She is a timeless icon of femininity and feminism. She is the most famous woman in the history of the world–perhaps because she was, and remains, the most powerful woman in the history of the world. No subsequent queen or prime minister or secretary of state has ever had the geographic dominion, relative wealth, and unfettered authority that was enjoyed by Cleopatra VII of Egypt.
Almost everything we know about her has been filtered through the propaganda of her enemies. What remains are the scant facts and what we can deduce from them. She was a woman of extraordinary charm who shared a bed with not one, but two of the most powerful men in the ancient world–Julius Caesar and Marcus Antonius. She would become mortal enemies with a third–Octavian, otherwise known as Augustus Caesar–who did more to immortalize her than her lovers.
But she comes down to us through the ages without a face. Her coins–many of which depict her in quite severe and haggish ways–are stylized portraits, meant to impart terror rather than admiration. The few busts that we believe portray the Egyptian queen cannot be verified. There are no extant portraits nor textual descriptions of her. Because of this, artists have a blank canvass upon which they can imagine this cunning political queen in any way they like. That is a siren’s call to Hollywood who has made several attempts at bringing Cleopatra to life.
First, there was the silent film starring Theda Bara which was destroyed because it was too racy!
In 1934, Claudette Colbert starred in a Cecil B. DeMille production about the Queen of the Nile. The production is old-fashioned, in black and white, but the dialog is often fun. This is an Egyptianized version of the queen, which is not necessarily entirely inaccurate, but there is little visual reference to her cultural heritage as a Hellene. I especially like the invention of Herod making trouble between Cleopatra and Antony–which is unlikely to have happened the way it plays out on screen, but hints at the genuine trouble between the two client monarchs! There’s a certain jaded maturity that Claudette Colbert brings to the role, but the entire picture seems too small to incorporate such a big historical figure.
This is not to say that the film is all eye-candy and soap-opera. The costuming and set-decor is an interesting mix of Egyptian, Roman and Greek–all of this in keeping with accounts we have of Alexandria where cultural fusion was the norm. Though the film never mentions Cleopatra’s children by Antony–including the heroine of my own debut novel, Cleopatra Selene–it’s fairly historically accurate; viewers will learn from this film as well as be entertained. Not much better can be said for Hollywood than that!
Perhaps with an eye to how difficult it would be to top the 1963 Elizabeth Taylor version, Cleopatra has appeared primarily on the small screen ever since. The 1999 Television Mini-Series starring Billy Zane, Timothy Dalton and Leonor Varela was based on Margaret George’s excellent novel, Memoirs of Cleopatra. Unfortunately, the series bears little resemblance to the book. In this version, Cleopatra is a foot-stomping, whining, little brat who never brings any gravitas to the screen. Alexandria is rendered similarly unimpressive. While Varela’s looks may be more in line with the historical Cleopatra–her profile looks like the coins–her acting is fairly atrocious. It’s actually Billy Zane’s boyish rendition of Marcus Antonius that is the most convincing.
Which brings us to the latest incarnation of Cleopatra, Lyndsey Marshal’s version on HBO’s Rome. While I can find nothing bad to say about the series as a whole, which was masterfully written, funny, absorbing and dramatic–our Egyptian queen got the short end of the stick. Here she’s portrayed as a drug-addled slut who deceives Caesar about the parentage of her son. There’s nothing in the historical record to suggest this, other than Augustus’ accusations against her, but not every portrayal can resuscitate the queen’s image. Marshal brings a little bit of cunning to the role and never lets us forget that Cleopatra is without moral scruple–in that, she may be the closest portrayal to the historical woman.
It’s impossible to tire of Cleopatra and Hollywood seems poised to make another attempt. Given the run-away success of Stacy Schiff’s recent biography, a new movie is being planned starring Angelina Jolie. Reportedly, this film will focus more on Cleopatra as a mother and strategist. It remains to be seen what sort of images will leave their mark in popular culture this time!
I first came to admire Elizabeth Taylor for her definitive portrayal of Cleopatra in the 1963 production. She never won an award for it–those accolades would come from other movies–and Elizabeth Taylor’s antics, on and off the set, bankrupted a studio, earning the film a reputation as a gorgeous over-the-top disaster.
None of that mattered, of course, because everything about the movie was a metaphor for Liz Taylor’s life.
Like the historical Cleopatra who rose to queenship before the age of twenty, Elizabeth Taylor was a child star. Like the queen she portrayed, she collected expensive jewels, demanded gifts as her due, and was used to having things her own way. Also, like the queen she portrayed, all the wealth and indulgence never stopped her from doing great things, from championing important causes, and from loving passionately.
It was on the set of Cleopatra that she met and fell in love with Richard Burton. It’s often said that Taylor chose movie roles that would mirror her own life and this was certainly the case here. Like Antony, Richard Burton was married. He had loyalties elsewhere. For that matter, Liz Taylor wasn’t free to love him. That didn’t stop either of them. They engaged in the most scandalous extramarital affair of their day, and though they would divorce and remarry and divorce, their love would survive even Richard Burton’s death.
Taylor remained convinced that she and Burton would have remarried, and remarked that though she’d been married to other men, every man she’d been involved since Richard Burton was simply a way to pass the time. That’s the love of legends. It’s the kind of thing that made Cleopatra an unforgettable ancient queen, and it’s the kind of thing that will allow Liz Taylor a share of immortality, too.
Certainly, she was a fine actress with many memorable roles and we would all do ourselves a favor to watch a few of her films in the next few weeks. She’s stunning in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and riveting in Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolfe? In addition to her splashy blockbusters, she tackled difficult movies, artsy movies, serious scripts way ahead of their time. A natural beauty, she had a talent for stillness, a talent of drawing the camera to her. A unique way of mixing class with crass. She may not have been the Queen of the Nile, but she was the Queen of Hollywood and she never let anyone forget it.
Given her love of everything huge and over-the-top, it would be easy to dismiss her as a simple starlet. But Taylor’s brave advocacy for gays and HIV patients in a time when it wasn’t remotely politically correct to do so showed that her flamboyance was a part of her royal mission to live large, love intensely, and right big wrongs.
I can’t help but think the historical Cleopatra would have found in Elizabeth Taylor a kindred spirit, and though I’m saddened by her death, I believe both of them will live forever.
This is an excellent review of the Sword and Sandal Genre in cinema. I’m not sure what the correlation is to novels, however. It’d be interesting to compare.
I’ve been contemplating writing an article for the Romance Writers of America monthly zine about the rise of the ancient historical; I hope it has staying power.