Tag Archives: Oliver Messel

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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