Cleopatra, 20th Century Fox’s lavish, budget-busting, ancient-historical-romantic epic, is widely considered to be one of the most notorious box-office flops in cinema history. Years, rather than months, in the making, and with an entire production upheaval in the autumn of 1961 from London to Rome – plus spiraling costs, studio struggles, cast changes, director changes and script changes (to the extent that writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz directed during the day and wrote all night), and not to mention the beginning of the tumultuous Elizabeth Taylor–Richard Burton affair, it is quite surprising that any movie at all was produced.
The picture began life envisaged as more of a B-movie project, with contract star Joan Collins tentatively in prime position for the leading role after her screen test. Producer Walter Wagner was adamant, however, that only Elizabeth Taylor could be Cleopatra, having been bewitched by her performance in 1951’s A Place in the Sun.
With Fox (correctly) predicting that Taylor would prove hugely expensive and suggesting actresses such as Audrey Hepburn, Susan Hayward and Joanne Woodward in her place, Wagner stuck to his guns and contacted the star, who was in London filming Suddenly, Last Summer. Her lover Eddie Fisher allegedly took the call and Taylor, thinking that it was a joke, said she would take the role for a $1 million dollar salary. She consequently became the first actor to receive a seven-figure payment, and by the end of the shoot after many delays, it would stand at nearer $7 million.
Elizabeth Taylor also had the luxurious claim to fame of holding the record both for the most costume changes in a motion picture by a single actor at that time (65) and the highest personal costume budget ($194,800), which included provision for a dress made from 24-carat gold cloth… naturally.
It wasn’t all glamour and gold for the leading lady though. Taylor suffered from a spate of very ill health in late 1960 (to the extent that all she could manage was costume tests, and even for those she had to be carried on and off set) which, coupled with the unstable weather conditions on location in London, meant that production ground to a halt, costing Fox $2 million. By this time, the movie had been in production two years, racked up a bill of $7 million for the studio… and they had 10 minutes of useable footage, which they promptly discarded.
Illness hadn’t finished with the star yet, either. 1961 saw the actress fall dangerously ill again and undergo an emergency tracheotomy, resulting in a six-month recuperation back home in California, where she also conveniently had time to pick up her Best Actress Oscar for BUtterfield 8.
Amongst all this upheaval, the scene was set for Taylor and Burton to fall in love during the film shoot. Surely he could provide some comfort to the actress during her hour(s) of need? Maybe not. The two stars had met years before with neither forming a lasting impression on or of the other. Taylor was unimpressed by Burton’s loudmouth, cad-about-town ways, and Burton assumed that Taylor would have no talent – he referred to her as “Miss Tits”. Something clearly changed pretty darn quickly between the two however, as soon they were embroiled in their legendary affair, which would span two marriages and last until Burton’s death. The affair created such publicity and condemnation (even the Vatican publicly denounced their relationship) that Burton would refer to it as “Le Scandale”.
Amour was clearly in the air on set in Rome as a group of female extras playing Cleopatra’s servants allegedly went on strike in order to demand protection from the frisky Italian male extras. Other extras caused problems by yelling “Liz! Liz!” at the actress in key scenes, and one was even caught flogging ice cream in shot.
When the film was eventually complete, it clocked in at almost six hours. This was swiftly cut down to just under four for the premiere in June 1963. Producer Mankiewicz lobbied unsuccessfully for the film to be split into two (thereby preserving the original cut) and released separately, first Caesar and Cleopatra and then Antony and Cleopatra. The studio wished to publicize on the Taylor–Burton romance however, and worried about hanging on any longer to release that portion of the film. There were also concerns that no one would come and see the first film, starring only Taylor and Rex Harrison as Caesar, because they would not witness the two lovers together on screen.
Cleopatra’s budget finally ended up as $44 million, and still remains one of the most expensive films ever made (adjusted for inflation) – but it was also the highest-grossing film of the year, earning $26 million at the U.S. box office (and $57.7 million total). It also won four Academy Awards out of five nominations, and so for an apparent “flop”, Cleopatra turned out pretty golden.