Cleopatter

YES! The Cleopatra Papers is every bit as good as David Ehrenstein has suggested. Basically, two Twentieth Century Fox publicity men preserved and edited their correspondence accumulated during the production of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s epic gabfest, CLEOPATRA, and the result is a unique window into the life of that embattled studio and production. Along the way, the authors, who are profoundly sympathetic to Mank’s approach and genuinely seem to think he’s making a masterpiece (we’ll agree to differ), get in pot-shots at the (other) turkeys on the Fox roster, including obscurities I’ve written about there.

LISA aka THE INSPECTOR is dismissed as a bunch of shots of people getting on and off barges on Dutch canals, which is a brisker dismissal than the one i managed HERE and hilariously accurate. Reductive in a way, yes, but as I look back on the film I can’t seem to remember much else. “What can I say? You won’t believe me if I tell you. All right, I’ll tell you. Dolores Hart and Stephen Boyd getting on and off barges in Amsterdam canals. Philip Dunne, on whom we can always rely, has directed one of Fox’s all-time stiffs. Charlie is readying an all-out sex campaign for the picture though, and if it doesn’t save the picture at least it’ll probably get him investigated by some congressional committee.”

Leo McCarey’s SATAN NEVER SLEEPS is viewed with appropriate through-the-fingers dismay. McCarey himself hated the film, and its true that William Holden’s (uncharacteristic) refusal to die onscreen harms it, but the whole thing is a disaster, a burning hay-cart of a film trundling ever so slowly and wretchedly forwards while torching the credibility of everyone involved and the entire medium of cinema itself. “I just saw the ad in the Sunday Times on SATAN NEVER SLEEPS, and it needs no comment. A Chinese girl raped in front of a priest and Fox is trying to tell the world it’s another GOING MY WAY!” And “The reviews are enough to begin bankruptcy hearings here.”

“It never stops. Yesterday we saw CALIGARI. Not the CALIGARI but the Bob Lippert reproduction. Charlie, deadpan, told the meeting that the picture was better than PSYCHO — which Martin Moskowitz thought it only as good as — and Charlie said the picture is baffling and therefore will be all the rage, just like LA DOLCE VITA and L’AVVENTURA. SPS said, ‘You’re right, Charlie. We’re better than all those Europeans and I don’t know why people talk so much about them.'”

Other movies I haven’t seen: “Saw THE COMANCHEROS last night. We may not make it to Christmas.” “We haven’t seen TENDER IS THE NIGHT as yet […] but saw the trailer today and it’s not to be believed — this middle-aged, twitching woman (a serious Alice Pearce) rolling on floors, on beds, on beaches, in clinch after clinch with world-weary, grat, lined and creased Jason Robards jr. (JUNIOR!) It’s going to hurt this company, I tell you!” Later: “It is so awful. Can Henry King have read the book? Don’t they know this in’t Fannie Hunt, man, this is Scott Fitzgerald?”On CLEOPATRA, the writers are of interest less for their middlebrow enthusiasm than for the gossip and observations about the central players. Rex Harrison gets off lightly, apart from a nasty jab he made at Roddy McDowall (how could ANYONE be nasty to Roddy?) — RM asked him to take his picture and Sexy Rexy is reported as replying, “I’m terribly sorry and everything but I just don’t like you.” Seems typical of Rex that he would be gratuitously offensive in an apologetic, polite way.

 

Of course it’s Burton and Taylor who come in for close analysis. It’s observed that Taylor has grown up in movies and so in a way hasn’t grown up at all, has a very strange, distant, starry view of reality. We learn that, when offered a script, she only ever looks at her part, which might help explain some of her later career choices. Though nothing can really explain the Losey films. I guess she doesn’t play her character as dying in BOOM! because the scenes where her illness is established are scenes where other characters are discussing her in her absence, and so she simply never knew that was the intention.

Burton confuses them a bit because he’s clearly both smitten with her and hitching a ride cynically on her fame. For a while it’s expected he’ll go back to his wife because he always has in the past. At some point, his career move became an amour fou, and maybe it always was.

ANYWAY — highly recommended. I got it for cheap in a reprint with a blank green cover and maybe you can too?

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11 Responses to “Cleopatter”

  1. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    I happen to think Cleopatra by Mankiewicz really is a great film. Especially the longer version. It’s the best Taylor-Burton movie and as a film that ended the golden age, it’s apt in counterpointing it with the end of the Ptolemaics and the end of the Republic. It’s the only Roman epic with characters as amoral, intelligent and ruthless as the oligarchs of the ancient world. Roddy Dowall’s performance as Augustus as noted by George Macdonald Fraser is truly accurate to the real guy, I.e. Proto-Trumpian populist demagogue

  2. About ten years or so back I met Brodsky and told him how much I liked the book. Do keep in mind they were put on the project when FOX thought the film wasn’t getting enough publicity. By the time “le scandale” (as they refer to it) hit it was all they could do to keep up with what was happening right in front of them. Mankiewicz wanted it to be two films. Zanuck wouldn’t hear of it. The most damage is in the second half. At one point Taylor in an elaborate headdress, fighting with Burton, runs off screen only to seconds later in an entirely different incredibly elaborate headdress. Raul Ruiz claims that in the barge scene you can see planes taking off from Rome airport in the background. On te whole it’s a really good movie. In “Cahiers” Jean-Pierre Oudart compared it to operas by Gluck as directed DeMille.

  3. Having come “this close” to death several times, Losey much have thought Taylor perfect for “Boom!” John Waters adores it. It’s the sort of bad movie that could only be made by a great filmmaker.
    “Secret Ceremony” needs no apology. Mia Farrow plays herself in it.

  4. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    It’s also a film that is quite Mankiewiczian, it deals with adult male and women, and interpersonal relationships and where his movies always mixed the political with the personal, here he takes it to the highest level. I mean Caesar-Cleopatra and then Antony. It doesn’t get bigger than that. Richard Burton’s Antony is magnificent, history’s all-time great compelling loser, and the fact that defeat gives their love a purity it can never achieve without it. And Elizabeth Taylor really does act brilliantly.

    I’d rank Cleopatra in the small pantheon of great epics with Land of the Pharoahs, El Cid, The Fall of the Roman Empire, Spartacus. The best of them all is of course Lawrence of Arabia, but that’s not actually a Hollywood epic, however much it is mistaken for one. Most of them weren’t great of course, albeit you had moments (like Nick Ray’s King of Kings with its extended opening section showing the fall of Judea and every scene with Robert Ryan). I still haven’t checked out Sodom and Gomorrah by Aldrich (who is my current discovery).

  5. Charles W. Callahan Says:

    I can’t knock your take on ‘SATAN’. It stinks on ice.

    But, it’s one of my favorite guilty pleasures.

    My wife won’t let me play it when she’s home.

    I met France Nuyen once at one of those celebrity

    autographing shindigs where she signed her 8×10″

    glossies at $20 a pop. I bought 4 or 5,

    so she signed my dog-eared paperback copy of

    “SATAN NEVER SLEEPS” for free and posed with me for a few

    snaps. She was very cute and charming.

    She loved Bill Holden and Clifton Webb. She loathed McCarey.

    She also adored Bob Mitchum.

  6. I can’t imagine what that movie was like to make, and McCarey wa clearly not the man who had made Make Way for Tomorrow or The Awful Truth anymore.

    Looking at another hard-drinking Irish-American Catholic in the news today, and the type can have unlovely qualities.

    It’s hard to work out, reading the book, quite why Cleopatra is taking so long to shoot. Taylor’s lateness, sure, played a part. But most of the scenes are not that big. Mankiewicz himself had to argue for crowd scenes Fox wanted to cut, saying they were going to end up with an epic consisting of two and three-shots in large-ish rooms if he didn’t get his battle scenes.

    The poor guy won most of his struggles with the studio board, but at colossal cost. Like, they let him go back and film the battle aftermath months later, when it would have been so much cheaper to do it during the main shoot. And of course he was writing it as they went along, which I maintain is why it’s so bloody long.

  7. Mankiewicz called “Cleopatra” — “The toughest three movies I ever made,”

  8. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    Toshi Fujiwara argued that Cleopatra was more personal than Mankiewicz would admit. He pointed out that the film was constantly written and re-written during production, and that meant that despite the huge scale and resources, Mankiewicz had considerably more personal freedom to fulfill some of his ideas, since on one hand the film had to be made since too much money was there, on the other hand it had to be made-up as-it-went-along, and Mankiewicz was both writer-and-director.

    Still, it must have been exhausting to complete, and it’s a miracle the film still holds up. I mean Cleopatra fells like the biggest Hollywood movie ever in scale, at least in the golden age, even if statistically it might not hold up. Right after that Mankiewicz made The Honey Pit, his final masterpiece. And to me that, and not Sleuth, is his true finale. It’s got a delicious specific atmosphere, and it boils many of his themes and ideas. And it has Rex Harrison in his best, and maybe most autobiographical, role.

    In a documentary made in the 80s, I forget the title, Mankiewicz is interviewed about his life. He’s asked if he was ever disillusioned with Hollywood, and Mankiewicz said, “You can’t fall in with a gang of thieves, and then complain about losing your virginity. I was never illusioned with Hollywood.” He speaks like he writes.

  9. I agree about “The Honey Pot” Rex is marvelous n it and it launched Maggie Smith’s career.

    Interestingly Edie Adams plays a character who suggests what Marilyn Monroe might have been like had he “married well”

  10. All About Mankiewicz, probably — the Ciment doc.

    I love The Honey Pot. Maggie Smith seems to emerge, full-grown, like Athena, from Mankiewicz’s forehead.

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