Notorious as the film where Liz Taylor and Richard Burton started their affair, plagued by production troubles, ludicrously overproduced, hacked down from Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s original two movies (with a combined running time of over four hours) to one 192 minute movie, Cleopatra (1963) was the last word in Hollywood excess. And it was a notorious flop, which was no surprise, since it cost so much, and was such a leaden mish-mash in the bargain. Now, it’s been restored to Mankiewicz’s original vision—and is being shown by the Hendersonville Film Society as two separate movies. Is it better in its complete form? Well, it’s less choppy and more coherent. That doesn’t change the fact that it’s a lumbering monstrosity of a movie with all manner of preposterous hairstyles and improbable fashions. (At one point, Taylor sports a headpiece that looks like a showercap. In another, she wears an outfit that looks like a 1963 woman’s business suit.)
The problems don’t end there. For such an epic of such great expense, the epic quality is mostly limited to outrageously silly set-pieces celebrating Cleo’s sense of style—complete with colored smoke and Hermes Pan (apparently channeling Paramount’s expert in exotica LeRoy Prinz) dance numbers. The actual action scenes are mostly left to a ponderous narration or some pretty threadbare battles. Worse—at least from a realistic standpoint—Taylor plays the Egyptian heartthrob queen with a flat Hollywood accent that becomes even more grating up against the more polished performers who were better suited to the burdensome dialogue. No amount of (plentiful) cheesecake or fashionable outfits quite make up for this. The rest of the cast is acting, Taylor is being a movie star.
Of the two parts, the first is the better. This is largely because Rex Harrison’s Julius Caesar is easily the best thing in the movie. He seems to realize that all this is kind of silly and plays his role with a nice sense of humor. (Close your eyes and he comes across as Henry Higgins of ancient Rome.) Of course, he dies by the end of part one and Richard Burton’s Marc Antony takes over. Burton’s performance not only is lacking in humor, he actually seems in a bad mood and more than a little uncomfortable in that leather miniskirt. Whatever fireworks were going on between him and Taylor don’t register on the screen. Otherwise, the film is your usual ancient world hooey with all the modern-sounding trumpet fanfares and too-clean sets you expect. I know there’s a market for this kind of unwieldy spectacle, but I’m not part of it. Most of the time, I kept thinking that Cecil B. DeMille’s 1934 Cleopatra was both more persuasive and campier—and lasted a mere 100 minutes. This one is worth seeing—once anyway—at least as wayward legend.
The Hendersonville Film Society will show Cleopatra Part One Sunday, Feb. 16, at 2 p.m. in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community (behind Epic Cinemas), 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville.