While this probably doesn't qualify as a "cult" movie (and I wasn't sure whether to post it here or in Movies, Movies, Movies! in the Versailles Room), it is one of my obsessions so I decided to post it here in Hopelessly Devoted.
Long derided as "the most expensive movie ever made", I have always loved CLEOPATRA, starring Elizabeth Taylor and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz.
The sheer over-the-top grandiosity of this film is the very reason I LOVE it and why it remains one of my favorite movies. Filmed with panoramic views, colossal sets and thousands of extras, it is good old-fashioned Hollywood spectacle in the tradition of Cecil B. DeMille, and I much prefer it to the computer-generated kind of effects featured in today's "blockbuster" films. Like Rosalind Russell's Auntie Mame, Elizabeth Taylor in the title role is a drag queen, fake and expensively dressed, with over 60 costume and wig changes throughout. In fact, the film IS a four-hour-long drag pageant, and Taylor as Cleopatra looks gorgeous in virtually EVERY scene, parading around in gowns designed by the incomparable Irene Sharaff with a beat face painted to perfection and featuring flawless kohl-laden eye makeup. Keeping up with her Vivienne Zavitz wigs is like watching a tennis match: one minute she's in a plated bob, the next minute in a cascading 60s fall, and still the next minute crowned in some elaborate jewel-encrusted head piece or crown. Ancient Alexandria is instantly transformed into a Beverly Hills resort as Taylor carries on full diva theatrics, declaring her Divinity and ordering the hapless Marc Antony to his knees before her throne. The scene where Cleopatra enters Rome is reason enough to see it – I've watched it so many times that there are little grooves worn into the videotape!! After the Roman elite and commoners are treated to a seemingly endless and spectacular parade, Queen Cleopatra, crowned and dressed in gold, is pulled in by hundreds of slaves atop an enormous black sphinx and later carried down on a gold-fringed platform by a team of well-oiled muscular Nubian bearers to the spot where the entire Roman Senate, their Roman matrons and even Julius Caesar himself are all standing to pay homage to the Ultimate Queen. Fierce!
Later our Queen travels the seas aboard an extravagant gold barge, first posing for the peasants as she passes the shoreline and then later presiding over a midnight orgy on deck. Taylor muses non-chalantly, "one is so limited when traveling by ship" before retiring to her sumptuous silk-draped and white fur-carpeted inner chamber. Snap!
Also of note is the beautiful symphonic soundtrack by Alex North and Rex Harrison as a handsome and charismatic Caesar – though I detest Richard Burton. (I only liked him in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" and "Anne of a Thousand Days" in which he played Henry the VIII. Otherwise I find him belligerent and ugly). And Taylor's life-long friend Roddy McDowell is great as Octavian, the effeminate Roman leader who proves to be Cleopatra's greatest nemesis.
Many people, including myself, have criticized the historical inaccuracy and cowardice on the part of Hollywood in casting a white, non-African woman as Egypt's most famous Queen. I must further admit that never at any moment while watching Taylor do I ever see the historical character of Cleopatra – I always see Elizabeth Taylor. True also is the observation by some critics that as an actress she is, at times, overwhelmed by the material, though I personally admire her natural acting technique. But on some level the casting of Taylor makes sense. Just as the real Cleopatra was a walking natural wonder/natural disaster who toppled conquering men and their empires, Elizabeth Taylor did much of the same in her own reign as Queen of Hollywood. Taylor's home wrecking shenanigans are legendary, particularly in the case of the once greatly popular Eddie Fisher whom she turned into a pariah by stealing from Debbie Reynolds, then later unceremoniously kicking him to the curb when he proved too sensitive under the blade of her battle ax. Other husbands were squashed under her heels as she tired of them and marched out of the house in search of greater pleasures and bigger cocks. The grandiose scale of the film was often seen as a reflection of Taylor's personal taste and lavish lifestyle. (Hollywood legend has it that at "Casa Taylor", the house Twentieth Century Fox rented for her outside Rome during production, there was a separate large room that served only to store her wigs alone, and another room allocated exclusively for her to dress in – work, bitch!) Joseph L. Mankiewicz, until that time a much-celebrated director who brought the world two of my other favorite films, ALL ABOUT EVE and SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER (also starring Taylor), had doors slammed in his face all over Hollywood and rarely worked again afterward. Twentieth Century Fox nearly went bankrupt on the making of CLEOPATRA while Taylor squandered hundreds of thousands of dollars daily by showing up hours late (and in some instances not at all) and keeping expensive production crews waiting. Her $1 million salary, a first ever for Hollywood in those days, was noted by many Tinsel town historians as the single factor that led to the end of the old studio system, allowing the stars to take the reigns of power from the studio heads.
Filmed during the Camelot era when Americans were clearly far more obsessed with their Queen (Jackie Kennedy) than they were with their King (John F. Kennedy), CLEOPATRA on one level can be seen as a woman-hating misogynist fantasy of what supposedly happens when a woman rules: Total Catastrophe. But on another level the film also shows the downfall of traditional male hierarchies and seems to suggest that the world was ready for the strong yet loving arms of a matriarch and a higher, feminine order of leadership.
Long Live the Queen!