Saturday, July 28, 2012

Big Gold Elevator Music

A gargantuan, beautiful wasteland of a film, 1963's Cleopatra or Sixty Five Ways to Accentuate Elizabeth Taylor's Cleavage is insanely huge given the fact that its characters are totally flat. Which is a bit puzzling when you consider the screenplay had Ben Hecht and Joseph Mankiewicz, but makes more sense when you find out they were two of at least four screenwriters who were rotated through production at various times across the movie's three year making, which also saw multiple directors. When Joseph Mankiewicz wound up with the film at the end because he was the only one who could edit the massive amount of footage into something coherent, he gave himself second billing after Elizabeth Taylor. The opening titles, before the movie's title comes up, gives us first "Elizabeth Taylor" then "Joseph Mankiewicz" like he's in the movie. He must've thought he had something good. There are great actors in the movie giving good performances, it's beautifully shot by Leon Shamroy, the costumes are mostly amazing, and the sets and props make nearly every scene look like its using the budget of an entire film, which they were. And yet, for all this, the movie is a mysterious slog though vaguely constructed character development.

Cleopatra herself is the least interesting of the three leads. She serves as bearer of the cleavage, linking the first two hours of the movie, which is about Julius Caesar, with the second two hours, which is about Mark Antony. Mostly she spends the movie passionately trying to convince these men she wants to be by their side when they rule the world. The only time she makes a decision on her own, initiating a massive battle at sea against Octavian, it turns out to be a huge mistake.

Why use models or matte paintings when you can actually build an ancient Roman fleet and set it on fire? Cleopatra's bad idea and Mark Antony's incredibly bad tactics are a flimsy foreground, not really rising to the occasion of the massive studio expenditure.

The movie's broadly more historically accurate than Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, more likely for a desperate hold on continuity in the chaos than for any fidelity to history--the interiors of Cleopatra's palace certainly show off plenty of unabashed anachronisms.

But Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra and Julius Caesar are clearly referenced in the film, including a scene where Mark Antony, played by Richard Burton, is clearly delivering the famous eulogy for Caesar despite the fact that the sound is cut out so we can hear Cleopatra, watching, crying out, "My son!" because she realises hers and Caesar's son is now in a precarious position. Another moment for Cleopatra to demonstrate what a good, supportive wife she is.

Of the two men the movie's actually about, I found Caesar the more interesting, played with an unflappable elegance by Rex Harrison, which serves to tamp down some of the unruliness of the production whenever he's onscreen. His concern for his legacy in the face of a turbulent world and his own treacherous health is effective.

Mark Antony, played by Richard Burton, is by contrast a weak willed, puzzlingly motivated chain of actions, first appearing as Cleopatra's firm supporter, then refusing to come meet her when she should meet him, then easily giving into her when she wants to use his legions in a dubious campaign, and finally showing a peculiarly bad grasp of his men's attitude, exceeded only by Martin Landau, who, in charge of Antony's troops, conveys absolutely no foresight about their desertion despite having been established as someone whose finger is ever on the pulse of the common soldier.

Richard Burton seems to try to make up for the wobbly wheels on which is character's rolled out by acting as hard as he can.

Maybe the most impressive scene in a movie of impressive scenes is Cleopatra's prolonged, parade-like entrance to the Roman forum under a life size replica of the Arch of Constantine (centuries before it was actually built).

Guys on horseback with trumpets, rows of choreographed African dancers, women arranged with big golden bird wings, an almost naked lady, before we finally get to a sphinx bigger than a Tyrannosaur pulled by hundreds of slaves with Cleopatra sitting calmly on top. She has all this, yet for some reason she has to rely on Caesar's and Mark Antony's legions to get anything done.

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