not in our stars, but in ourselves
I know, I know, how could I not have seen Cleopatra (1963) before today and call myself a movie buff, how awful, please forgive me, etc., etc. Is it all out of your system yet? Because there are some shockers coming up in the new-to-me category, so you’d better just drop that monocle into your tea right now and leave it there.
It may or may not surprise you that I absolutely LOVED it. Loved every minute of its bloated, ridiculous, four-hours-plus run time. Was it tacky? Was it gaudy? Could it very easily have been pared down into a much simpler movie, or at least split up into two or three separate franchise entries? Yeah, yeah, yeah. But I just LOVED it. Note that I am not claiming it’s a good film. It’s a mess – a hot mess, but a mess all the same. There are some movies that were obvious nightmares to make, and this is one of them: even if you don’t know about how the film basically sank 20th Century Fox, you can tell by the enormous sets, the cast of thousands, the muddy plot, the muddier dialogue, that everyone involved must have been having an arduous (if not outright terrible) time.
Everyone, perhaps, except Cleopatra and Mark Antony.
Would you look at these two. Much like their characters, whose world was falling down around them, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton fell in lusty love during the disastrous shoot. I think that the one thing about the film that really, really works: star power. That’s it. Not the script, not the direction, not the history. Just star power. Taylor was and is a celebrity as grandiose as Cleopatra. Burton was as dashingly brave and brilliant as Antony. There have been better versions of the story with better actors, but none as perfectly cast – cast so perfectly that they really did fall devastatingly in love while they were supposed to pretend to do so. Not that there’s a hint of the subtlety or tragedy of Shakespeare anywhere in this glorious trainwreck, but I don’t think there have been many Cleopatras on stage or screen who better deserve the following than Dame Elizabeth:
Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety; other women cloy
The appetites they feed; but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies: for vilest things
Become themselves in her, that the holy priests
Bless her when she is riggish.
Antony and Cleopatra, Act II scene ii
Sometimes she played perfectly virtuous roles, but she was always a queen. There was never any mistake of that. Lavishly dressed, bejeweled, and made up at all times, she was more than a mere movie star. She was one of those natural-born aristocrats, whether or not she carried the title all her life. Burton himself wrote many extraordinary things to and about her, including:
I have been inordinately lucky all my life but the greatest luck of all has been Elizabeth. She has turned me into a model man but not a prig, she is a wildly exciting lover-mistress, she is shy and witty, she is nobody’s fool. She is a brilliant actress, she is beautiful beyond the dreams of pornography, she can be arrogant and willful, she is clement and loving. She is Sunday’s child, she can tolerate my impossibilities and my drunkenness, she is an ache in the stomach when I am away from her, and she loves me! She is the prospectus that can never be entirely catalogued, an almanac for poor Richard. And I shall love her forever.
Are you crying? I’m crying.
The point I was trying to make before I got distracted by Will and Dick: Cleopatra isn’t a great movie by any means, but it is a suitably enormous vehicle to launch the beginning of one of the greatest Hollywood love affairs of all time – maybe even take the “Hollywood” out and leave it at that. It’s a case of perfect casting in an imperfect movie: the greatest love story of all time, playing itself. There are a few other examples of movies documenting the start of great love affairs, but this is the only one that’s every bit as grand and ridiculous as the lovers themselves.