Elizabeth Taylor plays the powerful and sexy Egyptian queen who fends off Roman conquest while falling in love with its leaders — first Rex Harrison’s Caesar, and then Richard Burton’s Antony. First I’ll be nice to Cleopatra. The sets are sprawling, opulent, and sometime jaw-dropping. Richard Burton gives a powerful, remorseful monologue near the end, and Roddy McDowall gives one of the best performances of his career as Octavian, the successor who threatens to end Cleopatra and Antony’s reign. Finally, the presentation of Cleopatra to Caesar in Rome is a breathtakingly grand piece of pageantry that is perhaps unrivaled in the history of cinema.
But Cleopatra is over four god-forsaken hours long and you never ever once fall into sync with her as a character. Whether it’s the writing, Taylor’s performance, or both, I don’t know — but if you spend four hours with a character and never relate with her or care about her, it’s a problem. I was charmed by Rex Harrison, who carries half the film with Taylor before those dreaded ides of March. And I came to empathize with Burton’s Antony, a man ultimately ashamed to have let love get the better of him. But who is Cleo?
I can’t help but feel Taylor played the role too safely — holding back from both volatility and vulnerability in a performance that, in the end, just sort of lies there, inert. It might have helped if director Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve) believed in a good closeup shot every now and then. Cleopatra is presented almost entirely in wide shots. You never get many good looks into anyone’s eyes — the windows to the soul. And between the complicated plotting and highfalutin dialogue, those windows might have gone a long way in engaging the viewer. Instead, we’re left to be distracted by the very impressive scenery.
The film nearly ended 20th Century Fox, suffering legendary production problems, constant rewrites, and multiple directors. So it’s probably a miracle that anything good came out of it at all. But Cleopatra now represents four hours of my life I’ll never get back. Let this be a warning to you. I have suffered her asp-like sting so that you do not have to.
With Hume Cronyn, Martin Landau, and Francesca Annis.
Academy Awards: Best Cinematography, Art Direction, Costume Design, Visual Effects
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Actor (Harrison), Sound, Film Editing, Score (Alex North)