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'My Life with Cleopatra' Memoir Reissued for Notorious Elizabeth Taylor Film's 50th Anniversary

Photo of John Anderson By John Anderson | Thompson on Hollywood March 28, 2013 at 2:03PM

Its questionable status has long been eclipsed by other unnatural disasters, like “Mars Needs Moms,” “Cutthroat Island” and that darling of revisionists, “Heaven’s Gate.” But for a long time it was “Cleopatra” that ranked in the public consciousness as Hollywood’s greatest, and certainly best publicized, disaster. (Think “Howard the Duck” in a toga, an asp at his throat.)
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Elizabeth Taylor in "Cleopatra"
Elizabeth Taylor in "Cleopatra"

Its questionable status has long been eclipsed by other unnatural disasters, like “Mars Needs Moms,” “Cutthroat Island” and that darling of revisionists, “Heaven’s Gate.” But for a long time it was “Cleopatra” that ranked in the public consciousness as Hollywood’s greatest, and certainly best publicized, disaster. (Think “Howard the Duck” in a toga, an asp at his throat.)  

Now, synched up with the 1963 epic’s 50th anniversary, Vintage Books (Random House) is reissuing producer Walter Wanger’s “My Life With Cleopatra,” a diary-style memoir of the making of the Liz Taylor-Richard Burton-Rex Harrison fiasco, the making of which captured the imagination of moviegoers far more that the actual movie.

As Kenny Turan says in his afterword to the new edition (due in June, they say), the movie actually made money -- eventually, after being sold to TV (a cruel irony, given the scope of the film and ambitions behind it).  But as a case study in corporate moviemaking, it’s a horror story. Very little of what people today see as the problem with tent-pole-fixated Hollywood wasn’t already plaguing “Cleopatra,”  from the Wall Street gnats buzzing about the production, to the filmmaking-by-committee approach of the thoroughly unreliable Fox head, Spyros Skouras, to the pharoanic approach to life of its central attraction, Elizabeth Taylor.

It was the married Taylor’s affair with her married co-star Richard Burton that remains the most memorable cultural event associated with “Cleopatra,” which is seldom revived (partly because it’s 3 hours and 12 minutes long, and was even longer on release). For all Wanger’s plaintiveness, it was an ill-planned, under-imagined project that had Fox execs scrambling to get out of the way of its often wretched excess, even while they systematically sabotaged the film. 

A lot of it resembles, in Wanger’s telling, a board-room burlesque -- Fox honchos railing against money already spent -- while executing a very rarified form of incompetence: They insisted on filming a desert epic in London, where -- surprise! -- it rains -- and someone overlooked the fact that Olympics would be in Rome in 1960, when they were planning what would become a largely Italian production.

Wanger, who died in 1968, wrote like a publicist; even in his supposed “diary.” (The movie inspired other unorthodox attempts at literature: Compare Jack Brodsky's more candid "The Cleopatra Papers," also published in 1963, which consists of correspondence between the film's two beleaguered publicists, Brodsky and Nathan Weiss.) 

To judge by Wanger, everything about “Cleopatra” the Concept was “the greatest ever conceived.” But he’d made a lot of good movies, too, and worked with the likes of Garbo, Stanwyck, Tallulah Bankhead and Susan Hayward (who won her Best Actress Oscar for Wanger’s “I Want to Live!”). No one, however, seemed to be the equal of Taylor, who is praised to the heavens by Wanger even as her self-indulgence and whims, libidinous and corporeal, were threatening to bury their movie under a Sahara of lost money and scandal.

Oscar-winning director Ang Lee is currently circling the new version of "Cleopatra," set to star Angelina Jolie; meanwhile, the late Richard Burton, just in time for the 50th anniversary Blu-ray release of Mankiewicz' film, is finally receiving his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. 

This article is related to: Features, Classics, Cleopatra, Elizabeth Taylor


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.