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

by John Anderson
March 28, 2013 2:03 PM
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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. 


  • Ilias Chrissochoidis | June 7, 2013 12:14 AMReply

    Mr. Wanger announced that he withdrew all statements in his book “My Life With Cleopatra,” and in a condensed version of that book published in the Saturday Evening Post, which reflect adversely on the personal integrity or professional reputation of Mr. Skouras.
    Mr. Wanger’s statement continues, “I want to express my deep regret to Mr. Skouras that anything I have written in my book and magazine article entitled “My Life With Cleopatra” has done him any injustice and I withdraw any such statement as I hold Mr. Skouras in the highest regard both personally and pro-fessionally. I regret that anything I have written has cast a cloud over his outstanding reputation as one of the acknowledged leaders and pioneer executives of the motion picture industry.”
    October 14, 1965
    Walter F. Wanger

  • Brian | March 28, 2013 2:24 PMReply

    "(Think “Howard the Duck” in a toga, an asp at his throat.) "

    That's not a fair comparison. HOWARD THE DUCK was a silly special effects comedy based on a comic book. CLEOPATRA, no matter what you think of the result, was a serious historical epic modeled on the lines of BEN-HUR, SPARTACUS and other ancient world epics. Willard Huyck, the director of HOWARD THE DUCK, was a hack screenwriter-turned-hack director, while CLEOPATRA was directed by multiple Academy Award winner Joseph L. Mankiewicz. I saw CLEOPATRA on the big screen and I believe it would have been a much better movie with a better, more appropriate actress in the lead role. (Not that there was much of a choice in the early '60s. Who would have been a better choice than Liz? Sophia Loren? Gina Lollobrigida? Audrey Hepburn? Natalie Wood? Shirley MacLaine? Kim Novak? Lee Remick? Ann-Margret? Anna Karina? Annette Funicello? See what I mean?)

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