Cleopatra (1963)

Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Written by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Ranald MacDougall, and Sidney Buchman based on ancient histories and a book “The Life and Times of Cleopatra” by Carlo Maria Franzero
Twentieth Century Fox/MCL Films S.A./Walwa Films S.A.
First viewing/Netflix rental

Marc Antony: [his last words] A kiss… to take my breath away…

An all-out spectacle without the energy to support it.

As the story begins, Cleopatra’s (Elizabeth Taylor) brother Ptolemy has ousted her from their joint throne.  The joint monarchy in Egypt was guaranteed by Rome.  When Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) arrives in Alexandria, the wildly ambitious Cleo schemes to make herself undisputed queen of Egypt and, if possible, first lady of an Imperial Rome.  She gets part way there with a “marriage” to the already wed Caesar and later birth to his only throne.  The Romans are not enthusiastic about Caesar’s new plans to make himself Emperor and he is famously assassinated.

Years later, Marc Antony (Richard Burton) arrives in Egypt on a military mission.  He beholds the comely Cleo and it is deja-vu all over again.  With Roddy MacDowell as Octavius.

Everything about this three-plus hour movie struck me as false.  The acting and dialogue manage to veer wildly from 1963 to Shakespearean and back again in a single scene.  The production is the thing here.  Although I doubt that ancient times were quite that splendid, it is still something to behold.

Cleopatra won Academy Awards in the categories of Best Cinematography, Color; Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Color; Best Costume Design, Color; and Best Effects, Special Visual Effects.  It was nominated in the categories of Best Picture; Best Actor (Harrison); Best Sound; Best Film Editing; and Best Music, Score – Substantially Original.


2 thoughts on “Cleopatra (1963)

  1. Evidently, this was originally intended as two films and it does feel like two-thirds of two different films smashed together. It’s as if the filmmakers couldn’t decide whether to make a version of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar or Antony and Cleopatra, so they decided to do both in one film.

    There’s certainly spectacle here, but that’s all there is. Well, that and Roddy McDowell’s effete but brilliant Octavius. Aside from the pomp and pageantry, he’s the best part of the film.

    • I read that McDowell got robbed of a Supporting Actor nod by Fox’s decision to list him as a Principal Actor. I thought this was one of Taylor’s worst performances. Half the time she comes off as something like her Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.

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