No. 43 | March 2, 2010
Our theme this week (theme introduction)
Film titles with two Oscar nominations for Best Picture
Featured this week
Monday — Moulin Rouge (1952, 2001)
Director: Cecil B. DeMille
Writers: Waldemar Young, Vincent Lawrence, screenplay; Bartlett Cormack, historical material
Cast: Claudette Colbert (Cleopatra), Warren William (Julius Caesar), Henry Wilcoxon (Marc Antony), Joseph Schildkraut (King Herod)
Oscar Summary: 5 nominations, including Picture; 1 win (Cinematography)
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz (replacing Rouben Mamoulian)
Writers: Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Ranald MacDougall, Sidney Buchman
Cast: Elizabeth Taylor (Cleopatra), Richard Burton (Mark Antony), Rex Harrison (Julius Caesar)
Oscar Summary: 9 nominations, including Picture, Actor (Harrison); 4 wins (Cinematography, Art Direction, Costume Design, Effects)
Egypt had seven queens named Cleopatra but you never see much about the first six. It’s always Cleopatra VII Philopator, the last of the Ptolemaic rulers, who gets the love. Many times her life has been dramatized. In Shakespeare, she splits title billing with Antony. In movies, it’s often her name alone in the title. Among several silent Cleopatras, the most famous is the 1917 Fox production starring Theda Bara, though prints of that film, unfortunately, were lost to fire. The talking era would give the world several more chances to see the queen onscreen.
The tagline for the 1934 version was “History’s most seductive woman! The screen’s mightiest spectacle!” Who but Cecil B. DeMille would have directed that. The film was a lavish, big-budget affair, and a big deal at the time. DeMille squeezed it in just before the Hays production code was enforced, and perhaps got away with more vamping than would have been allowed later. The star of the show was Claudette Colbert, in one of her three memorable performances that year. She made Imitation of Life and won the Oscar for Best Actress opposite Clark Gable in the Frank Capra classic It Happened One Night. Even at the time, Colbert probably seemed like a modern update for the old queen of the Nile. Same for the dialogue. Anyone familiar with Shakespeare’s play might not have been expecting this: “Together we could conquer the world” / “Nice of you to include me” (Cleopatra / Caesar), and “The wife is always the last to know” (Octavia). Not exactly the Bard, but Shakespeare was hardly the language of the ancients either. A 75th-anniversary DVD was released last year.
The 1963 film is better known for its epic failure than for the epic on the screen. It was the most expensive movie ever made, running north of $40 million—quite an overrun for a film originally budgeted at $2-to-$6 million. Elizabeth Taylor became the first Hollywood star to earn more than $1 million for a single film, and her health problems—including an emergency tracheotomy that saved her life—were among the many complications that threatened the production. After the first director and lead actors were replaced, Richard Burton joined the cast, and his affair with Taylor was a huge scandal. A few years after production had started, director Joseph L. Mankiewicz completed the film. His six-hour version, though, was cut by the studio, and at four hours the film was still exceedingly long but perhaps not long enough to tell its story in a coherent way. Theater owners, disturbed by the film’s running time, jacked ticket prices three times the normal rate (all the way up to $5.50!). The film did make money at the box office—it was the number-one draw of the year—but that was not enough. The huge expense of Cleopatra nearly put 20th Century Fox out of business. The success of The Longest Day (1963) and The Sound of Music (1965) ultimately saved the studio, but it had to sell much of its backlot to recoup losses. The high-rises of L.A.’s Century City business district now stand where movies once were made.
Cleopatra is often depicted as a woman of great, classical beauty. It’s hard to judge, since we don’t have pictures of her today, but with her history of attracting and seducing some of the most powerful men in the world, there’s a case to be made. Blaise Pascal had this famous line: “Cleopatra’s nose, had it been shorter, the whole face of the world would have been changed.” In his time, a prominent nose was considered a sign of dominance and strength of character. Ironically, one of the few works believed to have captured Cleopatra’s image is the bust above. The nose did not survive.
Wanna know how you make a movie four hours long? Watch this.