Cleopatra (1963 film)

1963 British-American-Swiss epic drama film

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Cleopatra poster.jpg
Original theatrical release poster
Directed byJoseph L. Mankiewicz
Screenplay by
Based onThe Life and Times of Cleopatra
by Carlo Maria Franzero
by Plutarch, Suetonius, and Appian
Produced byWalter Wanger
CinematographyLeon Shamroy
Edited byDorothy Spencer
Music byAlex North
Distributed byTwentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation
Release date
  • June 12, 1963 (1963-06-12) (United States)
Running time
251 minutes[1]
CountryUnited States[2]
Budget$31.1 million[3]
Box office$57.8 million (US and Canada)
$40.3 million (worldwide theatrical rental)

Cleopatra is a 1963 American epic historical drama film directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, with a screenplay adapted by Mankiewicz, Ranald MacDougall and Sidney Buchman from the 1957 book The Life and Times of Cleopatra by Carlo Maria Franzero, and from histories by Plutarch, Suetonius, and Appian. It stars Elizabeth Taylor in the eponymous role. Richard Burton, Rex Harrison, Roddy McDowall, and Martin Landau are featured in supporting roles. It chronicles the struggles of Cleopatra, the young Queen of Egypt, to resist the imperial ambitions of Rome.

Walter Wanger had long contemplated producing a biographical film about Cleopatra. In 1958, his production company partnered with Twentieth Century Fox to produce the film. Following an extensive casting search, Elizabeth Taylor signed on to portray the title role for a record-setting salary of $1 million. Rouben Mamoulian was hired as director, and the script underwent numerous revisions from Nigel Balchin, Dale Wasserman, Lawrence Durrell, and Nunnally Johnson. Principal photography began at Pinewood Studios on September 28, 1960, but Taylor's health problems delayed further filming. Production was suspended in November after it had gone overbudget with only ten minutes of usable footage.

Mamoulian resigned as director, and was subsequently replaced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who had previously directed Taylor in Suddenly, Last Summer (1959). Production was re-located to Cinecittà, where filming resumed on September 25, 1961 without a finished shooting script. During filming, a personal scandal made worldwide headlines when it was reported that co-stars Taylor and Richard Burton had had an adulterous affair. Filming wrapped on July 28, 1962, and further reshoots were made from February to March 1963. With the estimated production costs totaling $31 million, the film became the most expensive film ever made up to that point and nearly bankrupted the studio.

Cleopatra premiered at the Rivoli Theatre in New York City on June 12, 1963. It received a generally favorable response from film critics,[4] and became the highest-grossing film of 1963, earning box-office of $57.7 million in the United States and Canada, and one of the highest-grossing films of the decade at a worldwide level. However, it initially lost money due to its production and marketing costs of $44 million. It received nine nominations at the 36th Academy Awards, including for Best Picture, and won four: Best Art Direction (Color), Best Cinematography (Color), Best Visual Effects and Best Costume Design (Color).


After the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC, Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) goes to Egypt, under the pretext of being named the executor of the will of the father of the young Pharaoh Ptolemy XIII (Richard O'Sullivan) and his sister Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor).

Cleopatra convinces Caesar to restore her throne from her younger brother. Caesar, in effective control of the kingdom, sentences Pothinus (Grégoire Aslan) to death for arranging an assassination attempt on Cleopatra, and banishes Ptolemy to the eastern desert, where he and his outnumbered army would face certain death against Mithridates. Cleopatra is crowned Queen of Egypt, and begins to develop megalomaniacal dreams of ruling the world with Caesar, who in turn desires to become King of Rome. They marry, and when their son Caesarion is born, Caesar accepts him publicly, which becomes the talk of Rome and the Senate.

After he is made dictator for life, Caesar sends for Cleopatra. She arrives in Rome in a lavish procession and wins the adulation of the Roman people. The Senate grows increasingly discontented amid rumors that Caesar wishes to be made king, which is anathema to the Romans. On the Ides of March in 44 BC, a group of conspirators assassinate Caesar and flee the city, starting a rebellion. An alliance between Octavian, Caesar's adopted son, Mark Antony (Richard Burton), Caesar's right-hand man and general, and Marcus Ameilius Lepidus put down the rebellion and split up the republic between themselves. Cleopatra is angered after Caesar's will recognizes Octavian instead of Caesarion as his official heir, and she returns to Egypt.

While planning a campaign against Parthia in the east, Antony realizes he needs money and supplies, and cannot get enough from anywhere but Egypt. After refusing several times to leave Egypt, Cleopatra gives in and meets him on her royal barge in Tarsus. The two begin a love affair, with Cleopatra assuring Antony that he is much more than a pale reflection of Caesar. Octavian's removal of Lepidus forces Antony to return to Rome, where he marries Octavian's sister, Octavia, to prevent political conflict. This upsets and enrages Cleopatra. Antony and Cleopatra reconcile and marry, with Antony divorcing Octavia. Octavian, incensed, reads Antony's will to the Roman senate, revealing that the latter wishes to be buried in Egypt. Rome turns against Antony, and Octavian's call for war against Egypt receives a rapturous response. The war is decided at the naval Battle of Actium on September 2, 31 BC, where Octavian's fleet, under the command of Agrippa, defeats the lead ships of the Antony-Egyptian fleet. Cleopatra assumes Antony is dead and orders the Egyptian forces home. Antony follows her, leaving the rest of his fleet leaderless and soon defeated.

Several months later, Cleopatra manages to convince Antony to resume command of his troops and fight Octavian's advancing army. However, Antony's soldiers abandon him during the night; Rufio (Martin Landau), the last man loyal to Antony, kills himself. Antony tries to goad Octavian into single combat, but is finally forced to flee into the city. When Antony returns to the palace, Apollodorus, not believing that Antony is worthy of his queen, tells him that she is dead, whereupon Antony falls on his own sword. Apollodorus then confesses that he misled Antony and assists him to the tomb where Cleopatra and two servants have taken refuge. Antony dies in Cleopatra's arms.

Octavian and his army march into Alexandria with Caesarion's dead body in a wagon. He discovers the dead body of Apollodorus, who had poisoned himself. Octavian receives word that Antony is dead and Cleopatra is holed up in a tomb. There he offers her his word that he will allow her to rule Egypt as a Roman province in return for her agreeing to accompany him to Rome. Cleopatra knowing her son is dead agrees to Octavian's terms, including an empty pledge on the life of her son not to harm herself. After Octavian departs, she orders her servants in coded language to assist with her suicide. Octavian discovers that she is going to kill herself and he and his guards burst into Cleopatra's chamber and find her dressed in gold, and dead, along with her servants, and the asp that killed her moving around the tomb's floor.


Taylor as Cleopatra


Walter Wanger had long wanted to do a biographical film on Cleopatra for decades. As an undergraduate at Dartmouth College, he first read Théophile Gautier's fantasy novel One of Cleopatra's Nights and Other Fantastic Romances. He then read more biographical works, including Thomas North's 1579 English translation of Plutarch's Lives and William Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra.[5] Wanger had envisioned Cleopatra as "the quintessence of youthful femininity, of womanliness and strength", but it was not until he watched Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun (1951) that he found his ideal candidate for the role.[5] Around this time, Wanger had discovered through a private detective that his wife Joan Bennett was having an extramarital affair with her talent agent Jennings Lang. On the afternoon of December 13, 1951, Wanger shot Lang twice, having spotted him and Bennett in a parking lot near MCA.[6] Lang survived, and Wanger, pleading insanity, served four months in prison at the Castaic Honor Farm, north of Los Angeles.[7]

Following his release, Wanger had achieved a career comeback, having produced Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and I Want to Live! (1958), in which Susan Hayward won the Academy Award for Best Actress. He would soon return to his dream project of a Cleopatra biographical film.[8]


Wanger actively pitched the idea to various film studios including Monogram and RKO Pictures.[9] He had also approached Taylor and her husband Michael Todd about producing the project with United Artists.[10] Taylor expressed interest in the project, but delegated the decision to Todd. Meanwhile, Twentieth Century Fox was in financial trouble due to severe box office losses of The Barbarian and the Geisha, A Certain Smile, and The Roots of Heaven—all released in 1958.[11] To reverse the studio's fortunes, Spyros Skouras, then-president of Twentieth Century Fox, had requested for studio executive David Brown to find a viable project that would be a "big picture". Brown subsequently suggested a remake of Cleopatra (1917), which had starred Theda Bara.[12]

In the fall of 1958, Wanger's production company entered into a co-production agreement with Twentieth Century Fox. There, Wanger pitched four properties—Cleopatra, Justine, The Dud Avocado, and The Fall—for the executives to consider. They selected the first three, of which Cleopatra would first enter into production.[10] On September 15, Wanger purchased the screen rights to Carlo Mario Franzero's biography, The Life and Times of Cleopatra.[13] On September 30, Wanger held his first meeting with Skouras, to which he had his secretary retrieve the 1917 screenplay for Cleopatra insisting, "All this needs is a little rewriting. Just give me this over again and we'll make a lot of money." Wanger had examined the screenplay, but because it was written for a silent film, the writing mostly concerned camera setups.[14]

A month later, during a lunch meeting, production head Buddy Adler had also favored a relatively cheap production of $2 million, with one of their contract actresses—Joan Collins, Joanne Woodward, or Suzy Parker—in the title role. Wanger protested, having envisioned a much more opulent epic and his desire for a voluptuous actress to portray the role.[15][16] Wanger had suggested Susan Hayward for the title role,[17] while Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren, and Gina Lollobrigida were also being considered.[18] Meanwhile, Joan Collins had tested extensively for the part. In December 1958, Ludi Claire, an actress-turned-writer, was hired to write a rough draft of the script. That same month, art director John DeCuir was hired to produce conceptual artwork to illustrate the visual scale of the project.[19]

In March 1959, English author Nigel Balchin was hired to write another script draft.[20] Several months later, Balchin's script was sent over to Taylor. She felt the first act was forced and Cleopatra lacked sufficient characterization.[21] Meanwhile, Wanger had approached Alfred Hitchcock to direct the film, having worked with him on Foreign Correspondent (1940). Hitchcock turned down the offer. Skouras then selected Rouben Mamoulian to direct; Wanger and Mamoulian had previously worked together on Applause (1929).[22] Based on his recently-aired I, Don Quixote episode (as featured in the CBS anthology series DuPont Show of the Month), Dale Wasserman was selected to complete the final draft. Wanger instructed him to focus all attention on Cleopatra as the central role. Wasserman recounted that he had never met Taylor, so instead he watched her earlier films to better acquaint himself with her acting style.[23] In the spring of 1960, English novelist Lawrence Durrell was hired to do another script rewrite.[24]


Concurrently, Mamoulian had offered the title role to Dorothy Dandridge during a lunch meeting at the Romanoff's, a now-defunct restaurant in Beverly Hills.[25] In September 1959, Wanger contacted Taylor again, on the set of Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), to which Taylor asked for a record-setting contract of $1 million plus ten percent of the box office gross.[26] On October 15, a contract-signing event was staged inside Adler's office, of Taylor signing blank papers as the real contract would not be ready for months.[27] Wanger had considered Laurence Olivier and Rex Harrison for the role of Julius Caesar, and Richard Burton for Mark Antony. However, the studios refused to approve Harrison and Burton.[10] On July 28, 1960, Taylor signed a real contract. It was also stipulated that the film would be shot in Europe and in the Todd-AO format, which had been developed by Taylor's late husband Michael Todd, which ensured that Taylor would receive additional royalties.[8]

In January 1960, Stephen Boyd stated he had been approached by Wanger about being cast as Mark Antony, but felt he was too young for the role.[28] Ultimately, in August 1960, Boyd and Peter Finch were cast as Mark Antony and Julius Caesar respectively.[29] Keith Baxter was cast as Octavian.[30] Mamoulian had also cast Elisabeth Welch to portray one of Cleopatra's handmaidens.[25]


Production under Rouben Mamoulian
Left: Costume worn by Richard Burton in the film, displayed at the Cinecittà studios in Rome, Italy
Right: Headdress worn by Elizabeth Taylor in the film

With Mamoulian as director, construction on the Alexandria exteriors was already underway on the studio's backlot.[25] London was also seen as a viable choice for hosting the production. The Eady Levy had offered financial incentives to American companies as long as a certain percentage of the primary cast and production crew were English.[31] There, the production would be supervised by Robert Goldstein, the studio's foreign head of production.[32] Additionally, a number of countries—including Turkey and Egypt—were also considered for exterior locations.[33]

In 1960, Adler entered into a co-production deal with Italian producer Lionello Santi, who had recently completed a foreign-language film of Cleopatra, which the studio purchased to keep off the American market.[32] Mamoulian traveled to Italy to undergo location scouting, and reported back the difficulties upon shooting there.[34] Furthermore, the impending Summer Olympics in Rome would make filming accommodations difficult.[25] On April 20, 1960, Santi issued a full-page ad in Variety announcing his forthcoming production of Cleopatra without mentioning Twentieth Century Fox's involvement.[35] Angered, Adler re-shifted the entire production to Pinewood Studios.[32] Wanger had cautioned about shooting in England, issuing in a memo dated July 15 that the weather conditions could jeopardize Taylor's health and that he found the labor force to be insufficient. However, management at Twentieth Century Fox overruled his decision.[10]

Principal photography began at Pinewood Studios on September 28, 1960. On the same day, the British hairdressers' union threatened to leave production, as Taylor had brought Sydney Guilaroff, an American hairstylist. A settlement was reached that Guilaroff would be allowed to style Taylor's hair, but only at her Dorchester suite.[18] Subsequently, Taylor had shot a scene in forty-degree weather and fell sick with a sore throat,[36] rendering her unable to work for two weeks. Mamoulian was then forced to proceed filming without its central star, instead shooting scenes with Finch and Boyd.[37] Taylor's cold soon progressed into a lingering fever, and for the next few weeks, she was treated by several doctors, including Lord Evans, who was Queen Elizabeth II's physician.[18] On November 13, Taylor's fever had reached 103 degrees. She was diagnosed with meningitis.[38] By November 19, Wanger indefinitely postponed shooting on the film, giving studio employees a two weeks' notice until Taylor's health had recovered.[39] Taylor remained hospitalized for a week, after which she flew to Palm Springs, Florida with Eddie Fisher to recuperate.[40][41] The insurance agency Lloyd's of London paid $2 million to cover Taylor's medical expenses.[42]

During the pause in filming, Nunnally Johnson was hired to write a new script. Johnson wrote a seventy-five page draft for the first half of the film, mostly involving Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, which had been similar in tone to Cecil B. DeMille's Cleopatra (1934) and Caesar and Cleopatra (1945).[43] Mamoulian was dissatisfied with Johnson's script. Taylor then appealed for Paddy Chayefsky to write a new screenplay, to which he replied that a rewrite would take six months.[44] By this time, Twentieth Century Fox had shut down production. After sixteen weeks of filming and costs of $7 million, they had produced just ten minutes of film.[45][41] Skouras blamed Mamoulian for the production going overbudget. On January 18, 1961, Mamoulian resigned as director.[46][47]

Mankiewicz takes over

"Mark Antony lived always in the shadow of Caesar...JLM sees Antony as a bad replica of Caesar, following desperately in Caesar's footsteps but rattling loosely in battlefield, in the Senate and in Caesar's bed. He sees this inability to match Caesar as the cause of Antony's excessive drinking and eccentric behavior. Antony's conquest of Cleopatra is his only triumph over Caesar. Then he realizes he has not conquered but has been conquered—and this leads to his ultimate self-destruction."

—Wanger on Mankiewicz's "modern, psychiatrically rooted concept" for Cleopatra[48]

To replace Mamoulian, Taylor granted she would approve one of two directors she had worked with: George StevensA Place in the Sun – or Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who had previously directed her on Suddenly Last Summer (1959), to take over the project.[49] At the time, Mankiewicz was developing an adaptation of the novel Justine, which was also a Wanger production. At first, he had turned down the offer, but after having a meeting with Skouras and his agent Charles Feldman at the Colony Restaurant, he agreed to write and direct the project.[50]

As an additional incentive, Skouras paid $3 million to acquire Figaro, Inc, Mankiewicz's independent production company, in addition to his agreed-upon salary as writer and director. Having directed Julius Caesar (1953), Mankiewicz expressed his displeasure at the shooting script, stating it was "unreadable and unshootable". Mankiewicz also described Cleopatra's depiction as a "strange, frustrating mixture of an American soap-opera virgin and an hysterical Slavic vamp of the type Nazimova used to play."[51] Because of this, he asked to rewrite the script from scratch. The studio allowed him two months.[52]

By February 1961, Mankiewicz had conceived a "modern, psychiatrically rooted concept of the film", envisioning Marc Antony's self-destruction because of his "inability to match [Julius] Caesar."[48] Within one month, Lawrence Durrell and Sidney Buchman were recruited to collaborate with Mankiewicz on the new script. Story conferences were held between the three writers, which was followed by Durrell and Buchman separately writing "story-step" outlines. In turn, Mankiewicz would expand their outlines into a new script.[53] For his script, Mankiewicz consulted the relevant sources, adapting historical literature from "Plutarch, Petronius, and others".[54] By late April, Mankiewicz had grown displeased with Durrell's work while Buchman was instructed to complete an outline for the film. By then, Buchman's outline had carried the plot to only the first quarter. Mankiewicz had petitioned for playwrights Lillian Hellman or Paul Osborn to help finish the script, but Wanger hired screenwriter Ranald MacDougall.[55][56]

At this point, filming was set to resume on April 4, 1961. However, on March 4, Taylor was hospitalized again for pneumonia; one news agency erroneously reported that she had died. She recovered due to a tracheotomy performed on her throat.[57] On March 14, Twentieth Century Fox suspended production at Pinewood Studios. The sets were dismantled at the cost of $600,000.[58] Skouras then decided to re-locate the production to the studio's backlot in California. Meanwhile, Mankiewicz temporarily left his writing duties, and scouted for suitable filming locations in Rome and Egypt. A few months later, in June, Mankiewicz returned to the studio to report some Italian locations he had found, but was not eager to shoot in Egypt. On June 30, Skouras reversed his decision and agreed to let Mankiewicz shoot the film at Cinecittà in Rome. There, the sound stages had been occupied for the studio's television series and George Stevens's The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965).[59]

Casting and personnel changes

During the interim, Peter Finch and Stephen Boyd had left the production owing to other commitments, and each were paid their remaining salaries. Laurence Olivier and Trevor Howard had turned down the role of Julius Caesar. Rex Harrison, who was the studio's fourth choice, was then cast.[42] Mankiewicz then suggested Marlon Brando as Mark Antony, but Richard Burton landed the role after Taylor had seen him as King Arthur in the Broadway musical Camelot. Twentieth Century Fox paid Burton $250,000 plus $50,000 to buy out his contract.[42] Roddy McDowall, who was also appearing in Camelot, was cast as Octavian.[60] Mankiewicz had also insisted on casting John Valva, McDowall's close friend, creating an original character named "Valvus".[61] By mid-September 1961, several American actors, including Hume Cronyn, Martin Landau, and Carroll O'Connor, and several English actors, such as Kenneth Haigh, Robert Stephens, and Michael Hordern, were cast in supporting roles.[62]

Jack Hildyard had resigned as cinematographer when Mamoulian agreed to step down as director.[47] He was replaced by Leon Shamroy.[60] In January 1962, Andrew Marton was brought in as second unit director, replacing Ray Kellogg.[63] Marton had previously worked on the first initial shoot.[64] John DeCuir was still kept as production designer.

Shooting resumes in Rome
Richard Burton as Mark Antony with Taylor as Cleopatra

On September 25, 1961, principal photography began on the revamped production of Cleopatra.[65] Mankiewicz had expressed his intention of directing a two-part epic: "I had in mind two separate but closely linked Elizabeth Taylor films—Caesar and Cleopatra and Antony and Cleopatra—each to run three hours, both segments to receive simultaneous release. Moreover, I felt compelled to undertake the writing of both halves myself, a measure of my total dissatisfaction with the material that had been produced to date."[66]

At that time, he had completed 132 pages of the shooting script, with another 195 pages that remained to be written. Due to this, Mankiewicz shot the film in continuity leaving several actors waiting indefinitely until their scenes were ready to be shot. For the first few months of filming, he filmed scenes at day and wrote the script at night, resorting to amphetamine injections and wearing protective gloves because he contracted dermatitis in both hands.[67][68] Overwhelmed, in February 1962, Mankiewicz re-hired MacDougall to script several battle scenes (particularly the battles of Moongate and Actium) and the final 50 remaining pages of the second half.[69]

On January 22, 1962, Taylor and Burton had filmed their first scene together. Wanger observed his journal: "There comes a time during the making of a movie when the actors become the characters they play... It was quiet, and you could almost feel the electricity between Liz and Burton."[70] By February, news of the love affair made headlines worldwide; both were married to others, and brought bad publicity to the already-troubled production.[62]

By late May, most of the palace scenes were finished, but the remaining sequences, including the Battle of Pharsalus and Actium, the arrival of Cleopatra in Tarsus, and Antony's confrontation with Octavian's legions, were not yet filmed. Some of these sequences were to be shot in Egypt.[71] Back in California, Twentieth Century Fox had posted an annual loss for fiscal year 1961, with blame directed at the looming production costs of Cleopatra. As a result, Skouras assured shareholders that he was preparing to take "drastic measures" to reduce expenditures,[72] which was followed by the cancellation of the Marilyn Monroe film Something's Got to Give.[73]

From June 1–5, Fox executives Peter Levathes, Otto Koegel, and Joseph Moskowitz—whom Wanger jokingly named as the "Three Wise Men"—arrived on set and cancelled the scheduled shoot of the Battle of Pharsalus, demanded that Taylor's salary be terminated on June 9, and that all filming be halted by June 30.[74] On June 26, 1962, Skouras announced his resignation as studio president, effective on September 30.[75] On July 25, Darryl F. Zanuck was elected as the new president of Fox, while Skouras was kept as chairman of the board.[76] Zanuck then fired Levathes, replacing him with his son Richard D. Zanuck.[77]

Principal photography ended on July 28, with the final location scenes in Egypt.[78]


Post-production work on Cleopatra had left the film's editorial team with 120 miles (630,000 ft) of exposed footage.[45] Back in Los Angeles, Mankiewicz and his editor, Dorothy Spencer, prepared a rough cut that ran five hours and twenty minutes.[79] In October 1962, Mankiewicz arranged a private screening of the film's rough cut in Paris for Zanuck.[80] There, Zanuck rejected Mankiewicz's plea to distribute Cleopatra in two separate installments, believing audiences interested in the Taylor–Burton affair would not attend the first installment. On October 20, Mankiewicz sent a letter to Zanuck requesting an "honest and unequivocal statement of where I stand in relation to Cleopatra." A day later, Zanuck issued a statement: "On completion of the dubbing, your official services will be terminated...If you are available and willing, I will call upon you to screen the re-edited version of the film."[79] Conceding to the inevitable, Mankiewicz told Newsweek: "I made the first cut, but after that, it's the studio's property. They could cut it up into banjo picks if they want."[80]

Zanuck then hired director Elmo Williams to supervise the completion and final editing of the film. Williams worked three consecutive sixteen-hour days at Fox's New York film laboratory and cut a total of thirty-three minutes from the original four-hour cut. Williams explained, "When he [Mankiewicz] first saw my version, he began ranting and raving and carrying on. He had finally given up the idea of releasing the picture as two separate films, but he hadn't counted on the released version being reduced in length."[81] On December 7, The New York Times reported that Mankiewicz would rejoin the production after having an "extremely constructive" conference with Zanuck at his suite at the St. Regis New York.[82] Zanuck explained that he would "bend over backwards, artistically so that I wouldn't have to exercise [my rights as president] unless it became absolutely essential. Joe accepted that, took the scenes that I had blocked out crudely and roughly, went to work with them and wrote them."[80]

With Mankiewicz re-instated as director, he partially restored several deleted sequences, including scenes of Sosigenes tutoring Cleopatra.[83] In February 1963, several members of the cast, along with 1,500 extras, were called back to re-shoot the Battle of Pharsalus in Almería, Spain.[80][84] After the location filming in Almería, Mankiewicz returned to London for eight consecutive days to re-shoot new scenes with Burton. On March 5, 1963, filming was finally completed.[85]


The music of Cleopatra was scored by Alex North. It was released several times, first as an original album, and later versions were extended. The most popular of these was the Deluxe Edition or 2001 Varèse Sarabande album.


Cleopatra premiered at the Rivoli Theatre in New York City on June 12, 1963. An estimated audience of 10,000 spectators had arrived at the premiere. Among those present at the premiere were Rex Harrison, Walter Wagner, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Darryl F. Zanuck, then-U.S. Senator Jacob Javits, Richard Rodgers, Joan Fontaine, Louis Nizer, and Beatrice Miller. Burton and Taylor were not in attendance. Taylor was staying at the Dorchester (in London) and Burton was filming Becket (1964).[86] Top ticket prices at the Rivoli were a record $5.50.[4] Soon after the film's premiere, the film's running time was truncated from 244 minutes to 221 minutes. Two weeks after opening in New York, the film's release was expanded into 37 cities.[4] For its general release in the United States, the film's running time was 184 minutes.[4]

Home media

Cleopatra has been released on home video on several occasions. The film was released on videocassette by 20th Century-Fox Video in 1982.[87] A three-disc DVD edition was released in 2001. The release included numerous supplemental features, including the two-hour documentary Cleopatra: The Film that Changed Hollywood.[88]

Schawn Belston, serving as senior vice president of library and technical services for 20th Century Fox, was put in charge of creating a restored version of the film for the company. After a two-year process in 2013, he was able to restore a four-hour, eight-minute version. One of Belston's finds for this version was the original camera negative which was shot on 65mm. (Any longer version, which has yet to be found, would have existed only to show then–studio boss Darryl F. Zanuck.) Fading and damage to the negative were corrected digitally with an eye to preserving detail and authenticity while avoiding digital manipulation.[89] Belston's team also had the original magnetic print masters which they used to restore the sound. They removed the clicks and hisses, then with the aid of the trained ears of musicians reconfigured the track for 5.1 surround sound.[89]

On May 21, 2013, the restored film was shown at a special screening at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, to commemorate its 50th anniversary.[90] It was later released as a 50th-anniversary version available on DVD and Blu-ray. Unfortunately Fox had long ago destroyed all of the trims and outs from negatives to save costs, preventing the release of traditional outtakes. The home media packages did include commentary tracks and two short films: The Cleopatra Papers and a 1963 film about the elaborate sets, The Fourth Star of Cleopatra.[89]


Critical response

Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called it "one of the great epic films of our day", crediting Mankiewicz for "his fabrication of characters of colorfulness and depth, who stand forth as thinking, throbbing people against a background of splendid spectacle, that gives vitality to this picture and is the key to its success."[91] Vincent Canby, reviewing for Variety, wrote Cleopatra is "not only a supercolossal eye-filler (the unprecedented budget shows in the physical opulence throughout), but it is also a remarkably literate cinematic recreation of an historic epoch."[92] For the Los Angeles Times, Philip K. Scheuer felt Cleopatra was "a surpassingly beautiful film and a drama that need not hide its literate, intelligent face because it happens to have been written, not by Shakespeare or Shaw, but by three fellows named Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who also directed it, Ranald MacDougall and Sidney Buchman. These are, at any rate, the names on the screen credits, and they have done their job with integrity."[93]

Time magazine harshly wrote, "As drama and as cinema, Cleopatra is riddled with flaws. It lacks style both in image and in action. Never for an instant does it whirl along on wings of epic elan; generally it just bumps from scene to ponderous scene on the square wheels of exposition."[94] James Powers of The Hollywood Reporter wrote "Cleopatra is not a great movie. But it is primarily a vast, popular entertainment that sidesteps total greatness for broader appeal. This is not an adverse criticism, but a notation of achievement."[95] Claudia Cassidy of the Chicago Tribune summarized Cleopatra as a "huge and disappointing film". Of the cast, she lauded "Rex Harrison's brilliantly quizzical Caesar, the best written role in Joseph Mankiewicz's erratic script, and haunted by Richard Burton's tragic Marc Antony, an actor's triumph over a writer's mediocrity. And with a prodigal gesture of futility, all of it is focused on Elizabeth Taylor, hopelessly out of her depth as a fishwife Cleopatra."[96]

Penelope Houston, reviewing for Sight & Sound, acknowledged that Mankiewicz tried "to make this a film about people and their emotions rather than a series of sideshows. But for this ambition to hold up, over the film's great footage, he needed a visual style which would be more than merely illustrative, dialogue really worth speaking, and actors altogether more persuasive. As the sets seem to grow bigger and bigger, so progressively the actors dwindle."[97] Judith Crist, in her review for the New York Herald Tribune, concurred: "So grand and grandiose are the sets that the characters are dwarfed, and so wide is his screen that this concentration on character results in a strangely static epic in which the overblown close-ups are interrupted at best by a pageant or dance, more often by unexciting bits and pieces of exits, entrances, marches or battles."[98] Even Elizabeth Taylor found it wanting, saying, "They had cut out the heart, the essence, the motivations, the very core, and tacked on all those battle scenes. It should have been about three large people, but it lacked reality and passion. I found it vulgar."[99]

The New York Times estimated that 80% of reviews in the United States were favorable but only 20% of reviews in Europe were positive.[4] American film critic Emanuel Levy wrote retrospectively, "Much maligned for various reasons, [...] Cleopatra may be the most expensive movie ever made, but certainly not the worst, just a verbose, muddled affair that is not even entertaining as a star vehicle for Taylor and Burton."[100] Billy Mowbray for the website of British television channel Film4 remarked that the film is "A giant of a movie that is sometimes lumbering, but ever watchable thanks to its uninhibited ambition, size and glamour."[101] Rotten Tomatoes assessed 39 reviews and determined 62% of them to be positive. The website's consensus reads: "Cleopatra is a lush, ostentatious, endlessly eye-popping epic that sags collapses from a (and how could it not?) four-hour runtime."[100]

Box office

Three weeks into its theatrical release, Cleopatra became the number one box office movie in the United States, grossing $725,000 from 17 key cities.[102] It held the number one position for the next twelve weeks before dethroned by The V.I.P.s (1963), which also starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. It re-captured the number-one spot three weeks later,[103] and ended up becoming the highest-grossing film of 1963.[104] By January 1964, the film had earned $15.7 million in distributor rentals from 55 theaters in the United States and Canada.[105][106] It finished its box office run with $26 million in box office rentals from the United States and Canada.[107] The film was also a major hit in Italy, where it sold 10.9 million tickets.[108] It sold a further 5.4 million tickets in France and Germany,[108] and 32.9 million tickets in the Soviet Union when it released there in 1978.[109]

By March 1966, Cleopatra had earned worldwide rentals of $38.04 million, by which it was $3 million short of breaking even.[110] Fox eventually recouped its investment that same year when it sold the television broadcast rights to ABC for $5 million,[111] a then-record amount paid for a single film.[112] The film ultimately earned $40.3 million in worldwide rentals from its theatrical run.[111]

Awards and nominations

The film won four Academy Awards and was nominated for five more.[113][114] It also earned Elizabeth Taylor a Guinness World Record title, "Most costume changes in a film"; Taylor made 65 costume changes. This record was beaten in 1968 in the film Star! by Julie Andrews with 125 costume changes.

Due to a clerical error, Roddy McDowall was misnominated by 20th Century-Fox as Best Actor as compared to Best Supporting Actor for the Academy Awards; the nomination was declared ineligible, and was unable to be corrected to supporting Actor in time for the award ceremony.[30]

Award Category Nominee Result
1963 National Board of Review Awards Best Actor Rex Harrison Won
1964 Eddie Awards Best Edited Feature Film Dorothy Spencer Nominated
1964 Golden Globes Best Motion Picture – Drama Cleopatra Nominated
Best Motion Picture Actor – Drama Rex Harrison Nominated
Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture Roddy McDowall Nominated
Best Director – Motion Picture Joseph L. Mankiewicz Nominated
1964 Laurel Awards Top Roadshow Cleopatra Won
Top Male Dramatic Performance Rex Harrison Nominated
1964 Academy Awards Best Picture Walter Wanger Nominated
Best Actor in a Leading Role Rex Harrison Nominated
Best Art Direction – Set Decoration, Color Art Direction: John DeCuir, Jack Martin Smith, Hilyard M. Brown, Herman A. Blumenthal, Elven Webb, Maurice Pelling, and Boris Juraga; Set Decoration: Walter M. Scott, Paul S. Fox, and Ray Moyer Won
Best Cinematography, Color Leon Shamroy Won
Best Costume Design, Color Irene Sharaff, Vittorio Nino Novarese, and Renié Won
Best Film Editing Dorothy Spencer Nominated
Best Music Score – Substantially Original Alex North Nominated
Best Sound James Corcoran (Twentieth Century Fox Sound Department) and Fred Hynes (Todd-AO Sound Department) Nominated
Best Special Effects Emil Kosa Jr. Won
1964 Grammy Awards Background Score from a Motion Picture or Television Alex North Nominated
2014 Golden Trailer Awards Most Innovative Advertising for a Brand/Product Cleopatra / Bulgari Nominated

See also


  1. ^ "Cleopatra". British Board of Film Classification. Archived from the original on April 15, 2021. Retrieved April 18, 2020.
  2. ^ "Catalog of Feature Films: Cleopatra". American Film Institute. Archived from the original on 2015-09-16. Retrieved 2016-03-20.
  3. ^ Hall, Sheldon; Neale, Stephen (2010). Epics, spectacles, and blockbusters: a Hollywood history. Wayne State University Press. p. 166. ISBN 978-0-8143-3008-1. With top tickets set at an all-time high of $5.50,Cleopatra had amassed as much as $20 million in such guarantees from exhibitors even before its premiere. Fox claimed the film had cost in total $44 million, of which $31,115,000 represented the direct negative cost and the rest distribution, print and advertising expenses. (These figures excluded the more than $5 million spent on the production's abortive British shoot in 1960–61, prior to its relocation to Italy.) By 1966 worldwide rentals had reached $38,042,000 including $23.5 million from the United States.
  4. ^ a b c d e "Gross of Movie Rises". The New York Times. March 27, 1964. p. 31. Retrieved August 13, 2021.
  5. ^ a b Wanger & Hyams, pp. 1–3.
  6. ^ Bernstein 2000, pp. 273–275.
  7. ^ Bernstein 2000, p. 276.
  8. ^ a b Kamp 1998, p. 372.
  9. ^ Bernstein 2000, pp. 348–349.
  10. ^ a b c d Scheuer, Philip K. (August 19, 1962). "Life, Hard Times of 'Cleopatra'". Los Angeles Times. p. 7. Retrieved August 12, 2021 – via open access
  11. ^ Bernstein 2000, p. 344.
  12. ^ Lev 2013, p. 242.
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  14. ^ Wanger & Hyams 2013, p. 12.
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