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‘My Life with Cleopatra’ Memoir Reissued for Notorious Elizabeth Taylor Film’s 50th Anniversary

'My Life with Cleopatra' Memoir Reissued for Notorious Elizabeth Taylor Film's 50th Anniversary

Its questionable status has long been eclipsed by other
unnatural disasters, like “Mars Needs Moms,” “Cutthroat Island” and that
darling of revisionists, “Heaven’s Gate.” But for a long time it was
Cleopatra” that ranked in the public consciousness as Hollywood’s greatest,
and certainly best publicized, disaster. (Think “Howard the Duck” in a toga, an
asp at his throat.)  

Now, synched up with
the 1963 epic’s 50th anniversary, Vintage Books (Random House) is reissuing
producer Walter Wanger’s “My Life With Cleopatra,” a diary-style memoir of the
making of the Liz Taylor-Richard Burton-Rex Harrison fiasco, the making of
which captured the imagination of moviegoers far more that the actual movie.

As Kenny Turan
says in his afterword to the new edition (due in June, they say), the movie
actually made money — eventually, after being sold to TV (a cruel irony, given
the scope of the film and ambitions behind it). 
But as a case study in corporate moviemaking, it’s a horror story. Very
little of what people today see as the problem with tent-pole-fixated Hollywood
wasn’t already plaguing “Cleopatra,” 
from the Wall Street gnats buzzing about the production, to the
filmmaking-by-committee approach of the thoroughly unreliable Fox head, Spyros
Skouras, to the pharoanic approach to life of its central attraction, Elizabeth
Taylor.

It was the married
Taylor’s affair with her married co-star Richard Burton that remains the most
memorable cultural event associated with “Cleopatra,” which is seldom revived
(partly because it’s 3 hours and 12 minutes long, and was even longer on
release). For all Wanger’s plaintiveness, it was an ill-planned, under-imagined
project that had Fox execs scrambling to get out of the way of its often
wretched excess, even while they systematically sabotaged the film. 

A lot of it
resembles, in Wanger’s telling, a board-room burlesque — Fox honchos railing
against money already spent — while executing a very rarified form of
incompetence: They insisted on filming a desert epic in London, where — surprise! — it rains — and someone overlooked the fact that Olympics would be in
Rome in 1960, when they were planning what would become a largely Italian
production.

Wanger, who died in
1968, wrote like a publicist; even in his supposed “diary.” (The movie inspired
other unorthodox attempts at literature: Compare Jack Brodsky’s more candid
“The Cleopatra Papers,” also published in 1963, which consists of correspondence between the film’s two
beleaguered publicists, Brodsky and Nathan Weiss.) 

To judge by Wanger,
everything about “Cleopatra” the Concept was “the greatest ever conceived.” But
he’d made a lot of good movies, too, and worked with the likes of Garbo,
Stanwyck, Tallulah Bankhead and Susan Hayward (who won her Best Actress Oscar
for Wanger’s “I Want to Live!”). No one, however, seemed to be the equal of
Taylor, who is praised to the heavens by Wanger even as her self-indulgence and
whims, libidinous and corporeal, were threatening to bury their movie under a
Sahara of lost money and scandal.

Oscar-winning director Ang Lee is currently circling the new version of “Cleopatra,” set to star Angelina Jolie; meanwhile, the late Richard Burton, just in time for the 50th anniversary Blu-ray release of Mankiewicz’ film, is finally receiving his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. 

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