Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Only one movie in history has been both an unmitigated disaster <em>and</em> a runaway smash

Only one movie in history has been both an unmitigated disaster and a runaway smash

Photo: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

The Popcorn Champs

The Popcorn Champs looks back at the highest grossing movie in America from every year since 1960. In tracing the evolution of blockbuster cinema, maybe we can answer a question Hollywood has been asking itself for more than a century: What do people want to see?

It’s one of the oldest stories in Hollywood. A grand, ambitious movie production descends into chaos. The budget balloons. The script is hastily rewritten. The stars or directors or producers start acting like petty tyrants. Maybe a storm destroys a set. Maybe an entire new ending has to be written on the fly. Maybe a key scene turns out to be completely incoherent. All the while, the press gleefully chronicles every single problem, every on-set tantrum or halt in production. And at the end of it, someone has to turn the whole thing into a movie.

It usually goes one of two ways. Sometimes, the resulting movie is an unmitigated disaster, a Heaven’s Gate or Waterworld. Sometimes, the movie becomes a runaway smash that shocks everyone, an Apocalypse Now or Titanic. But there’s only one movie in history that’s managed to be both an unmitigated disaster and a runaway smash, and that’s Cleopatra.

Cleopatra was the biggest box office success of 1963. It earned nearly $58 million—or, adjusted for inflation, about $484 million. It also lost money, at least until Fox sold the TV rights years later. If you look around for information on Cleopatra today, you’ll find a whole lot more on the infamously bugshit production than you will on the movie itself. The movie cost about $44 million to make—more than $350 million today—with some people estimating that it might’ve gone as high as $60 million. It was the most expensive movie that had ever been made. By a lot. 1959’s Ben-Hur, which had previously been the most costly film in history, had a budget about a third the size of what Fox ended up spending on Cleopatra.

The story of Cleopatra’s making is a long and convoluted one, and if you’re interested, I recommend the fascinating account that Vanity Fair published in 1998. It involves multiple producers, directors, and studio heads. It involves severe creative clashes, swarms of paparazzi, and a star who nearly died mid-production. And more than anything else, it involves the public affair between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, both of whom were married to other people at the time. It was a real circus, a situation so insane that a problem like unexploded World War II landmines on-set qualified as a relatively minor headache.

The short version: Fox wanted to make an epic out of the Cleopatra story—a saga that had already been filmed a few times, going back to the silent era. The studio didn’t want to blow a ton of money on it, but producer Walter Wanger, a Hollywood legend with decades in the game, wanted Elizabeth Taylor, figuring that she’d be worth the extra money she demanded. Taylor signed on, getting one of those crazy Robert Downey Jr. Iron Man deals where she ended up getting a huge cut of the movie’s grosses. But shortly after production began, Taylor fell ill, suffering from a case of pneumonia that required an emergency tracheotomy and almost killed her. A couple of newspapers even reported her dead. (While she was recovering, she won the Best Actress Oscar for BUtterfield 8, and it’s likely that widespread sympathy had something to do with her victory.) On top of that, director Rouben Mamoulian had tried to film the movie in London, apparently not realizing you couldn’t recreate ancient Rome in London, a place where it rains everyday. After months of filming and millions of dollars, he only made about 10 minutes’ worth of movie, none of which featured Elizabeth Taylor.

So the movie lost Mamoulian and all of its non-Elizabeth Taylor cast, and Wanger brought in Joseph L. Mankiewicz, a studio-system great who’d won Best Director and Best Screenplay Oscars in back-to-back years, to save the movie. Mankiewicz wasn’t used to epic movies; he made carefully and sharply written chamber pieces like All About Eve. But he wrote a whole new script and went to work on a new set in Rome, bringing in Richard Burton as Mark Antony and Rex Harrison as Julius Caesar. The casting turned out to be an issue.

Burton and Taylor started an intense on-and-off affair, and the world found out about it. Burton was already a heavy drinker, and Taylor was drinking and popping tons of pills during production. Taylor suffered two overdoses while making the film, and Burton reportedly beat her up badly once, sending her to the hospital. The Vatican openly condemned Taylor for “erotic vagrancy.” Meanwhile, Wanger and Mankiewicz lost control of the whole zoo, both of them blaming each other. The sets were ridiculous; a recreation of the Roman Forum, for instance, turned out to be bigger than the actual Forum.

Most of this was public knowledge, showing up in tabloids and gossip magazines. And the drama surrounding the real people utterly overwhelmed the actual story that they were trying to tell. I have to imagine that Cleopatra made as much money as it did because people were curious about this overwhelming boondoggle. It’s one of those clear cases—like morning news shows or Monday Night Raw—where the backstage stories trump almost anything that shows up onscreen. Watching Cleopatra today, it’s a tough hang.

There’s a lot of story in Cleopatra. A young Egyptian queen falls in thrall to Julius Caesar, the great aging conqueror, and he puts her into power, chasing out the brother who had been threatening her reign. (I like how Mankiewicz depicts Ptolemy, Cleopatra’s brother, as a whiny, pompous little British kid.) Cleopatra has Caesar’s kid, and she wants this kid to rule the entire world. Caesar brings Cleopatra to Rome and legitimizes her and the kid, shocking Roman society. But Roman leaders assassinate Caesar, and Cleopatra returns to Egypt. Later, during an ensuing civil war, Mark Antony, Caesar’s right-hand man, gets Cleopatra to back him, and the two fall in love. But Antony turns out to be a loser, and Caesar’s nephew Octavius, who becomes Augustus Caesar, crushes Antony in battle. Antony falls on his own sword, and Cleopatra poisons herself. The end. Fun yarn.

Mankiewicz wanted Cleopatra to be two movies—one about Cleopatra and Caesar, the other about Cleopatra and Antony. This would’ve made sense. But the studio figured that nobody needed a Caesar movie, since everyone wanted to see Taylor and Burton making bedroom eyes at each other. This also makes sense. So Cleopatra ends up a weirdly bifurcated movie, two different stories with an intermission in the middle. Mankiewicz’s first cut of the movie was six hours long. The studio cut it down to four hours for the premiere, and then three hours for the theatrical release. The version you can rent now is the four-hour one. It is so long.

There are moments, in that endless trudge, where Cleopatra really comes to life. The scene of Cleopatra’s arrival in Rome is a total show-stopper, like Fellini making a Cecil B. DeMille epic. It’s a wild spectacle of a parade: dancing girls in pasties, painted-up African tribesmen, a giant pyramid that opens up to loose hundreds of doves. And at the end, like Santa in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, there’s Cleopatra herself, sitting on a giant sphinx statue pulled by hundreds of slaves.

Nothing matches that sequence, but there are other pieces of overwhelming splendor, like Cleopatra’s banquet on her ornate royal barge, or Caesar visiting the tomb of his idol Alexander The Great. There’s some fun fantasy-movie stuff about a priestess making prophecies. The sets and costumes and hordes of extras are overwhelming just to look at—colossal CGI displays that had to be accomplished without CGI.

But Mankiewicz doesn’t think he’s making a huge-scale saga. He thinks he’s making another chamber piece. Mankiewicz’s script is clearly more interested in the power-dynamic interplay of all the principal figures than he is in the battles that result from that interplay. Some of his lines are meticulously crafted: “You Roman generals become divine so quickly,” “For your lifetime, boast that you were honored to speak his name, even in death.” But Mankiewicz has trouble balancing the spectacle with the intricate backroom machinations. It’s that final-seasons Game Of Thrones problem.

What baffles me about Cleopatra is why we’re supposed to care. Other Roman-era epics like Ben-Hur and Spartacus tell the stories of beaten-down, rebellious prisoners and slaves. We see them pushed to the brink of human existence, so we get to share in the triumph of their redemption. But Cleopatra herself is almost a Lady MacBeth figure. In Caesar, she sees someone who, if correctly prodded, can conquer the planet. And in Antony, she sees someone who, if correctly prodded, can become Caesar. The movie takes for granted that these would be good things.

Caesar is depicted as a wise, weary ruler, and even when he has himself declared dictator for life, the movie is on his side. Antony, meanwhile, comes off looking like a real dick, an incompetent military leader who overestimates himself and then lets his own men die so that he can keep chasing Cleopatra. By the end of the movie, all of these people are dead, and I’m not exactly sorry to see them go.

Taylor might’ve been a nightmare when the movie was being made, but the movie itself at least shows why all the people in charge wanted so badly to get her in there. She’s a huge presence, beautiful and glamorous and tough and imperious. She preens and snarls and swans through her scenes, usually while wearing the skimpiest clothes that movie stars could get away with in 1963. And when she locks eyes with Burton, there’s tangible heat. (These days, a lot of people hold up Taylor’s casting as Cleopatra—a white woman playing an African queen—as a totem of Hollywood racism. While the movie points out again and again that Cleopatra was of Macedonian descent, her actual lineage remains a topic of debate.)

Burton does not fare as well. His sweaty, stagey, intense acting style comes off fake and exhausting now—more geared toward people in the back row of a playhouse than anyone who might be looking at a movie screen. Burton’s a fine orator, letting every line echo in his throaty baritone, but he never appears convincingly human. He also spends the entire movie in a toga that barely covers his ass.

The movie never offers much indication why the character of Antony is worth a shit. And its big central love story seems based on Antony’s envy of Caesar and Cleopatra’s lust for power. It’s hard to care about those things, or about what happens to those people. Maybe in Mankiewicz’s original version, that story resonates more. But as it stands, it’s a movie about powerful people bickering with each other, dividing the fates of all the servants and slaves who seem to exist only to cater to them.

The finished movie, in any case, is nothing like what Mankiewicz wanted it to be. After Fox nearly bankrupted itself making Cleopatra, someone new came in and took control: Darryl F. Zanuck, the former studio head who’d co-founded Fox in 1933. Zanuck, who had just produced The Longest Day, fired Mankiewicz and Wanger, then hired Mankiewicz back for reshoots. Zanuck took the movie over, bashing it into something resembling a crowd-pleasing shape, and he got it out into the world.

In the end, nobody who made the movie much liked it. Taylor complained that it was “vulgar.” Mankiewicz memorably said that it was “conceived in a state of emergency, shot in confusion, and wound up in a blind panic.” He kept making movies, but his career never really recovered. Wanger never made another movie. Taylor and Burton divorced their spouses. They married and divorced each other twice. Everyone involved in the movie sued everyone else involved in the movie, and somewhere along the way, Cleopatra got nominated for a ton of Oscars, including Best Picture, and swept most of the technical categories. In the end, everyone involved in the making of Cleopatra gave the public a hell of a story. It just wasn’t the story they were trying to tell.

The contender: Some truly great 1963 movies were big hits, including the absurd Billy Wilder Parisian sex farce Irma La Douce and the endlessly charming Stanley Donen rom-com thriller Charade. But of the year’s box office successes, my favorite is Alfred Hitchcock’s tense, apocalyptic horror oddity The Birds. Using pure imagery—not even a film score—Hitchcock told the story of a day when birds, all together and without explanation, attack and kill humans.

The special effects haven’t all held up, and the movie now exists under the shadow of the vile abuses that Hitchcock allegedly committed against star Tippi Hedren. But the movie itself remains gripping and unsettling, a vision of a world suddenly turned against humanity.

Next time: The towering musical My Fair Lady builds all its drama on the delightfully frivolous question of whether Audrey Hepburn can stop speaking Cockney.