of its founder and resident genius-dynamo, chief of production Darryl Zanuck, who, burned out after 23 years on the job, quit to become an independent producer. Zanuck’s replacement was Buddy Adler, who had produced From Here to Eternity and Love Is a Many Splendored Thing but proved to be an ineffectual executive. As long as Zanuck had been in place, the New York–based Skouras, a Greek immigrant who’d worked his way up from owning a single movie theater in St. Louis, had kept his distance from Los Angeles and the filmmaking process. With Adler, however, Skouras felt no such inhibitions, and began to meddle heavily.
Skouras was no creative genius, but he had made one important strategic move that temporarily “saved” the industry from television—namely, he kicked off the wide-screen era by making The Robe, a 1953 biblical epic starring Richard Burton, with the studio’s new CinemaScope technology. That film’s success ($17 million gross on a budget of $5 million) made Skouras a hero in Hollywood, and soon every studio was rushing out mastodonic sand-swept period epics in rival wide-screen processes such as WarnerScope, TechniScope, and VistaVision.
But by the time Wanger was trying to get Cleopatra off the ground, the bloom of CinemaScope had withered. The budget-minded Adler envisioned a modest back-lot picture, costing perhaps a million dollars or two, starring a Fox contract player such as Joan Collins, Joanne Woodward, or Suzy Parker. Wanger continued to argue his case for Taylor, whom Skouras didn’t want, because “she’ll be too much trouble.”
On June 19, 1959, Wanger received his first preliminary operating budget for Cleopatra: 64 days’ shooting at a cost of $2,955,700, exclusive of cast and director salaries—expensive by melodrama standards, but a piddling amount for an epic. The decade had seen one record-setting mega-production after another, starting with Mervyn LeRoy’s Quo Vadis (1951, $7 million) and continuing on with Richard Fleischer’s Jules Verne fantasy, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954, $9 million), Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956, $13 million), and William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959, $15 million).
By late summer, a reputable British writer named Nigel Balchin had been hired to put together a script, a $5 million budget was deemed acceptable, and the names of Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida, and Susan Hayward were being discussed for the title role. On September 1, Wanger made his first formal overture to Taylor, who was in London filming Suddenly Last Summer with Joseph Mankiewicz. Over the telephone, she demanded—half-jokingly, she would later say—a million dollars, something no actress had ever been paid for one movie.
Finally, on October 15 Fox staged a photo opportunity at which Taylor pretended to sign her million-dollar contract. The wire services sent out the photo to newspapers across the country, and now Wanger’s idea was the world’s: Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra.
Getting Nowhere: New York, Los Angeles, London, 1959–60
“Gentlemen: You are wasting money on Liz Taylor. Nobody wants to see her after the way she treated that sweet little Debbie Reynolds. Everyone loves Debbie. She is what the teenagers call a doll. Ginger Rogers is still popular, but Liz is not liked anymore. I heard a group of teenagers talking about Liz. They said, ‘She is a stinker.’ They’re right.”
—Letter sent to Buddy Adler and Walter Wanger by a woman in Beaumont, California, October 1959
It is the wisdom of those who consider themselves experts on the subject that Mike Todd, the producer-showman behind Around the World in 80 Days, was “the love of Elizabeth Taylor’s life.” But less than six months after Todd died in a plane crash outside Albuquerque in March 1958—leaving the 26-year-old Taylor alone with an infant daughter, Liza, and the two sons she’d had with her second husband, Michael Wilding—she was seen stepping out with her late husband’s friend and protégé, Eddie Fisher. Fisher, a pompadoured, haimish 30-year-old pop idol, was famous for his shrewdly publicized union with Debbie Reynolds; together they had two children and were known as “America’s sweethearts.” But by the time Taylor and Fisher married in Las Vegas in May of 1959, the public goodwill both had built up had evaporated, and they were the target of constant moral dudgeon and tabloid surveillance.
Skouras’s intuition that Taylor would be “trouble” wasn’t entirely unfounded, in that she had a predisposition toward illness, and alarmed moralists. Then again, she had soldiered on through Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the film she was in the midst of making when Todd died, fulfilled her obligation to Butterfield 8, the last film she owed to MGM under her contract there, and delivered a first-rate performance in Suddenly Last Summer.
Reaching over Wanger’s head, Skouras tapped an old friend, Rouben Mamoulian, to be Cleopatra’s director. The 61-year-old Mamoulian was a gifted visualist, was accustomed to policing large groups of people, and had directed the original Broadway productions of Porgy and Bess, Oklahoma!, and Carousel, as well as the films Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Becky Sharp, and Silk Stockings. But he had a reputation for being temperamental, and his filmmaking skills were rusty—apart from Silk Stockings, from 1957, he had made only one movie in the last 17 years. The screenwriter Nunnally Johnson (The Grapes of Wrath), whom Fox had hired to write additional dialogue for Balchin’s screenplay, was skeptical. “I bet Walter Wanger that [Mamoulian] would never go to bat,” Johnson wrote to his friend Groucho Marx. “All he wants to do is ‘prepare.’ A hell of a preparer. Tests, wardrobe, hair, toenails.... [But] if you make him start this picture, he will never forgive you to his dying day. This chap is a natural born martyr.”
Late in 1959, the Fox hierarchy committed its first howler of a mistake: deciding, despite obvious meteorological evidence to the contrary, that England was an ideal place to shoot a sunbaked Egyptian-Roman epic. The decision was money-driven—the British government offered generous subsidies to foreign productions that employed a certain percentage of British crew.
Adler died of cancer the following July. His death created even more of a power vacuum at the studio, but the movie’s chief detractor at Fox was out of the way. On July 28, 1960, Taylor finally signed a real contract. The film was to be shot not in CinemaScope but in Todd-AO, a rival wide-screen process developed by Mike Todd, which meant that Taylor, as Todd’s beneficiary, would receive additional royalties. It was announced that Peter Finch would play Caesar and that Stephen Boyd, Charlton Heston’s co-star in Ben-Hur, would play Antony. At the Pinewood Studios, located just outside London, John DeCuir, one of the best art directors in the business, began construction on a gorgeous, $600,000 Alexandria set covering 20 acres, featuring palm trees flown in from Los Angeles and four 52-foot-high sphinxes.
Right from the start, Mamoulian’s Cleopatra was a farce. The first day of shooting, September 28, saw two work stoppages by the movie’s British hairdressers, who took issue with the presence of Taylor’s specially imported American stylist, Sidney Guilaroff. Only after several weeks of negotiation by Wanger was a fragile truce arranged—Guilaroff would style Taylor at her double penthouse suite in the Dorchester, but would not set foot in Pinewood.
Not that Taylor’s presence at Pinewood ever became much of an issue. She called in sick on the third day of shooting, saying she had a cold. The cold grew into a lingering fever, and for the next few weeks she remained ensconced in her suite—attended by her husband and several doctors, including Lord Evans, Queen Elizabeth’s physician.
Physically and spiritually, the Eddie Fishers were not a healthy couple at the time. Fisher missed the singing career he’d largely forsaken for Taylor, and knew the $150,000 he was being paid by Fox for vague junior-producer duties was really for being Taylor’s professional minder. Furthermore, he was strung out on methamphetamine, having gotten hooked in his grueling touring days on “pep” shots administered by Max Jacobson, the notorious “Dr. Feelgood” who provided similar services to John F. Kennedy.
Taylor was in a continual funk because of her ill health, residual grief over the death of Mike Todd, the grim English weather, and the correct intuition that she’d lent her star power to a doomed, disorganized production. In response, she took to drinking and taking painkillers and sedatives. “She could take an enormous amount of drugs,” Fisher told Brad Geagley, a senior producer at Walt Disney, in an unpublished 1991 interview for a never completed book concerning Cleopatra. “She’s written up in medical journals somewhere—that’s what she’s always told me, and I believe her.” (Fisher declined to be interviewed for this story, on the grounds that he wants to save his “explosive, blockbuster stuff” for a memoir he’s working on.)
While Taylor spent the autumn shuttling between the Dorchester and the London Clinic, where she was variously diagnosed with a virus, an abscessed tooth, and a bacterial infection known as Malta fever, Mamoulian was having his own troubles. Balchin’s script remained unsatisfactory to him, and in the rare moments when the sky was clear, the illusion of Egypt was nevertheless shattered by the steam visibly emanating from the actors’ and horses’ mouths.
Production ground to a halt on November 18, when there was simply no more Mamoulian could do without Taylor and an improved script. The plan was for shooting to resume in January, by which time Taylor would presumably be well and Nunnally Johnson would have finished another script polish.
Back in New York, Skouras sent a copy of the current shooting script to Joseph Mankiewicz, who had made his two Oscar-winning pictures for Fox, and asked the director for a frank critique. Mankiewicz was merciless: “Cleopatra, as written, is a strange, frustrating mixture of an American soap-opera virgin and an hysterical Slavic vamp of the type Nazimova used to play ... ”
On January 18, 1961, with production resumed but still moving at a glacial pace, Mamoulian, bitter and frustrated, cabled his resignation to Skouras. He left behind about 10 minutes of footage, none of it featuring Taylor, and a loss of $7 million.
A Near-Death Experience: London, 1960–61
“I began to look at my life, and I saw a tough situation. In the hospital all the time—I mean, I became a nurse. I was giving her injections of Demerol. I didn’t want the doctors to come. I felt sorry for the doctors. I did it for two nights, and whooo-ee.... After two nights I said, ‘This is crazy.’ I actually faked appendicitis to get away.”
—Eddie Fisher, recalling the winter of 1960–61
A couple days after Skouras accepted Mamoulian’s resignation, a desperate voice broke through the static on Hume Cronyn’s telephone in the Bahamas, where he owned a remote island with his wife, Jessica Tandy. “Hume?” said the voice. “Where the hell is Joe?”
It was Charles Feldman, Joe Mankiewicz’s Hollywood agent. Mankiewicz was staying with the Cronyns, preparing the screenplay for Justine, his planned follow-up to Suddenly Last Summer. Feldman told Mankiewicz that Skouras was offering the moon for him to rescue Cleopatra. The director was skeptical, but that didn’t stop him from flying immediately to New York to meet Skouras for lunch at the Colony.
“Spyros,” he said, “why would I want to make Cleopatra? I wouldn’t even go see Cleopatra.”
Indeed, gifted as he was, Mankiewicz seemed the last person qualified (or inclined) to helm a big-budget spectacle. “His movies were dialogue-based and staged like plays, like All About Eve, where most of the action, where there is action, is people coming down stairs or going in and out of doors,” says Chris Mankiewicz, the director’s older son, who took time off from college to work on Cleopatra. Skouras recognized, however, that the elder Mankiewicz was a great writer and skilled diva-wrangler, having finessed the egos of Taylor and Katharine Hepburn on Suddenly Last Summer, and Bette Davis on All About Eve.
Mankiewicz consented to take over the project when Skouras made an offer he couldn’t refuse: Fox would not only place him on salary, but also pay $3 million for Figaro, the production company he co-owned with NBC. For a 51-year-old man whose glorious career had never quite made him rich, the prospect of overnight millionairedom was irresistible. “He was seduced by the opportunity,” says Chris Mankiewicz. “He never saw a penny from All About Eve. Now, for once in his life, they were all coming to him. All of a sudden you’ve got the ‘Fuck you’ money.”
Cleopatra seemed, for a flicker of a moment, to be in good, sane hands. Mankiewicz, citing as his inspirations Shaw, Shakespeare, and Plutarch, set about creating a totally new script for the movie. He enlisted two writers to help him, the novelist Lawrence Durrell (whose Alexandria Quartet was the basis for Mankiewicz’s Justine script) and the screenwriter Sidney Buchman (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington). Wanger, elated by Mankiewicz’s “modern, psychiatrically rooted concept of the film,” thought he was at last getting the upscale Cleopatra he’d dreamed of.
Alas, this period of promise was when Taylor suffered what probably still qualifies as her nearest near-death experience. Late in February she returned to London from a vacation on the Continent with what her doctors described as “Asian flu,” caught while rushing back to attend to her suddenly “appendicitis”-stricken husband. By March, the Asian flu, or whatever it was, had complicated itself into double pneumonia, and Taylor was sedated and prone in an oxygen tent in the Dorchester. On the night of March 4, 1961, she fell comatose. She was rushed once again to the London Clinic, Fisher at her side screaming, “Let her alone! Let her alone!,” as paparazzi leaned in to get photographs of her unconscious. The diligence of the Fleet Street press ensured that within hours an international deathwatch was in place, some papers already reporting that Taylor was dead.
“I was pronounced dead four times,” says Taylor. “Once I didn’t breathe for five minutes, which must be a record.” Doctors performed an emergency tracheotomy to alleviate congestion in her bronchial passages. The operation saved her life, and by the end of the month she was back home with Fisher in Los Angeles, convalescing. Several months later she underwent plastic surgery to conceal the incision mark at the base of her throat, but it wasn’t successful; the scar is visible in the finished film.
Calamitous as the whole episode was, it produced two seemingly serendipitous effects. First, it bought Mankiewicz six months to get his Cleopatra together while Taylor recovered. Second, Taylor’s public image was overnight transformed from home-wrecking pariah to heartstring-pulling survivor; the London Clinic received truckloads of flowers and sympathetic fan mail, even a get-well telegram from Debbie Reynolds. “I had the chance to read my own obituaries,” says Taylor. “They were the best reviews I’d ever gotten.” During her convalescence, she collected a sympathy best-actress Oscar for Butterfield 8, a movie she hated.
Mankiewicz decided to junk Mamoulian’s footage and reconstruct the movie from scratch—only Taylor, Wanger, and John DeCuir, the art director, would carry over to the new incarnation of Cleopatra. To replace Finch and Boyd, Mankiewicz pursued Trevor Howard and Marlon Brando, the latter of whom had played Mark Antony in the director’s 1953 adaptation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. But neither actor was available, so Mankiewicz set his sights on Rex Harrison, whom he had directed in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, and Richard Burton, then starring on Broadway in Camelot.
Skouras hated both choices. Harrison, he said, had never made a profitable movie for Fox, and Burton “doesn’t mean a thing at the box office.” Indeed, Burton, the 36-year-old product of a dirt-poor Welsh mining family, was perceived in Hollywood to be a great stage actor whose film career had never really taken off. But grudgingly, after strenuous lobbying from Mankiewicz, Skouras gave in. Fox bought out the remainder of Burton’s Camelot contract for $50,000, signed the actor for $250,000, and got Harrison for $200,000.
If you had to peg one of Cleopatra’s two male stars as a potential troublemaker on the set, it would be Harrison; Wanger later expressed surprise that he had turned out to be “the good boy.” Described by several of his surviving castmates as “the Cunt,” Harrison was known for being tetchy, difficult, and condescending. Burton, by contrast, was a charmer, adored by his peers for his erudition, basso speaking voice, Welsh-barroom raconteurship, and sexual magnetism. Though notorious for his philandering—he had romanced such co-stars as Claire Bloom, Jean Simmons, and Susan Strasberg, and had shown up at his first meeting with Wanger, at New York’s ‘21’ Club, with a Copacabana dancer on his arm—he invariably returned to his wife, the dignified, mumsie-looking Sybil Burton.
One of the few people who remained oblivious to Burton’s charms, in fact, was Elizabeth Taylor. She had met him years before Cleopatra at a party at Stewart Granger’s house, back when she was a contract player at MGM. “He flirted like mad with me, with everyone, with any girl who was even remotely pretty,” she says. “I just thought, ‘Ohhh, boy—I’m not gonna become a notch on his belt.’”
“England All Over Again”: Rome, 1961
“It appears that the responsibility for increased costs in connection with the production falls into four categories, namely
No effort was made at this time to review the first category, due to the danger involved.”
—Excerpt from a report prepared by Nathan Frankel, C.P.A., who was retained by Twentieth Century Fox in 1962 to determine how the studio’s money was being spent on Cleopatra
The second go-round of Cleopatra, in Italy, was a folly of proportions nearly as epic as the finished film. Once again, the production rushed ahead without a completed script or adequate preparation, an indication of how desperately Skouras wanted to present Twentieth Century Fox’s board of directors with a ready-to-release film that would bring in cash and save his regime. Wanger later estimated that if he and Mankiewicz had been given more time to regroup and plan, Cleopatra would have cost about $15 million. But Skouras was not exactly at his managerial best in 1961. Taylor, Fisher, and Mankiewicz got a sense of his addled state of mind one night when he joined them for drinks in New York. The others in the group couldn’t help but notice that Skouras was addressing Taylor only as “Cleopatra.”
“You don’t know my name, do you?” Taylor said suspiciously. “You can’t remember my name!”
“You are Cleopatra!” Skouras responded.
“You’re paying me a million dollars,” Taylor said, “and you can’t remember my name. Spyros, tell me my name! I’ll give you half the money back!”
“Ehh ... ehh ... ,” Skouras sputtered, “you are Cleopatra!”
By the summer of 1961, Cleopatra was practically all Fox had left; short of funds, the studio had canceled most of its other features and had pinned much of its hope on television. The latest in Fox’s series of regent studio chiefs was Peter Levathes, a Skouras protégé who had won good notices as the head of the company’s television division.
“We decided to move the production to Rome because we thought Elizabeth Taylor would show up more,” says Levathes. “The climate would be more to her liking, and she wouldn’t call in sick all the time.” At Levathes’s urging, Skouras granted Fisher’s request to fly in Taylor’s personal physician, Rex Kennamer of Beverly Hills, for a fee of $25,000.
Interiors and Roman exteriors were now to be shot at Cinecittà, the massive studio complex six miles outside of central Rome. Ancient Alexandria was being reconstructed at Torre Astura, a hunting estate on the Tyrrhenian Sea owned by Prince Stefano Borghese. Some additional work, mostly battle sequences, would be filmed in the Egyptian desert.
Trawling through the voluminous files and correspondence left in Cleopatra’s wake, what one takes away is the abject terror Taylor inspired in powerful men. (As Fisher would later say, “One thing I learned from Elizabeth—if you ever need anything, yell and scream for it.”) Privately, Wanger, Mankiewicz, Skouras, and Levathes complained about her fragility and erratic work habits, and talked about how she deserved a good telling-off. But in her presence they lost their resolve and genuflected. Skouras and Levathes tried (unsuccessfully) in 1961 to sign her to a four-picture deal with Fox. Wanger set her up in a 14-room mansion in Rome called the Villa Papa, and flew in chili from Chasen’s for her. Mankiewicz reportedly shuffled shooting schedules to accommodate her menstrual cycle. “We could only shoot Roman scenes in the Senate [which did not involve Taylor] when Elizabeth was having her period,” says Kenneth Haigh, who played Brutus. “She said, ‘Look, if I’m playing the most beautiful woman in the world, I want to look my best.’”
But by the time the production had moved to Rome, these men had an even better reason to coddle Taylor than the usual keep-the-talent-happy ethos. Taylor, in the wake of her near-death episode, was now uninsurable. If she walked off or fell ill, the movie—which was Elizabeth Taylor—would represent nothing but red ink.
Mankiewicz, between scouting locations, assembling a cast, and consulting with department heads, wasn’t close to having a finished screenplay when shooting began on September 25: a mere 132 pages out of an eventual 327, or most of the film’s first half (“Caesar and Cleopatra”) and none of its second half (“Antony and Cleopatra”). This meant that the film would be shot in continuity, a costly process that would eventually result in 96 hours of raw Todd-AO negative.
Skouras insisted on moving ahead anyway, arguing that “the girl is on salary”—an allusion to Taylor’s renegotiated contract, which called for her to work for 16 weeks beginning August 1, with a guarantee of $50,000 for every week Cleopatra ran over. Consequently, Mankiewicz would spend the remainder of the production directing by day and writing by night, an impossibly taxing task that, says his widow, “damn near killed him.” (Yet another screenwriter, Ranald MacDougall [Mildred Pierce], was drafted in, but Mankiewicz still insisted on writing the actual shooting script.)
Casting was done on the fly: a mid-September flurry of telephone calls brought aboard such actors as Hume Cronyn, Martin Landau, and Carroll O’Connor from America and Kenneth Haigh, Robert Stephens, and Michael Hordern from England. But when the actors arrived in Rome, they discovered half-finished sets, incomplete wardrobes, and an exhausted writer-director who hadn’t yet written their parts. Says Cronyn, “I arrived the same day as Burton, September 19, 1961. Neither one of us worked until after Christmas.”
“I had a 15-week contract, which was long for those days, but it wound up being almost 10 months,” says O’Connor, who played Casca, a Roman senator who puts the first knife into Caesar’s back. “In all that time, I worked 17 days.”
The chop-chop pace demanded by Skouras resulted in all manner of jaw-dropping blunders that might have been circumvented had there been adequate time to prepare. The beach at Torre Astura, where DeCuir’s massive replica of Alexandria was under construction, turned out to be laced with live mines left over from World War II; a $22,000 “mine-dredging” expenditure was added to Cleopatra’s ledger. On top of that, the set was adjacent to a NATO firing range. Wrote Wanger in his diary, “We will have to arrange our schedule so we are not working when the big guns are blasting.” And because Italy had no facilities for processing Todd-AO film, the day’s rushes had to be sent all the way to Hollywood and then back to Rome before the director could view them.
DeCuir’s sets were grandiose and beautiful, but because no one had kept close tabs on his work, Mankiewicz and his crew discovered too late that they were almost unmanageably big. The fake Roman Forum (which cost $1.5 million to build) dwarfed the real one up the road; so much steel tubing was required to hold it up that Cleopatra exacerbated a country-wide shortage, palpably affecting the Italian construction business.
As DeCuir’s Rome grew, Twentieth Century Fox began to shrink. Earlier in the year, Skouras, desperate to stanch the hemorrhaging of the company’s resources, had engineered the sale of the studio’s 260-acre Los Angeles lot to the Aluminum Company of America for $43 million, a transaction that would come to resemble Peter Minuit’s $24 deal for Manhattan. Though the studio continued to lease 75 acres for its own use (eventually reacquired), the remaining acreage was now being developed into Century City, the gigantic office- building-and-shopping-center complex that stands south of Beverly Hills today. “You could see the village from The Song of Bernadette, New York, castles, a real railroad station,” recalled Cesare Danova, a Fox contract player who portrayed Apollodorus, Cleopatra’s majordomo. “And the first thing that I saw [upon returning to the lot in 1962] was a truck from the Acme Wrecking Company. Everything was coming down. This was a potent sign for me—that the end had come to an entire world.”
The sheer size and obvious disorganization of Cleopatra made it an easy mark for anyone practiced in the art of graft—a circumstance not lost on many of the Italians hired to work on the picture. “The Italians are wonderful at designing things, but they have this natural proclivity for larceny,” says Tom Mankiewicz, the director’s younger son, who, like his brother, Chris, took time off from college to work on the film. “Once you start saying, ‘All right, I need 500 Praetorian-guard outfits, I need 600 Nubian-slave outfits, I need 10,000 soldier outfits’—this is like an invitation. And there was no one to stay on top of it all. If you wanted to buy some new dinnerware or a set of glasses for your house, it was the easiest thing to put it on the budget of Cleopatra.”
“Later I got to see the studio’s breakdown on the money waste,” says Taylor. “They had $3 million for ‘miscellaneous,’ and $100,000 for paper cups. They said I ate 12 chickens and 40 pounds of bacon every day for breakfast. What?”
Skouras, though the man with ultimate authority, placed a lot of the blame for the film’s rampant disorganization on Wanger. “You have to know Walter Wanger well,” Skouras later told an interviewer. “He is a fine man, but he likes to have lots of people to help him. Off the record, he does not want to work so hard.” Levathes felt that Mankiewicz was a prima donna whose extravagant requests were being indulged by Skouras regardless of financial consequence. Wanger complained with some justification that Skouras and Levathes were undermining his authority by circumventing him in favor of Mankiewicz and the department heads, but too often he merely complained. The surviving actors and crew remember the producer eventually devolving into a sweet but powerless “greeter” whose most visible duty was to escort visiting European royals to the set.
As a bout of torrential, London-like weather precluded outdoor shooting for much of the fall of ’61 (at a cost of $40,000 to $75,000 for every day rained out), many of the film’s principal actors realized that they were going to be in Rome at least through the spring of ’62. So they moved out of the luxurious Grand Hotel and into their own apartments, becoming idle, semi-permanent residents of the city. Given that Fox had to keep the actors on salary the whole time—Hume Cronyn at $5,000 a week, Roddy McDowall at $2,500 a week, Martin Landau at $850 a week, etc.—the cost pileups were tremendous.
At one point in autumn, Skouras and Levathes approached Burton to see if he’d mind terribly if the movie ended with Caesar’s assassination, thereby cutting out half of the plot and roughly 95 percent of Antony’s part. Burton was succinct. “I’ll sue you until you’re puce,” he told them.
Given the messy state of affairs, morale remained remarkably high on the set. “Everyone was in a very gay way,” says O’Connor. “We knew the picture was going to be O.K., even if it wasn’t going to be one of the greats.” The rushes were impressive enough to prompt hope in some quarters that the film was en route to greatness. On Christmas Eve, Fox publicist Jack Brodsky wrote the following to Nathan Weiss, his colleague in New York: “The first 50 pages of the second act have just come from Mank’s pen and they’re fabulous. Burton and Taylor will set off sparks, and already Fisher is jealous of the lines Burton has.”
Hell Breaks Loose: Rome, Winter 1962
“For the past several days uncontrolled rumors have been growing about Elizabeth and myself. Statements attributed to me have been distorted out of proportion, and a series of coincidences has lent plausibility to a situation which has become damaging to Elizabeth ...”
—Statement issued by Richard Burton, then disavowed by him, on February 19, 1962
Le scandale, as Taylor and Burton later termed their affair, didn’t begin until their work together did, in December or January, after Mankiewicz had written enough material for them to start rehearsing the film’s second half. “For the first scene, there was no dialogue—we had to just look at each other,” says Taylor. “And that was it—I was another notch.” Burton further endeared himself to Taylor by showing up hung over. She had feared that he would lord his talent over her and make fun of her lack of theatrical training; instead, she found herself steadying his trembling hands as he lifted a coffee cup to his lips. “He was probably putting it on,” Taylor says. “He knew it would get me.”
As for Eddie Fisher, he had not been having the best of times in Rome. Though he was on the Cleopatra payroll and was trying to learn how to become a movie producer, his presence wasn’t expected or needed at Cinecittà. “I remember Eddie one day walking onto the set, trying to be funny, and shouting to Mankiewicz, ‘O.K., Joe, let’s make this one!’” says Brodsky. “No one reacted. It cast a pall.”
“Eddie and I had drifted way apart,” says Taylor. “It was only a matter of time for us. The clock was ticking.”
But right through the end of January, the only suspicion that Fisher held was that Burton was encouraging his wife to drink too much. In his self-described capacity as a nurse, Fisher took exception to the influence the Welshman’s prodigious boozing and peaty joie de vivre were having on Taylor, who had grown tired of her husband’s predilection for dining in. “Remember,” says someone who worked on the production, “Elizabeth was a very self-indulgent person at that time, a sensualist who’d just been confronted with possible death, and was probably rebounding from it by tasting as much life as possible.”
Several people associated with Cleopatra point out that sensualism and high living were the order of the day in Rome, particularly with so little work for the actors to do. “There was a tremendous sense of being in the right place at the right time,” says Jean Marsh, who played Antony’s Roman wife, Octavia, well before her PBS fame as the creator and star of Upstairs, Downstairs. “Fellini was there, and Italy was the capital of film. And the film was so extravagant, so louche, it affected everyone’s lives. It was a hotbed of romance—Richard and Elizabeth weren’t the only people who had an affair.”
Taylor and Burton filmed their first scene together on January 22. Wanger happily noted in his diary, “There comes a time during the making of a movie when the actors become the characters they play.... That happened today.... It was quiet, and you could almost feel the electricity between Liz and Burton.”
Some people on the set, including Mankiewicz, knew already that there was more going on than just electricity. At one point Burton had stridden triumphantly into the men’s makeup trailer and announced to those present, “Gentlemen, I’ve just fucked Elizabeth Taylor in the back of my Cadillac!” Whether or not this boast was for real, it was true that he and Taylor were using the apartment of her secretary, Dick Hanley, for trysts.
On January 26, Mankiewicz summoned Wanger to his room at the Grand Hotel. “I have been sitting on a volcano all alone for too long, and I want to give you some facts you ought to know,” he said. “Liz and Burton are not just playing Antony and Cleopatra.”
“Confidentially,” Wanger later told Joe Hyams, his collaborator on My Life with Cleopatra, a rush-job account of the film’s travails published in 1963, “we all figured it might just be a once-over-lightly. That is what Mr. Burton figured, too. I know it. He told me.”
Several firsthand accounts support the idea that Burton began his dalliance with Taylor with only short-term pleasure in mind. Brodsky recalls the actor’s genuine surprise, as the weeks advanced, to find himself in the midst of both an intense affair and an international incident: “He said to me, ‘It’s like fucking Khrushchev! I’ve had affairs before—how did I know the woman was so fucking famous!’”
Mankiewicz and Wanger harbored hopes in the early going that the situation would simply blow over. But Taylor’s notoriety since her grieving-widow days had made her the most-hunted tabloid prey in the world. Well before the affair had begun, the Roman gutter press had planted informants in Cinecittà and arranged paparazzi stakeouts of the Villa Papa. Word got out fast, even before Fisher knew anything was going on.
As February dawned, rumors were swirling so madly around Rome—“the whispering gallery of Europe,” as Wanger called it—that Fisher could no longer ignore or brush off the gossip. One night early that month, as he lay in bed beside Taylor, he received a heads-up telephone call from Bob Abrams, his old army buddy and Jilly Rizzo–like amanuensis.
Fisher hung up the phone and turned to his wife. “Is it true that something is going on between you and Burton?” he asked her.
“Yes,” she said softly.
Quietly, defeatedly, Fisher packed and spent the night at Abrams’s place. The following day, he returned to the Villa Papa, and for about two weeks slept by Taylor’s side, hoping that the situation would somehow resolve itself. There was never any kind of knock-down-drag-out confrontation. “She just wasn’t ‘there’ anymore,” Fisher said in 1991. “She was with him. And I wasn’t ‘there.’ She talked to him once at the studio, in my office, with all kinds of people around. And she was talking love to him on the telephone. ‘Oh, dahling, are you all right?’ With this new British accent.”
By mid-February the rumors had gone worldwide, and Taylor-Burton innuendo was everywhere. The Perry Como Show ran a comic “Cleopatra” sketch in which a slave named Eddie kept getting in Mark Antony’s way. Taylor was visibly upset, and the entire production was in a bad way. Mankiewicz, run-down from his Sisyphean work schedule, had become feverishly ill. So had Martin Landau, who had a large part (as Rufio), and whose illness necessitated the cancellation of a day’s worth of shooting. Leon Shamroy, the cinematographer, a cigar-chomping sexagenarian known for his seen-it-all stoicism (he had shot the Fox epics The Robe, The Egyptian, and The King and I, as well as the Gene Tierney classic Leave Her to Heaven), collapsed from exhaustion. Forrest “Johnny” Johnston, the film’s production manager, fell gravely ill and died in Los Angeles in May.
Morale back home was also low. Pro- and anti-Skouras factions were taking shape on the Fox board, and rumors swirled of a coming putsch. “This was where my hair went gray,” says Levathes, who is now 86. “I used to look younger.”
Burton, contrite, met with Wanger and volunteered to quit the production if that was what was best. Wanger counseled against this option, arguing that “what would solve the problem [is] putting an end to any basis for the rumors.”
In the meantime, Burton’s older brother Ifor, a powerfully built man who functioned as the actor’s bodyguard-factotum, used his fists to get the message across. “Ifor beat the living shit out of Burton,” says a Cleopatra crew member. “For what he was doing to Sybil. Beat him up so that Richard couldn’t work the next day. He had a black eye and a cut cheek.”
Both Fisher and Sybil Burton decided it best to flee the situation. He headed by car for Gstaad, where he and Taylor owned a chalet; she left for New York. But before either had gone, Fisher paid a visit to the Burtons’ villa for a heart-to-heart talk with Sybil. “I said, ‘You know, they’re continuing their affair,’” Fisher recalled. “And she said, ‘He’s had these affairs, and he always comes home to me.’ And I said, ‘But they’re still having their affair.’ And she went to the studio, and they closed [production] down. And that cost them $100,000. And the day I left Rome, it cost them another $100,000. Elizabeth screamed and carried on. Work stopped that day. They had that in honor of me.”
When Fisher, having driven as far as Florence, called Rome to determine his wife’s whereabouts, he discovered that Taylor was in Hanley’s apartment, accompanied by Burton, who was enraged that the singer had meddled in his marriage to Sybil. Burton took the telephone. “You nothing, you spleen,” he said to Fisher. “I’m going to come up there and kill you.”
Instead, Burton summoned the courage to tell Taylor their affair was over, and left for a short trip to Paris, where he was playing a small part in Darryl Zanuck’s Normandy epic, The Longest Day. That night, Hanley called Wanger to say that Taylor would be unable to work the next day. “She’s hysterical,” Wanger wrote in his diary. “Total rejection came sooner than expected.”
The following day, February 17, Taylor was rushed to the Salvator Mundi Hospital. The official explanation was food poisoning. Wanger, who cooked up a story about some bad beef she had eaten, had, in fact, discovered Taylor splayed on her bed in the Villa Papa, groggy from an overdose of Seconal, a prescription sedative. “It wasn’t a suicide attempt,” says Taylor. “I’m not that kind of person, and Richard despised weakness. It was more hysteria. I needed the rest, I was hysterical, and I needed to get away.”
Taylor recovered quickly, but news of her hospitalization compelled both Fisher and Burton to fly back to Rome, which only fanned the flames of rumor. On February 19, Burton, eager to extinguish these flames, issued a statement addressing the “uncontrolled rumors ... about Elizabeth and myself.” The statement took pains to provide reasons why Sybil and Eddie had left town (she was visiting Burton’s sick foster father; he had business matters to attend to), but never outright denied that an affair was going on. It was a crucially unsavvy nondenial denial, and the Fox publicity team was apoplectic. The studio got Burton to disavow the statement and pin the blame for its release on his press agent, but it was too late: now the papers had a peg upon which they could hang their “affair” stories. Taylor-Burton was an out-in-the-open phenomenon.
“It was not a help to the production,” says a crew member. “You know how she got time off for her period? Now she was having three or four periods a month.”
The Whirlwind: Rome, Spring 1962
“It’s true—Elizabeth Taylor has fallen madly in love with Richard Burton. It’s the end of the road for Liz and Eddie Fisher.”
—Louella Parsons’s syndicated column, March 10, 1962
“The report is ridiculous.”
—Eddie Fisher’s response, March 10
In the aftermath of Taylor’s hospitalization, all the aggrieved parties tried to re-arrange themselves as they had been before. Fisher threw his wife a 30th-birthday party on February 27 and presented her with a $10,000 diamond ring and an emerald-studded Bulgari mirror. Burton told the press he had no intention of divorcing Sybil. But it was to no avail—the Taylor-Burton affair continued, as did the reporters’ pursuit.
Privately, there were cruel scenes between Burton and Fisher, with the former visiting Villa Papa and boasting to the latter, “You don’t know how to use her!,” or turning to Taylor and saying, with Fisher present, “Who do you love? Who do you love?” Fisher never fought back. Where others saw wimpiness and retreat, Wanger, in recorded conversations with Joe Hyams, his book collaborator, ascribed a kind of nobility to the singer’s pacifism. “Eddie always took the position that this is an evil man, and he had to stand and protect her when she was misled by this terrible guy,” he said. “He wanted to hold his family together.” Fisher left Rome for good on March 21, 1962.
Cleopatra was now about halfway finished, but it still lacked its biggest, most challenging scenes: Cleopatra’s procession into Rome, the arrival of her barge at Tarsus, the battles of Pharsalia, Philippi, Moongate, and Actium. Moreover, there remained several weeks’ worth of “Antony and Cleopatra” scenes to be filmed. The fictive and the personal dovetailed to the point where even the actors got confused. “I feel as if I’m intruding,” Mankiewicz said one day as his shouts of “Cut!” went unabided by Taylor and Burton during a love scene. In a less pleasant coincidence, the very day that Burton announced to the press he would never leave Sybil was the day Taylor had to film the scene in which Cleopatra discovers that Antony has returned to Rome and taken another wife, Octavia. The screenplay called for Cleopatra to enter Antony’s deserted chambers in Alexandria, pick up his dagger, and stab his bed and belongings in a rage. Taylor went at it with such gusto that she banged her hand and needed to go to the hospital for X-rays. She was unable to work the next day.
The day-to-day developments of Taylor-Burton were now a full-time news beat. Martin Landau remembers a night shoot on the island of Ischia involving Taylor and Burton where the crew’s spotlights, once turned on, revealed paparazzi bunched up like moths. “Behind us was this cliff, with shrubbery and growth coming out of it,” he says, “and there were 20 photographers hanging off these things, with long lenses. A couple of them fell—30 feet!”
In actuality, the affair was, as Taylor would note a few years after the fact, “more off than on.” “We did try and resist,” she says today. “My marriage with Eddie was over, but we didn’t want to do anything to hurt Sybil. She was—is—such a lovely lady.” Taylor still won’t discuss the scenes and machinations that went on between the Fishers and the Burtons, calling the subject matter “too personal,” but other observers on the set remember moments when the lovers’ similarly combustible personalities caused near explosions. In the midst of le scandale, Burton was also carrying on with the Copacabana dancer he’d been seeing in his Camelot days; one day Taylor took exception to her presence on the set, prompting Burton to shove Taylor slightly and snarl, “Don’t get my Welsh temper up.” In another instance, Burton showed up for work wrecked, again with the “Copa cutie,” as she was known on the set, in tow. When he finally rallied himself into performing condition, Taylor admonished him, “You kept us all waiting.” To which Burton responded, “It’s about time somebody kept you waiting. It’s a real switch.”
Far more so than Taylor, Burton was flummoxed, unable to choose between his wife and lover, desperate to have it both ways. Speaking to Kenneth Tynan in Playboy after Cleopatra had wrapped, he futilely tried to defend the Liz-Sybil arrangement with a choice bit of baroque doggerel. “What I have done,” he said, “is to move outside the accepted idea of monogamy without investing the other person with anything that makes me feel guilty. So that I remain inviolate, untouched.”
For all its unpleasant side effects, Burton was elated by his new worldwide fame. Kenneth Haigh remembers him “calling me into his room and saying, ‘Look at this! There are about 300 scripts! The offers are piling up everywhere!’” Hugh French, Burton’s Hollywood agent, began boasting that his client now commanded $500,000 per picture. “Maybe I should give Elizabeth Taylor 10 percent,” said Burton.
Alas, the seesaw nature of the affair was not conducive to the efficient completion of what was now routinely described in the papers as a “$20 million picture.” Between his euphoric highs, Burton was drinking heavily on the set. Taylor, too, became erratic, alternately showing up unprecedentedly early to work on scenes with Burton and failing to show up at all. A production document titled “Elizabeth Taylor Diary” indicates that on March 21, the day Fisher departed, Taylor was dismissed from Cinecittà at 12:25 p.m. after “having great difficulty delivering dialogue.”
The unexpected work stoppages didn’t always bother Mankiewicz, who welcomed the opportunity to catch up on his writing and his sleep. He was by now a physical ruin, sometimes writing scenes the night before they were to be shot. A stress-related dermatological disorder caused the skin on his hands to crack open, forcing him to wear thin white film cutter’s gloves as he wrote the script longhand. Somehow, he retained his equanimity and sense of humor. When an Italian newspaper alleged that Burton was a “shuffle-footed idiot” deployed by the director to cover up the real scandal—that it was Mankiewicz who was having an affair with Taylor—Mankiewicz released a statement declaring, “The real story is that I’m in love with Richard Burton, and Elizabeth Taylor is the cover-up for us.” (The same day, Burton shuffled up to Mankiewicz on the set and said, “Duh, Mister Mankeawitz, sir, do I have to sleep with her again tonight?”)
Astonishingly, there had been a time, early on in Rome, when the Fox brass had chastised their publicity department for not getting Cleopatra enough attention. By April and May of 1962, as le scandale superseded news coverage of the Mercury-Atlas space missions and the U.S.-Soviet tensions that were leading up to the Cuban missile crisis, it was almost impossible to keep up with the whirlwind. Fisher was briefly hospitalized in New York with exhaustion, and after his release took to opening his nightclub act with the song “Arrivederci, Roma.” A congresswoman from Georgia named Iris Blitch called on the attorney general to block Taylor and Burton from re-entering the country, “on grounds of undesirability.” And in April, the Vatican City weekly, L’Osservatore della Domenica, printed a 500-word “open letter,” signed only “X.Y.,” that began “Dear Madam” and went on to say, “Even considering the [husband] that was finished by a natural solution, there remain three husbands buried with no other motive than a greater love that killed the one before. But if we start using these standards and this sort of competition between the first, second, third, and the hundredth love, where are we all going to end up? Right where you will finish—in an erotic vagrancy ... without end or without a safe port.”
The complicity of the Catholic Church in the sport of Liz-bashing undid Taylor’s nerves at the worst possible moment for the production. She was due at last to film Cleopatra’s entrance into Rome, the centerpiece of the entire picture. The premise of the sequence, commonly known as the procession, is that Cleopatra, having borne a son to Caesar in Egypt, must now go to her lover’s home turf to present herself to the Roman public. If they accept her, then her dream of a globe-straddling Egyptian-Roman empire is realized; if they boo and hiss, she is finished. Mankiewicz, hewing to Plutarch, addressed the situation precisely as Cleopatra did: by devising the most lavish, eyeball-popping spectacle he could think of, a NASA-budgeted halftime show.
As Caesar and the senators watched, agog, from the Forum’s reviewing stand, a seemingly endless parade of exotica would stream through the Arch of Titus: fanfaring trumpeters, charioteers, scantily clad dancing girls with streamers, an old hag who changes magically into a young girl, dwarfs tossing sweets from atop painted donkeys, comely young women tossing gold coins from atop painted elephants, painted Watusi warriors, dancers shooting plumes of colored smoke into the air, a pyramid that bursts open to release thousands of doves, Arabian horses, and, for the finale, a two-ton, three-story-high, black sphinx drawn by 300 Nubian slaves, upon which would sit Cleopatra and her boy, Caesarion, both resplendent in gold raiment.
Originally the procession was to have been one of the first things shot, in October, but bad weather and inadequate preparation made a hash of that plan, forcing Fox to pay out money to various dancers, acrobats, and circus-animal trainers to ensure their availability through the spring. (Furthermore, the original elephants that had been hired proved to be unruly and destructive, one of them running amok on the Cinecittà soundstages and pulling up stakes; the elephants’ owner, Ennio Togni, later attempted to sue Fox for slander when word got out that his pachyderms had been “fired.” Said a disbelieving Skouras, “How do you slander an elephant?”)
Six thousand extras had been hired to cheer the queen’s entrance and ad-lib reactions of “Cleopatra! Cleopatra!,” but Taylor, mindful of their Roman Catholicism and the Vatican’s recent condemnation, feared an impromptu stoning. Comforted by Burton and Mankiewicz, she summoned the courage to be hoisted atop the sphinx. When the cameras started rolling, she assumed a facial expression of blank hauteur and felt the sphinx rolling through the arch. “Oh my God,” she thought, “here it comes.”
But the Roman extras neither booed nor (for the most part) shouted “Cleopatra! Cleopatra!” Instead, they cheered and yelled, “Leez! Leez! Baci! Baci!,” while blowing kisses her way.
Operation Homestretch: Rome, Ischia, Egypt, Spring-Summer 1962
“Mr. Skouras faces the future with courage, determination ... and terror.”
—Groucho Marx, speaking at a testimonial dinner held in honor of Spyros Skouras at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, April 12, 1962
In the spring of ’62, Skouras saw the writing on the wall. He knew that his reign as Fox president wasn’t going to last much longer. By May he was stricken with prostate trouble, and when he arrived in Rome on May 8 to screen a five-hour rough cut of Cleopatra-to-date, he had been fitted with a temporary catheter and was heavily sedated—and fell asleep several times during the screening. Satisfied nevertheless with what he saw, he began a push to finish the film as quickly as possible.
The month had begun with Taylor indisposed on account of what Wanger described as “the most serious situation to date.” On April 21, Taylor and Burton, without forewarning any members of the production, left Rome to spend the Easter weekend at Porto Santo Stefano, a coastal resort town a hundred miles to the north. Unprotected by handlers and publicists, they were surveilled the entire time by a swarm of reporters and paparazzi, and the following day newspapers around the world ran pictorial stories of their “tryst at seaside.”
“It was like hell,” says Taylor. “There was no place to hide, not in this tiny cottage we had rented. When we were driving somewhere, they ran us into a ditch by jumping in front of the car. It was either Richard hits them or he swerves over, so we swerved over.”
One of the Porto Santo Stefano “tryst” stories appeared in the London Times, which infuriated Sybil Burton, who was at home in England with the Burtons’ two small daughters, Kate and Jessica. Sybil had studiously ignored the London tabloids, but to have the Taylor-Burton affair splashed across the Times was the last straw. She went to Rome on April 23 to await her husband’s return. Wanger, fearing a public scene, detained her at the Grand Hotel for as long as he could.
In the meantime, Taylor returned abruptly and solo from Porto Santo Stefano, and was rushed, for the second time in four months, to the Salvator Mundi Hospital. The following day’s papers carried news of a “violent quarrel” that had prompted Taylor to walk out on Burton as he stood, smoldering, on the porch of the stucco bungalow they were staying in. “Burton told her to go and get rid of herself, and she tried to,” Wanger later said confidentially. “This was the one time that she really took an overdose and she was really in danger.” Taylor again denies that suicide was her intent, saying that, as had been the case in February, she needed some respite.
The hospitalization could be explained away with the old standbys “exhaustion” and “food poisoning,” but the reason she didn’t work again until May 7—that she had a black eye and facial bruises—could not be so tidily addressed. Skouras, in a letter to Darryl Zanuck several months later, matter-of-factly referred to “the beating Burton gave her in Santo Stefano. She got two black eyes, her nose was out of shape, and it took 22 days for her to recover enough in order to resume filming.” But Taylor maintains that the truth was what the press was told—that her bruises were incurred during the ride back from Porto Santo Stefano. “I was sleeping in the backseat of the car,” she says, “and the driver went around a curve, and I bumped my nose on an ashtray.”
Once Taylor’s bruises healed, she went back to work. But more bad luck followed. The winds came up on some of the days the extras and dancers had been convened to continue work on the procession, canceling shooting at a cost of $250,000. A successfully completed scene that required Antony to slap Cleopatra to the ground—a loaded proposition made more so by the fact that Taylor had a bad back—was erased when the film was damaged in transit back to the United States; June retakes would be necessary. Then, on May 28, word slipped out to Levathes that Taylor had filmed Cleopatra’s death scene, in which she commits suicide by letting an asp bite her hand. The death scene was, in the eyes of Fox’s impatient executives, the one sequence the film could absolutely not do without. Knowing it existed, Levathes headed for Rome to shut down the picture.
On June 1, Wanger met with Levathes and learned that, effective the following day, he was being taken off salary and expenses. This was in every sense a quasi-firing, in that no one discouraged him from continuing to work on the film. So continue he did, contesting, with Mankiewicz, the New York office’s demands that Taylor’s last day be June 9, that the battle of Pharsalia sequence be canceled, and that all photography be completed by June 30. (A week later, back in the states, Levathes fired Marilyn Monroe from her abortive final film, Something’s Got to Give. A Fox spokesman said, “No company can afford Monroe and Taylor.”)
In haste, the Cleopatra production moved to the Italian island of Ischia, which was standing in for both Actium, the ancient Greek town near whose shores Octavian defeated Antony, and Tarsus, the Turkish port of the Roman Empire where Cleopatra made her second great entrance, aboard a barge. (The barge, complete with gilded stern and Dacron purple sails flown in from California, cost $277,000.)
It was off Ischia that a paparazzo named Marcello Geppetti took the photograph that most enduringly represents the Taylor-Burton affair: a shot of Burton planting a kiss on a smiling Taylor as both sun themselves in bathing suits on the deck of an anchored boat.
Taylor completed a successful take of Cleopatra’s arrival aboard her barge on June 23. By studio decree, it was her last day on the picture—272 days after Mankiewicz had begun at Cinecittà, 632 days after Mamoulian had commenced shooting at Pinewood.
Battle-sequence work in Egypt would keep Mankiewicz busy through July, and battles with Fox occupied him in the weeks prior. While still on Ischia, the director learned that Fox was killing yet another crucial sequence, the battle of Philippi. Mankiewicz was enraged, having planned for the Philippi conflict to open the film’s second half. On June 29, he sent a strongly worded telegram to Skouras and the Fox brass:
WITHOUT PHARSALIA IN MY OPINION OPENING OF FILM AND FOLLOWING SEQUENCES SEVERELY DAMAGED STOP BUT WITHOUT PHILIPPI THERE IS LITERALLY NO OPENING FOR SECOND HALF SINCE INTERIOR TENT SCENES ALREADY SHOT SIMPLY CANNOT BE INTELLIGIBLY PUT TOGETHER STOP ... WITH MUTUAL APPRECIATION OF RESPONSIBILITIES AND SUGGESTING THAT MINE TOWARD THE STOCKHOLDERS IS NO LESS THAN YOURS I SUGGEST THAT YOU REPLACE ME SOONEST POSSIBLE BY SOMEONE LESS CRITICAL OF YOUR DIRECTIVES AND LESS DEDICATED TO THE EVENTUAL SUCCESS OF CLEOPATRA.
Fox placated Mankiewicz by allowing Pharsalia to be partially reconstituted via two days’ worth of hasty shooting in some craggy Italian hills—and then Cleopatra moved on to Egypt for additional battle work.
The Egypt trip, from July 15 to July 24, was the by-now-customary fiasco, marred by delays, poor sanitary conditions, a threatened strike by the locally hired extras, and government wiretaps on the telephones of Jewish cast and crew members; adding injury to insult, there was the further deterioration of Mankiewicz’s physical condition—he required daily B12 shots to keep going, and one shot hit his sciatic nerve, rendering him barely able to walk.
Principal photography was now complete. But Mankiewicz would have more to contend with in the film’s lengthy postproduction phase: a new Fox regime. Back on June 26, under pressure, Skouras had announced his resignation as president, effective September 20.
Enter the Mustache: New York, Los Angeles, Paris, London, Spain, 1962–63
IT LOOKS LIKE MUSTACHE WITH ZEUS AS PLANKHEAD.
—Cable sent from Jack Brodsky (in Fox’s New York office) to Nathan Weiss (in Fox’s temporary Rome office), July 6, 1962
“Mustache” was Darryl Zanuck. “Zeus” was Skouras. Upon Skouras’s resignation, Zanuck, whose family was still the single largest shareholder of Fox stock, made a play to take control of the faltering company he had co-founded in 1933. By outmaneuvering the various board factions and their designees for president, he engineered a coup that by summertime had installed him as president and relegated Skouras to a largely ceremonial chairman-of-the-board position (ergo, “Zeus as plankhead”).
Zanuck surveyed the state of affairs at Fox like a police chief arriving at a morbid crime scene—move away, pal, show’s over. He shut down virtually all Fox productions save Cleopatra, dismissed most of the studio’s employees and executives, lowered the thermostats, shuttered most of the buildings on the shrunken back lot, and replaced Levathes with his own son, producer Richard Zanuck.
Mankiewicz and Darryl Zanuck had a complex love-hate relationship that more often tipped toward the latter. But the director was relieved to know there was now a decisive man at the top, and someone who knew the ins and outs of picture-making to boot. “When I finished a screenplay, the first person I wanted to read it was Darryl,” Mankiewicz said in 1982, recalling the days when Zanuck was Fox’s chief of production. It was Zanuck who resolved one of Mankiewicz’s biggest writerly dilemmas—how to pare down an overlong screenplay entitled A Letter to Four Wives—by suggesting that Mankiewicz eliminate one of the wives.
Back in Los Angeles, Mankiewicz and his editor, Dorothy Spencer, prepared a rough cut of Cleopatra that ran five hours and twenty minutes and reflected his desire to present Cleopatra in two concurrently released parts, with separate tickets required for each: Caesar and Cleopatra, followed by Antony and Cleopatra. Fox had long been against the idea, because of the exhibition logistics involved and because no one was interested in seeing Taylor make love to Rex Harrison.
Mankiewicz made a date with Zanuck to screen the film on October 13 in Paris, where the new Fox president lived (and continued to work, even though he was running an American studio). As this date approached, Wanger sent Zanuck a series of obsequious letters and telegrams, begging to be fully reinstated as producer: I BESEECH YOU, DARRYL ... NOT TO AGGRAVATE THIS SITUATION AND FURTHER DAMAGE MY STATUS AS PRODUCER OF CLEOPATRA BY NOT BRINGING ME TO PARIS ... I APPEAL TO YOU AS A MAN NOT TO DO THIS TO ME. Zanuck’s cold-shoulder reply was that Wanger was welcome to come along provided he paid his own way.
The October 13 screening did not go particularly well. Zanuck said little to Mankiewicz as the lights went up except “If any woman behaved toward me the way Cleopatra treated Antony, I would cut her balls off.”
Mankiewicz grew nervous when a week passed without him hearing anything further. On October 20, he sent a letter to Zanuck requesting an “honest and unequivocal statement of where I stand in relation to Cleopatra.”
On October 21, he got his statement. “On completion of the dubbing, your official services will be terminated,” Zanuck wrote. “If you are available and willing, I will call upon you to screen the re-edited version of the film.” Elsewhere in the letter, which ran to nine single-spaced pages, Zanuck described the existing battle sequences as “awkward, amateurish ... second-rate film making” with a “B-picture” look; said that the film “over-emphasized in some places the Esquire-type of sex”; described Wanger as “impotent”; contrasted Mankiewicz’s handling of Cleopatra unfavorably with his own handling of The Longest Day; and alleged, “You were not the official producer, yet in the history of motion pictures no one man has ever been given such authority. The records show that you made every single decision and that your word was law.”
A few days later, Zanuck released the following statement to the press: “In exchange for top compensation and a considerable expense account, Mr. Joseph Mankiewicz has for two years spent his time, talent, and $35,000,000 of 20th Century–Fox’s shareholders’ money to direct and complete the first cut of the film Cleopatra. He has earned a well-deserved rest.”
In response, the director told the press, “I made the first cut, but after that, it’s the studio’s property. They could cut it up into banjo picks if they want.”
Privately, Mankiewicz sent Zanuck yet another letter that painstakingly refuted every charge made against him in the October 21 correspondence: “I am, I suppose, an old whore on this beat, Darryl, and it takes quite a bit to shock me ... but never could I imagine the phantasmagoria of frantic lies and frenzied phony buck-passing that you report [in] your letter!”
By December, however, the two men’s temperatures had cooled, and they recognized that their cooperation was necessary to get Cleopatra into releasable form. Zanuck conceded to Mankiewicz that the previous regime’s cutbacks on Pharsalia and Philippi had been a mistake, and so, in February 1963—at a cost of $2 million—Cleopatra’s company of soldiers was reconvened in Almería, Spain, to do battle. Further bits and pieces were shot in—irony of ironies—Pinewood Studios in England, where the whole mess had begun with Mamoulian 29 months earlier.
When the reshoots were done, Mankiewicz, with Zanuck looking over his shoulder, edited Cleopatra down to its 243-minute premiere length. Though they were publicly allies again, the director was unhappy with this version and still thought Zanuck had done him a disservice by not allowing Cleopatra to be shown in two parts. When Mankiewicz was asked to participate in a fluffy NBC tribute program called The World of Darryl Zanuck, he said he’d do it only if they retitled it Stop the World of Darryl Zanuck.
Nevertheless, Cleopatra, at last, was done.
Coda: New York, etc., 1963–
“She is an entirely physical creature, no depth of emotion apparent in her kohl-laden eyes, no modulation in her voice that too often rises to fishwife levels. Out of royal regalia, en negligee or au naturel, she gives the impression that she is really carrying on in one of Miami Beach’s more exotic resorts than inhabiting a palace in ancient Alexandria.”
—Judith Crist, evaluating Taylor’s performance in her review of Cleopatra for the New York Herald Tribune, June 13, 1963
Cleopatra opened at the Rivoli Theater to mixed reviews, Crist’s being the most damning, Bosley Crowther’s, in The New York Times, being the most enthusiastic (“a surpassing entertainment, one of the great epic films of our day”). A viewing unprejudiced by temporal context reveals the movie to be mediocre-to-good, a tribute to Mankiewicz’s salvaging abilities and the fact that, for all the waste, you do see a lot of the money up on the screen—the movie looks handsome and expensive in an old-fashioned, 2,000-artisans-at-work way, as opposed to the contemporary, postproduced-in-the-computer-lab way. The procession sequence is as mind-boggling as it’s supposed to be.
Taylor’s Cleopatra comes off as an imperious harridan, a seething Imelda, but she’s actually effective—you believe her dream of empire. Still, you can’t help but notice the incon