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Cleopatra, part 1

26 May


Ever since the beginning of the 20th century the story of Cleopatra, Queen of the Nile has appealed to cinematographers and audiences alike. Her story of love, passion, ambition and drama had more than enough substance to successfully launch any film, and it became a proper vehicle for many stars more than a few times in cinema history. Even though today is generally known that Cleopatra was not really beautiful, she has been famous to us, the non-history buffs as a woman so beautiful that even the mighty Caesar fell for her. Even more so if we talk about the past: Cleopatra was a woman of passions always associated with sex; and why present a movie that is historically accurate but that does not agree with what the audience knows or believes? After all, they are the great majority that will drop their pennies for the movie, not the history-buffs. I am also sure that the movie producers were more interested in producing a good piece of entertainment rather than a documentary, having said that, it is worth mentioning that of all the Cleopatras filmed up to that time Taylor´s was the most accurate.

Many different facts came together at the exact point to make Taylor´s Cleopatra one of Hollywood most infamous and costliest films. It was to be the twilight of the old glorious Hollywood which was trying – desperately – not to die as it could not adapt itself to the social changes that were going on and that would boom in the 60s. The Star System would not survive Television and the change in public´s taste. Once the old Studio System broke down, Hollywood died.

Sadly, too much publicity has been given to the Taylor-Burton affair and that has overshadowed the film´s artistic achievements and its importance in shaping show-business ever since. Perhaps, Cleopatra has been analyzed too much from the wrong perspective. Perhaps, we should give it a chance.

Elizabeth Taylor was the greatest Studio System creation, and was precisely her the one who destroyed Hollywood; Elizabeth not only bit the hand that fed her, she ate it!

Taylor incarnated what today would be considered to be a cliché of what being a superstar is: beauty, wealth, love, sex, excesses, jewels, scandals, successes, failures, exposure, etc. Elizabeth possessed all of that, and in plenty. She defied the studio moguls and hated them, especially Louis B. Mayer and became a freelancer with such success that many other stars would follow her steps. But her rejection of the Studio System and what it meant, brought some troubles, like the lack of protection. In the “good old days” if a tragedy occurred, it was the studio Boss who would be there before the police, to clean up, re-arrange of bribe the police in order to cover up what could potentially damage their stars, who were bringing so much money in that it was worth keeping them safe and happy. They were the studio´s investments.

 Elizabeth´s single movie contract did not provide the protection she enjoyed some years before, and she would offer plenty of material to be photographed or written about. Stars´ lack of protection was very welcomed by freelance photographers, a new kind of aggressive photographer that would sell their material to the best buyer. The prices varied according to the current status of the star or the subject of the photo. They were called “Paparazzi” a word coined by director Fellini on his film “La dolce Vita”. They would expose celebrities to the hungry public (The feeding already started with the gossip magazines that appeared in the 50s) and showing just how real they actually were. This was a terrible blow to many glamorous stars that panicked at the mere idea of seeing unflattering pictures of themselves inundating the papers. (A good example would be Joan Crawford, whom after seeing some “terrible” shots of herself decided never to appear publicly again, because she “no longer looked like Joan Crawford”)

Cleopatra would offer as much entertainment on the screen as well as off and it would be the last attempt to show the magic and power of the Old Hollywood. To watch this movie is to witness a period in history that is no longer existent and which stumbled violently and died with a bittersweet swansong.

Elizabeth Taylor devoured the system that created her and The Silver Age of Hollywood would begin.