James CameronHaving become the first person to direct a worldwide $1 billion hit, is James Cameron about to become the first person to direct a movie with a $1 billion budget?

That's the chance that Sony Pictures and producer Scott Rudin will be taking if, as widely rumored, they get the King of the World to direct a 3-D biographical drama about Cleopatra and her lovers Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. While Cameron has delivered the goods on the mega-movies 'Titanic' and 'Avatar,' those films went way over schedule and over budget; and though his spending a billion bucks is highly unlikely, 'Cleopatra' would likely be his most expensive movie.
I give Amy Pascal, the Sony boss who has referred to this 'Cleopatra' as her 'Gone With the Wind,' credit for courage. To take Sony where 20th Century Fox has gone would either be her 'GWTW' or her 'Heaven's Gate.' The calamity of Fox's 1963 'Cleopatra,' which went $42 million over its $2 million budget, forced the studio to sell off 180 acres of its Los Angeles back lot. On the land where many Fox classics were filmed now stand the gleaming skyscrapers of Century City.

If Sony goes ahead with a James Cameron version, which would have Angelina Jolie in the role played in '63 by Elizabeth Taylor, developers may be sizing up Sony's Culver City lot on Google Maps.

A pessimist couldn't count on Cameron facing the same problems that director Joseph Mankiewicz endured with the Taylor version. For one thing, the production was already $5 million over budget when Mankiewicz took over for the fired Rouben Mamoulian. And he didn't have a single frame of usable film to work with. After constructing mammoth sets in London, the production had been shut down due to England's predictably un-Mediterranean weather and begun anew in Italy.

Mankiewicz, who had won an Oscar for his small-scale 1950 'All About Eve,' found himself supervising scenes on the biggest constructed sets since D.W. Griffith's 'Intolerance.' And he had an off-camera spectacle -- the adulterous affair between Elizabeth Taylor and co-star Richard Burton -- that would overwhelm public interest in the movie. There was also the illness that sent Taylor to the hospital for a life-saving tracheotomy and another long production shut-down.

I imagine that Pascal and Rudin see Cameron as saving some of the expenses of the '63 'Cleopatra' by constructing all those mammoth sets on computers. Certainly, if he could create the sinking of Titanic digitally and create an other-wordily culture in 'Avatar,' he could computer-generate the architecture of ancient Rome, Alexandria and the pageant of barges that bring Cleopatra to Rome.

If the salaries of Cameron, Jolie and the necessary marquee names assigned the roles of Antony and Caesar don't break the bank, and Cameron holds his 3-D imagination in check, the question becomes one of demand. A half-century since the heyday of sword-and-sandal epics, do enough moviegoers want to see another Cleopatra movie?

Angelina JolieThe key word there is "enough." Cleopatra is a timeless fascination and Jolie is as close to her generation's Liz Taylor as anyone. If they talk her husband Brad Pitt into playing Mark Antony, they'll have much better off-camera publicity than the Liz and Dick show provided. Even with all the problems attached to the '63 film, it was that year's biggest moneymaker, grossing almost half of its budget. It also earned nine Oscar nominations, winning for art direction, costume design, cinematography and special effects.

It's worth noting that a successful 1934 'Cleopatra,' directed by Cecille B. DeMille and starring Claudette Colbert, received five Oscar nominations, also winning for cinematography. Clearly, ancient Rome and ancient Egypt inspire filmmakers of vision and Cameron has a wealth of that. The question is whether Sony can afford it.
In Theaters on June 12th, 1963

The queen of Egypt (Elizabeth Taylor) loves Caesar (Rex Harrison) and Mark Antony (Richard Burton). Read More

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