Archive | June, 2014

CLEOPATRA PART III: Pinewood, the tracheotomy and the Oscar- at last.

16 Jun

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Elizabeth Taylor and husband Eddie Fisher arriving at the Academy Awards Ceremony, 1961.

As mentioned before, filming of “Cleopatra” was to be done abroad for tax purposes and Fox found no better place than Pinewood Studios in England (they had considered Cinettita in the first place but the Studio was afraid to be robbed by the Italian crew members) The weather, of course, was incompatible with both the diva and the sets. The task to create Egypt was a hard one and remember that in those days there was no blue or green screen to create fantastic landscapes; everything was hand-made. Designer Oliver Messel created amazing costumes for Elizabeth Taylor, but she was so sick that she was literally carried to set, dressed, photographed and taken back to the Rochester Hotel. Most people would agree that the Messel costumes were far better that Sharaff´s later designs for the released movie, but I disagree. The Messel Costumes are wonderful, truly beautiful, but to me, Elizabeth does not look like a queen in any of them! She could have been anyone! (Anyone important, of course). Sharaff´s designs make sure you know that Elizabeth is THE big cheese in the picture.

Mamoulian was chosen to direct because he was well acquainted with temperamental divas such as Greta Garbo and people thought that his gentle manners would be appropriate to dominate Taylor. As it turned out, he hardly saw her, because she was so sick all the time. Mamoulian then arranged to shoot around her, but since the whole movie was a vehicle to capitalize on Elizabeth´s gargantuan popularity, his efforts were futile.

As the weather got worse, so did Elizabeth´s health. She was finally found unconscious in her hotel room and according to some sources, the cigarette on her finger had burnt to the bone. Luckily for her, a party was being given downstairs and the Queen´s doctor assisted Elizabeth until an ambulance was ready. The star was dramatically taken to the hospital were a crowd remained outside praying and wishing the best for her.

I am sure that Spyros Skouras,President of the Fox,  was the one about to die. The press delivered the madness to the world as the million-dollar-violet-eyed-diva was dying. Some newspapers printed the death of Elizabeth Taylor and Fox had not even started with the real problems.

Joan Collins claims that she was called to replace Taylor in case of her passing. Others say that Gina Lollobrigida was the replacement, but gladly, none of them got the role: Elizabeth´s pneumonia got so bad that the doctors had to perform a tracheotomy to save her life thus living a huge scar in her beautiful throat.

Elizabeth Taylor was a sociological phenomenon, because very few actresses, if not none, could had achieved such a great combination of virtues like beauty, talent, wealth, temperament, glamour, intelligence to such a high and perfect degree. There had been other extremely beautiful movie stars but none of them was as famous – or infamous – celebrated admired and stalked the way Elizabeth Taylor was. In the 1920s Barbara Lamarr was “too beautiful to live” and her flapper personality dim the light of her life way too soon: she died at 29 in obscure circumstances, allegedly a tubercolusis but also related to her heroin addiction, that had helped caused the trouble. Garbo appeared not so long after, but she was too temperamental and I am afraid she wasn’t the brightest one and not nearly the most cultured one. She was absolutely stunning in films, but in private life she did not take much care of her appearance. At hotels she would order olive oil (for her skin) and salt (for her teeth) and that was it.

Marlene Dietrich, even though beautiful, was more of a photography trick than a real extraordinary beauty. Hedy Lamarr in the late 30s was really something. She was exceedingly beautiful and much too smart to be handled. Studios did not know what to do with her and she was above the average so I don’t think she was on the same page with everybody. After all, she was friends with Marlene Dietrich, the ultra-snob-bitch. Later . Lana Turner can be considered to be the epitome of the Hollywood mega-star type: she was blond, beautiful, talented, and very glamorous and took care of her own legend. She married too many times, had great failures and great successes, had some big scandals (really big ones) and was stalked by the press.

Lana Turner, one of MGM´s real biggies was mixed up with the mob, was involved in the murder of a gangster, there were drugs, there were sex scandals, I mean she really loved to be a larger than life celebrity and played it to the hilt – much á la Joan Crawford. She was never to be seen wearing anything less than fabulous and was very kind to her fans and had no problems posing for still under those hot lights for endless hours.

Elizabeth Taylor was going to overdo everything which was done before and would give it her personal lavender touch. Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fisher were very famous in the late 50s and early 60s, but none of them knew that it was just the beginning of Hollywood´s greatest scandal.

Elizabeth´s continuous state of illness from the very beginning had cost Fox millions of dollars: the movie which was at first budgeted to a rather modest  two million dollars started to spiral out of control and Spyros Skouras was accused of madness for his almost blind trust in “Cleopatra´s future success. Finally, production had to be shut down. Elizabeth had to rest for a few months.

She went back to sunny America to recover and never looked better! Elizabeth Taylor was at the peak of her legendary beauty and the huge scar slashing down her throat did not diminish her appeal; it brutally enhanced it. She was a survivor in the eyes of the whole world and she was loved again and not to be frown upon anymore. Her home-wrecker image was banished and, of course, she got the Oscar that year.

Wearing a delicate bell-shaped dress and one hell of a hairdo, a cigarette in one hand and a glass of champagne in the other, the huge scar in her throat and her chic fur coat she stole the night of the Academy Awards of 1961. She won the Oscar for best actress for her role of call-girl Gloria Wandrous in the famous film “Butterfield 8”. She was truly shocked and could barely speak when receiving the award from super-hot Yul Brynner.

The Oscar winning actress was to return to the screen as the million dollar Queen, magazines claimed, and Pinewood was scratched out of the list. Cinecitta was the next studio were Cleopatra would begin all over again…

Some of Oliver Messel´s costumes:

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CLEOPATRA PART II: Monster Liz and the record breaking contract

16 Jun

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 Already in the Mike Todd days there were plans of buying Elizabeth out of her contract with MGM, but like many of his bombastic projects, this came to nothing when he tragically died in an airplane accident. “The Liz” the plane´s name crashed on the mountains. Elizabeth was devastated but she also had a contract to fulfill. She finished Tenesse Williams´ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” giving one of her best performances, but lost the Oscar. Some people believe that it was a punishment from her peers, because 6 months after Mike´s death she was dating his best friend: singer Eddie Fisher whom was married to America´s sweetheart Debbie Reynolds. Labeled a home-wrecker she went abroad to start filming the macabre “Suddenly, Last Summer” – also by Tenesse Williams; and after it was completed she had only one movie left, and that was “Butterfield 8”.

 Meantime, Twentieth Century Fox was in trouble: they were not making enough money and needed a blockbuster to stay alive. In 1956 Darryl Zanuck had announced his resignation as head of production after years of success due to personal problems, and his resignation was just the beginning of the problems that Fox was to face.  Current President Spyros Skouras was looking desperately for another production executive and got Buddy Adler whom along with film producer Walter Wanger decided to save time and money: they would remake a successful film from previous years. They decided to revive Theda Bara´s “Cleopatra” from 1917. The film marked the pinnacle of the career of the screen´s most famous vamp, and also its quick descent into oblivion. The complete film is considered to be lost, although a small fragment has appeared not so long ago providing an amazing glimpse into one of the most famous lost films.

 According to Brenda Maddox, the recent success of epic films and Elizabeth´s power at the box-office were the main reasons to choose Cleopatra. Ben Hur had brought MGM $80 million on a 15 million investment and Elizabeth´s films were all at least moderate successes. Both “Cat on a hot tin roof” and “Suddenly, last summer” were very well received and their profit was tremendous. Producer Walter Wagner also wanted to make the film with Elizabeth Taylor because he had imagined Taylor as Cleopatra ever since “A Place in the sun”. She became “my Cleopatra”, “the quintessence of youthful femininity, of womanliness and strength, so beautiful and wise she also ruled the world” (Maddox, 127)

 Worth mentioning is that Bara´s film was silent and therefore, the script had no written dialogue. Skouras only remark about the problem was: “theese just needs a leettle re-writing”.

 Many stars were considered for the lead role and Joan Collins was the one who almost got it and even did a screen test. Marilyn Monroe wanted to play Cleopatra and posed as Theda Bara in costume as Cleopatra. Her tardiness and increasing emotional instability were causing enough trouble at Fox and she was never considered for the part. Other beauties contemplated for the role were Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida, Susan Hayward, Dorothy Dandrigde and Jennifer Jones. Skouras and Wagner, however, wanted Elizabeth Taylor even though they knew “she was going to be trouble” They couldn’t have imagined how much trouble she would be.

 Legend has it that Miss Taylor was in the bathtub when the phone rang. Eddie Fisher answered and told her that it was Fox and that they wanted her to do Cleopatra. Sure! – She said – Tell them I will do it for a million dollars! – was her answer (obviously joking). Fox said yes. Elizabeth screamed and went under water. However, she was reminded by producer Pandro Berman that she owed MGM one more picture before she could be free. Ouch!

 “Pandro Berman wanted her to for Butterfield 8, John O´Hara´s story about a New York call girl. “I made up my mind that she wasn’t going to make Cleopatra until hell froze over unless she made Butterfield 8 first. I forced her into it. I took a position and fortunately I was backed by the company.” (Maddox, 122-123)

 Elizabeth agreed reluctantly because legal issues might have prevented her from doing Cleopatra and swore to cause as much problems as possible during the shooting of “Butterfiled 8” which she considered pornographic. MGM was obviously trying to capitalize on Elizabeth Taylor´s image of a home-wrecker after the Fisher-Reynolds-Taylor scandal and the part of a prostitute suited her amazingly. Taylor complained publicly about the part which she considered terrible, but Berman never believed that the story of a nymphomaniac would upset her morals. According to him, it was the money that enraged her: “The trouble had nothing to do with the fact that Gloria was a call girl”, says Berman. “It was that she had to do it for MGM, for one hundred twenty-five thousand dollars, and she wanted the million for Cleopatra”. (Maddox, 123)

 Once BU8 was out of her way, Elizabeth signed the agreement to play “Cleopatra”, but she did not sign the contract… yet. The late Mike Todd had acquainted her with the business of making money and she was a good student. Cleopatra´s contract is probably the first time that Elizabeth showed what a shrewd business woman she was: she was fully aware of her status as a movie star and Fox´s position as well. She knew that she had to be tough to survive in Hollywood and she would never crumble under pressure and problems the way Judy Garland or Marilyn Monroe did. Also, she was practically born in the studios and MGM always provided with what she wanted, because the Studio System believed that a happy star was a happy worker and that meant more money. Everything is about money after all.

 According to Alexander Walker in his mammoth book Elizabeth, the life of Elizabeth Taylor, she enjoyed the luxury of watching her lawyers add one golden clause after another to her demands:

  • She was to get $1 million; overage at $50.000 a week.
  • Per diem living expenses: $ 3000 weekly.
  • 10 percent of the film´s gross box-office take.
  • First-class round-trip transportation.
  • Economy class tickets for four employees.
  • First-class round-trip transportation for her lawyer-agent during the pre-production period and each time the film moved to a new location.
  • One 16mm print of the finished film.
  • Then husband Eddie Fisher was to receive $ 150.000 to “keep Elizabeth happy whenever she was needed”
  • Cleopatra was to be shot abroad: since her services were contracted to Fox by Elizabeth´s Corporation MCL Films SA (acronym standing for her children Michael, Christopher and Liza) registered in Zurich, taxes were the strongest reason to film abroad.
  • Cleopatra was to be filmed in the TODD-AO process, a widescreen film format developed by Mike Todd in partnership with the American Optical Company. Elizabeth Taylor owned the rights of the system.
  • She had director approval.

 In the past, other big stars had grabbed the Studios by the balls to get more money or other benefits:

 Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle each got $ 1 million per year (which was an enormous amount for those days) Greta Garbo was earning around $ 250.000 – 300.000 per picture in the 30s. Marlene Dietrich would top that with a salary of $450.000, becoming the highest paid actress up to that time. Charles Boyer also got $450.00 for his participation in Garbo´s “Conquest” in 1937; and there were other millionaires but none of them negotiated so much money and so many privileges as Elizabeth Taylor did for a single picture. Elizabeth sharpened her teeth and devoured the Studio System´s hand.

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 Monster LIZ was unstoppable and in the late 1959 – looking every inch like Gloria Wandrous- she signed the record-breaking contract to do “Cleopatra” for $ 1 million, becoming the highest paid actress of all times. It is said that Marilyn Monroe remained silent and thoughtful for a while after learning that Taylor would get such an exaggerated amount when she was “only” getting $100.000 for “Something´s got to give” which she, eventually, would not finish.

Theda Bara as Cleopatra

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