Celebrating 50 Years of ‘Cleopatra’: True Stories of the Biggest, Craziest Movie Gamble of the 1960s
Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in 'Cleopatra' (Photo: Everett)
Starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, it was one of Hollywood's biggest big-budget disasters — and easily the most talked about film of the 1960s.
Wednesday marks the 50th anniversary of the world premiere of "Cleopatra," a lavish historical epic that has its own sordid backstory. It launched one of Hollywood's greatest romances: Taylor and Burton's on-set romance turned into a stormy but passionate marriage that was the longest of Taylor's life. "Cleopatra"'s chaotic production also nearly bankrupted its studio, and the picture generated more publicity – both good and bad – than any movie of its time.
Now that "Cleopatra" has aged a half century (and is also now available on Blu-Ray), let's look back at a few of the strange-but-true stories behind the making of one of the costliest and most gossiped-about movies of all time.
When 20th Century Fox and producer Walter Wanger first blocked out plans in 1958 to make a movie about the life of Cleopatra, the Queen of Egypt, it was intended as a mid-budget picture shot on the studio's back lot, and they had a British contract player in mind for the lead: Joan Collins. Test footage of Collins with Stephen Boyd as Mark Antony exists, but before long the studio had bigger plans.
Elizabeth Taylor Breaks Hollywood's Glass Ceiling.
Producer Wanger wanted to turn "Cleopatra" into a big-budget blockbuster, and decided he needed a bigger name than Joan Collins. Wanger set his sights on Elizabeth Taylor, Hollywood's biggest female star. In 1959, Taylor signed on to make the film, but she didn't come cheap: She earned $1 million for her work on "Cleopatra," making her the first woman to earn seven figures for a single movie role. She also got ten percent of the film's box office gross.
Turning England Into Egypt... and Saving Cleopatra's Life.
At Taylor's request, Wanger and director Rouben Mamoulian planned to shoot the film in England, setting up shop at Pinewood Studio just outside London. This proved to be a costly mistake — the sets designed by art director John DeCuir were too large for Pinewood's stages, and the chilly weather led to Taylor falling ill with a severe cold aggravated by an abscessed tooth. Later she contracted pneumonia, and at one point Taylor needed a tracheotomy in order to breathe. It left a scar on her throat that's visible in some scenes.