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Remembering a Legend - and why

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By Gordon Meyer
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With all the memorials dedicated to Elizabeth Taylor last week, I was inspired to once again watch what many consider her most notorious film, “Cleopatra.”  The film itself was plagued with scandals, like the  very public affair between a married Taylor and her equally married co-star Richard Burton, major re-casting from the director on down and so many cost overruns that it almost put 20th Century Fox out of business.  At the time, the movie got a lot of negative reviews, no doubt influenced by its pre-release notoriety. 

There’s an old saying, that “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore,” which had to be coined in reference to movies like “Cleopatra.” We’re talking the kind of “cast of thousands” epic that Hollywood at one time gloried in.  Economists estimate that the 1963 price tag of $44 million is comparable to about $320 million in 2011 dollars.  And it shows on the screen, boys and girls.  This picture has the kind of spectacle that today’s filmmakers can only dream of – and with no digital effects.  Everything on the screen has an analog reality with some jaw dropping set pieces, like Cleopatra’s entrance into Rome.

But as we already know, you can have all the jaw dropping spectacle you want.  If you don’t have great performances and a strong story, it doesn’t matter.   With the objectivity of over 45 years, Taylor’s performance in this movie reminds us of why she epitomized the term “movie star.” The movie itself turns a major chapter in world history into a big screen soap opera with plenty of intrigue, personal and national politics, and passionate romance (much easier to buy Cleopatra’s romance with Burton as Marc Antony than Harrison’s Caesar).  And yes, co-writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz did take a few creative liberties with historical facts, including set designs taken from periods of Egyptian history hundreds of years apart.  But it all works.

The performances of Taylor and her co-stars are passionate, powerful and even a bit theatrical and over the top at times.  But they’re also riveting. And part of a long-gone era of both acting and studio filmmaking.  If I were a studio executive, while I’d have a hard time greenlighting such an extravagant production myself, as a film buff, I’m glad that there was an era where epics were part of Hollywood and that we can still enjoy them today.

As for Ms. Taylor, again, with “Cleopatra” she showed us what a real movie star in a bigger than life role is all about.  Rest in peace.

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