Classic Hollywood Spotlight: ‘Cleopatra’

CleopatraA brief break from Mr. Coppola this week, because I just read a novel, Queen of Kings, inspired by the life of Cleopatra, and it’s forced me to begin to come to terms with the death of Elizabeth Taylor, which led to re-watching one of the truly great classic movies: 1963’s Cleopatra. The filmmaker Guy Maddin is fond of pointing out that film is a medium of ghosts. We are always watching the ghostly movements of emotions long gone, pageantry long gone, people long gone. It is this forever-after image that gives the impression that stars never die, and Elizabeth Taylor, certainly, has always felt bigger than death. No movie makes this clear more than Cleopatra, because there is no greater figure of feminine power, intelligence or sexuality than Cleopatra.

The movie famously went far over budget, but less well known is the fact that Elizabeth Taylor was paid more for that movie than any actor had been paid up to that point. Think about that for a moment. Is there any other profession in which the highest paid person in 1963 was a woman? It would be sad, in a way, if the role for which Taylor had been paid so much was exclusively a sexpot role, but Cleopatra is far more than that, and 20th Century Fox knew there was only one person on the planet who could portray the Egyptian Queen.

I love ancient history, but I’m the kind of guy who in high school used VHS tapes of I, Claudius as a seduction tool. Don’t laugh, it worked. Cleopatra is every bit as important a historical figure as Brutus, Caesar or Mark Antony. Cleopatra throws a monumental shadow over the most turbulent time in Ancient Roman history. Her decisions, personal and political, guided the fate of two nations, the ramifications of which can still be felt today, forever intertwining Africa and the West.

The gray line between the personal and the political is exactly what the life of Cleopatra was all about, and that for me is where the 1963 film draws its strength. Yes, the pageantry is a marvel to behold, and yes, all the politicking and assassinating and catapulting are delicious — but never has a movie so deeply embraced the love that can guide history. The long scenes between Taylor’s Cleopatra and Rex Harrison’s Caesar build a love between spiritual equals who recognize one another as such. These are characters who achieve a unique intimacy even as they fight to preserve the integrity of their own countries. And then when Richard Burton’s Mark Antony comes on the scene, well, let’s just say that even ghosts can take part in love triangles.

elizabeth taylor as CleopatraCleopatra isn’t a pure-blood Egyptian, of course. She is of the Ptolemaic line and therefore has as much of the West in her as anything else. Nonetheless, Egypt was her home, and the Egyptian Gods are the ones who guided her soul throughout a life dedicated to the prosperity of her nation. Because of how important Egypt was to Rome, and because Cleopatra had given birth to Caesar’s son, Caesar’s successor Augustus had to deal with the Egyptian Queen. Which is why it is impossible to tell the story of the West without appeal to the Gods of Egypt.

The aforementioned book, Queen of Kings, tells the story of Cleopatra and Augustus when most stories talk about her end: the moment of her death. Queen of Kings then uses the metaphors of dark fantasy to dive into the spiritual, political, emotional and magical relationship between Egypt and the West, all while telling a harrowing adventure, a great love story, and revealing the final secret behind the reign of Augustus. It’s that big because Cleopatra’s that big, and only Elizabeth Taylor could encompass her.

And now she’s gone, alas. Between Maria Dahvana Headley’s Queen of Kings and Stacey Shiff’s recent biography, there’s been a lot of talk about a new movie about Cleopatra, but I just can’t think of an actress up to the task. Angelina Jolie? Maybe. I hope. I hope there’s someone. Because in this world of American decay and globalization and interconnection, it’s time once more to remember that there is no real separation between the personal and the political.