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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