All hail the Queen of Egypt a.k.a. the classic epic "Cleopatra," which was released 50 years ago today (on June 12, 1963). The controversial film is known not only for setting fire to the scandalous affair between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, but also for its monstrous budget, initial box office flop, and unending conflicts.
Last month the film's 50th anniversary was celebrated at the Cannes Film Festival with a special screening of the recently released Blu-ray restoration. To honor the classic, we're opening up the tomb of facts to reveal the juicy bits you may not have known about the film. From budget nightmares to comas and contracts, read on to find out why the Academy Award-winning "Cleopatra" was an epic of truly epic proportions.
1. "Cleopatra" is infamous for marking the beginning of the heated love affair between Burton and Taylor, which lasted until his death in 1984. However, Liz and Dick had met long before the Queen of Egypt and Marc Antony arrived on set. It is said that Taylor previously found Burton to be brutish and boorish. Yet when Burton showed up to shoot the film on his first day with such a severe hangover that Taylor had to help him drink a cup of coffee, she apparently found him to be very endearing.
2. Early on in production, Taylor became ill with what has been called both "Asian Flu" and "Malta Fever." She was rushed to the hospital in London and soon fell into a coma. Eventually, Taylor underwent an emergency tracheotomy that saved her life. The scar from the procedure can be seen in various shots in the film.
3. Due to Taylor's illness, production had to be shut down for six months and eventually relocated from London to Rome because the English weather was so detrimental to Taylor's health.
4. The film is known as one of the most expensive movies ever made and nearly caused 20th Century Fox to go bankrupt. Its budget of $44 million is equivalent to $334 million in 2013 dollars.
5. While the epic had an original budget of $2 million, costs increased to $44 million mainly because the original elaborate sets and costumes that were used in London had to be completely reconstructed in Rome.
6. The sets that were abandoned at the Pinewood Studios in London were used for the 1964 comedy film "Carry On Cleo."
7. Another reason for the increase in production costs was the loss of actors Stephen Boyd and Peter Finch, who left the film due to the elongated delays and their commitment to other projects. They were replaced by Richard Burton and Rex Harrison in the roles of Marc Antony and Julius Caesar.
8. When filming began in 1960 in London, Rouben Mamoulian was attached as the director. However, he ended up leaving the project in 1961. Since Taylor's contract gave her director approval, she only gave the studio two choices for Mamoulian's replacement: George Stevens and "All About Eve" director Joseph L. Mankiewicz. At the time, Stevens was busy filming "The Greatest Story Ever Told" so Mankiewicz was hired as director.
9. In fact, Mankiewicz was fired during post-production. Since there was no actual shooting script because there was no time for a rewrite, Mankiewicz wrote as he shot. However, 20th Century Fox realized that only Mankiewicz could properly edit the film, so they rehired him to complete it.
10. Joan Collins, Audrey Hepburn, and Susan Hayward were at first considered to play Cleopatra. After various issues, producer Walter Wanger called Taylor on the set of her latest film, "Suddenly, Last Summer" to offer her the role through her then husband Eddie Fisher. Joking, Taylor replied "Sure, tell him I'll do it for a million dollars." While such an offer was unheard of at the time, it was accepted, and in 1959 Taylor became the first Hollywood actor to receive $1 million for a single movie.
11. Taylor's contract stipulated that her $1 million salary be paid out as follows: $125,000 for 16 weeks work plus $50,000 a week afterwards plus 10 percent of the gross (with no break-even point). By the time production was restarted in Rome in 1961 she had earned over $2 million. After a lengthy $50 million lawsuit brought against Taylor and Burton by the studio in 1963 and a countersuit filed by Taylor, the studio finally settled with the actress in 1966. Her ultimate take for the film was $7 million.
12. Among Taylor's demands were the requirement that the film be shot in the large format Todd-AO system. She owned the rights to the system as she was the widow of Michael Todd, meaning she would be paid even more money.
13. Rex Harrison, who played Julius Caesar, had a clause in his contract stipulating that whenever a picture of Richard Burton appeared in an ad his would as well. After a large sign was put up on Broadway showing only Burton and Taylor, Harrison's lawyers complained and the studio placed a picture of Harrison on one corner of the billboard.
14. The first cut of "Cleopatra" was six hours long and Mankiewicz proposed that it be released as two separate three-hour films, "Caesar and Cleopatra" followed by "Antony and Cleopatra." Twentieth Century Fox objected to this, believing that they wouldn't be able to capitalize on the hot publicity surrounding Burton and Taylor's affair since Burton's character wouldn't appear until the second film. Instead, "Cleopatra" was released as we know it today, at four hours and 11 minutes long -- although 49 pages of reshoots were required to make sense of all the cuts. Apparently, efforts are underway to uncover the missing footage to release a 'director's cut' of the full six-hour film.
15. Although the film is widely regarded as one of the biggest box office failures of all time, it was still the highest grossing film of the 1960s. It eventually made back its money in part from worldwide box office sales and from selling two TV spots of the film to ABC-TV for $5 million in 1966. After the film finally broke even in 1973, the studio kept all future profits secret to avoid paying those who might have been promised a percentage of the net profits.
16. Alfred Hitchcock was contacted twice for "Cleopatra," once by producer Wagner asking him to direct after Mamoulian left and another time by Mankiewicz asking him if Martin Landau, who was in "North By Northwest," could act. In regards to the first inquiry, Hitchcock turned down the offer and went on to make "The Birds."
17. Out of the film's 26,000 costumes, 65 were made for Taylor which alone cost $194,800, the highest ever for a movie actor at the time. One of her character's dresses was even made from 24-carat gold cloth.
18. The famous scene of Cleopatra's entrance into Rome, which required thousands of extras and the transportation of a huge barge carrying her, had to be cut and reshot because one of the Panavision cameras had caught an extra selling gelato on set. Another take of the scene almost had to be reshot again when extras accidentally started shouting "Liz! Liz!" instead of "Cleopatra! Cleopatra!" when she entered.
19. A group of female extras who played Cleopatra's various servants and slave girls went on strike to demand protection from the Italian extras who were continually pinching their butts. The studio eventually hired a special guard to protect the female extras.
20. John Hoyt, who plays Cassius, the chief conspirator against Julius Caesar, played the role of Decius Brutus, another of the conspirators, in both Orson Welles's 1937 stage production of William Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" and in MGM's traditional 1953 film version of the play.
21. Taylor reportedly threw up the first time she saw the completed film.
22. Production designer John Decuir had to rebuild the Alexandria set at Anzio three times. During one of the rebuilds, a couple of construction workers were killed by an unexploded mine left over from World War II.
23. In total, 79 sets were built for the film. So much lumber and raw material were needed that building materials became scarce throughout the rest of Italy.
24. According to Rex Harrison in his autobiography, the studio custom-made his Julius Caesar boots while Richard Burton's boots were recycled from when Stephen Boyd was cast in his part. Apparently, Harrison was amazed that Burton did not complain about this.
25. Due to a mistake by the studio, Roddy McDowall missed a likely Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Caesar Augustus Octavian. The studio accidentally listed him as a leading player rather than a supporting one, and by the time they asked the Academy to correct it the ballots had already been printed. As an apology to McDowall, Fox published an open letter in the trade papers saying:
"We feel that it is important that the industry realize that your electric performance as Octavian in 'Cleopatra,' which was unanimously singled out by the critics as one of the best supporting performances by an actor this year, is not eligible for an Academy Award nomination in that category . . . due to a regrettable error on the part of 20th Century-Fox."
Sources: IMDb, EW, TCM
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