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.
No, I’m not going to get into a brawl with those historians who insist that Kleopatra should be spelled in Greek fashion when trying to market a novel to an American audience who is used to seeing the name spelled with a C. That path is just an internet flame war waiting to happen. Michelle Moran tried to split the difference and readers were annoyed that the cover said Cleopatra’s Daughter but the text inside was all about Kleopatra Selene. So, rather than step into that vat of quicksand I’m going to stand behind my choice to adopt conventions that readers would find familiar.
So if I’m not going to give a war cry about spellings of ancient names, what am I nattering on about then? Allegedly, K is for Kleopatra when Kim Kardashian decides to step into the role. Confession: I have no idea what Kim Kardashian actually does, or why she’s always in the media. What I do know, however, is that she recently decided to interview Liz Taylor for Harper’s Bazaar. And Liz, who has recently been in the news for rapidly declining health, is charming as ever, so I thought I’d share.
One of my favorite parts of the interview is when she’s asked if she would have remarried Richard Burton, and Liz gives us a cheeky answer.
As an aside, it appears that Ms. Kardashian did a Cleopatra-inspired photo shoot. I think that cat would look great in my living room.
One of the biggest “bombs” Hollywood ever made was the 1963 classic, Cleopatra. Starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and Rex Harrison, it was both splashy and fairly faithful to history, considering its big budget glam and the temptation to embellish. It got a few things wrong, and it chose to ignore Cleopatra’s other children altogether–including the twins, Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene. But long after it “failed” at the box office, it has remained the most enduring and iconic movie about the Queen of the Nile.
Among the most delicious things about the 1963 classic–aside from the over-the-top drama, the wonderfully quotable lines, the sumptuous sets, and a performance by Roddy McDowell that should have won him an Oscar were it not for a clerical error–was the real life romantic drama going on behind the set. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton fell in love, their lives echoing the forbidden and notorious passions of their characters as Cleopatra and Antony.
It should probably be no surprise then that when searching for a new Cleopatra to play the upcoming role in an adaptation of Pulitzer prize-winner Stacy Schiff’s new biography, Hollywood turned to their own reigning queen, Angelina Jolie. What’s more, now there are rumors that Brad Pitt is being considered for the role of Antony. If we should be gearing up for another gossip-filled, scandalous, decadent movie in the 1960’s style, this is definitely the way to go.
But my guess is that tastes have changed, and Stacy Schiff’s book already has the whiff of a more serious drama about it. The cover eschews the queen’s Egyptophilia in favor of her identity as a Hellenistic Queen, and I have all kinds of goosebumps about it.