Sixties City presents a wide-ranging series of articles on all aspects of the Sixties, penned by the creator of the iconic 60s music paper  Mersey Beat

Cleopatra 1963


It started out as a modest plan – to make a film about ‘Cleopatra’ in England with a budget of a million dollars. The project got completely out of hand and almost bankrupted 20th Century Fox; caused massive boardroom battles resulting in the studio President, Spyros Skouros being ousted by Darryl F. Zanuck; became the most expensive production in movie history and turned out to be the most publicised film of all time.

Its star Elizabeth Taylor ‘died’ four times; it broke up the marriages of its main stars and created an affair dubbed 'Le Scandale' which brought down the wrath of the Vatican and American Congress. There were reports of suicides and law suits and rumours that the film would never make a profit until the 21st Century. 'Cleopatra’ did indeed make a profit when it was eventually sold to television and the release of one of the last great movie epics on video and DVD saw it continue to make money.

Producer Walter Wanger originally approached Taylor in 1959. The plan of budgeting the project at $1 million went by the wayside when Liz demanded – and got - $1 million, plus 5% of the gross. She was the hottest property in Hollywood and was to receive an Oscar for her appearance in ‘Butterfield 8.’ Laurence Olivier was originally offered the role of Caesar, but declined. Rex Harrison’s name was put forward, but when work began in England in September 1960, Peter Finch had been cast as Julius Caesar and Stephen Boyd as Mark Anthony, with Rouben Mamoulian directing. The studio had intended to take advantage of the Eady Levy which offered financial incentives to foreign film producers working in Britain. Work on the huge sets began and the gigantic Alexandrine Palace was built at Pinewood, but work became impossible because of continuous rain and when Liz fell ill shortly after her arrival in Britain, Mamoulian began shooting around her.

Then Mamoulian was replaced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Liz became terribly ill. As her health deteriorated it was originally diagnosed as Asian ‘flu, then staphylococcus pneumonia causing congestion of her lungs. Eight doctors, including the Queen’s surgeon, took part in a life-or-death emergency tracheotomy, during which it is said she ‘died’ four times. She had to be kept alive in a respirator. Fox President Spyros Skouras closed down production and rescheduled it for the following September. Only ten minutes of footage had been shot at a cost of $5 million – none of it usable. The phrase “If Taylor coughs, Fox catches pneumonia” was bandied about.

It was then planned to film on location in Italy and Egypt with interiors at Fox in Hollywood. Then it was decided that it would be filmed in its entirety at Rome’s Cinecitta Studios. By this time Rex Harrison had replaced Peter Finch and, as Stephen Boyd was unable to continue, it was decided to sign up Richard Burton as Anthony.
He was currently appearing in the successful Broadway production of ‘Camelot’ and Fox had to pay $50,000 to the show for his release. Burton was offered a quarter of a million dollars plus living expenses, a villa outside Rome, two chauffeur-driven cars and a share of the profits. Harrison had negotiated co-star billing, $10,000 a week, expenses and a chauffeur-driven car.
Cleopatra 1963

Cleopatra 1963
Fox’s losses for 1961 were $40m and the costs for ‘Cleopatra’ were rising at an alarming rate. If the film flopped it would take the studio with it. By the end of August Mankiewicz had an incomplete script, no costumes and none of the sets had been built. He asked for a further delay but the board of directors insisted he start on the new schedule. The day before shooting, Wanger gave the board his report: “JLM is writing in longhand every day, labouring over the script, trying to get it as near right as possible. We are waiting for the costumes to be completed and fitted. Of the sixty sets needed only one is ready. Every day that we are not before the cameras costs us $65,000 in overhead. So, tomorrow – ready or not – we start the picture.”

In Italy costs continued to escalate as the locals ripped off the Hollywood unit, charging extra for costumes they’d ripped while teams of extras were collecting pay cheques without anyone checking to see if they were genuinely appearing in the film. The director had conceived of a six-hour film in two three-hour sections. The first part featuring Caesar and the second, Anthony. Although they’d bought Burton out of his ‘Camelot’ contract, no one had bothered to check when he would be needed and as Rex Harrison was filming his half of the epic, Burton was left to kick his heels for three months. He played his first scene with Liz in January 1962 and the crew said the atmosphere was electric.

Burton hadn’t been overawed by Liz’s reputation and had been heard to comment, “I must don my armour once more to play against Miss Tits.” But he became completely enchanted by her. Elizabeth’s make-up artist Ron Berkeley was to say, “Elizabeth was not used to assertive men. Oh, they might put on an act for a while but they nearly all ended up showing love by deference, paying tribute to her beauty. Only one other man had taken her by sheer force of personality. When she encountered Richard Burton it must have seemed to her that she had rediscovered Mike Todd.”

Liz was 28 and married to Eddie Fisher. She’d originally been married to Nicky Hilton, son of the hotel multimillionaire; then to British actor Michael Wilding. Her third marriage, to Mike Todd, seemed to be the most successful of her relationships and she was totally distraught when he was killed in an air crash. She’d shocked America when she suddenly had an affair with Todd’s best friend Eddie Fisher, who was married to her close friend Debbie Reynolds. Everyone sympathised with Debbie while Liz and Fisher were hammered by the press when they got married.
Only her close call with death brought the press round to her side again.

She was to experience a far fiercer hammering from the media when her affair with Burton knocked everything else off the front pages. Two marriages and several children were involved. Liz had given birth to Michael and Christopher Wilding and, after the birth of her daughter Liza Todd, was told she couldn’t have any more children. She and Eddie Fisher had also decided to adopt a young, crippled nine-month old girl from Germany called Maria.

Burton was a notorious womaniser and was currently having an affair with Pat Tunder, who had appeared in ‘Camelot’ with him. His wife Sybil knew of his affairs and tolerated them, believing that their marriage was strong enough to survive his many dalliances. They also had two daughters, Kate and Jessica. However, a genuine and strong passion built up between Taylor and Burton which caused Sybil to depart with the children for their home in Switzerland. Soon after, Fisher, who had been on the ‘Cleopatra’ payroll, left for the home he and Liz had bought in Switzerland. Burton’s family and friends tried to talk sense into him. He didn’t really want to wreck his marriage and tried for reconciliation with Sybil, but his obsession with Liz became too strong, the affair went public and became known as 'Le Scandale'.

Liz and Rich dined regularly at Alfredo’s on the Via Veneto, much to the delight of the paparazzi. No film, before or since, has received so much publicity and the lovers became the most famous people in the world, their affair making even more of an effect because they were portraying another pair of controversial lovers – Anthony and Cleopatra.
While the media fed on the romance, it was also widely condemned. In the U.S. Congress, Iris Blitch introduced a bill to have Taylor and Burton banned from America. Liz vowed she would never return to the States.

They were condemned on Vatican Radio and the Vatican newspaper Osservatore della Domenica demanded that Liz’s children be protected from her. By the time the filming had stopped, ‘Cleopatra’ had cost between forty to sixty-five million dollars, which would be around two hundred million dollars at current prices. Everyone knew that if it failed at the box office, Fox would perish. Four major distributors sued Fox for $8 million as compensation for loss of revenue, believing that the affair had damaged the film's box-office potential.
Darryl Zanuck, who had won the boardroom battle at Fox, filed a breach-of-contract suit against Richard and Liz for ‘damage’ caused to the film by their behaviour. Burton pointed out that his side would investigate the private affairs of Zanuck and other Fox executives and the suit was dropped.
Cleopatra 1963

Elizabeth Taylor - Cleopatra

In fact, the affair saved the movie. With such publicity it brought the public into the cinemas in droves – although it only eventually broke even after it was sold to TV. The fact that the money was coming back into the box office caused Zanuck to comment: “I think the Taylor-Burton association is quite constructive for our organisation.”

Liz and Burton hated the movie. Mankiewicz had originally conceived the movie in two three-hour sections. The film took a year to edit and during the editing stages Mankiewicz was fired and two full hours were chopped off the movie. After the critics savaged it, a further 30 minutes was cut before general release. Burton was filming when it was previewed, but when Liz attended a special showing in London, in June 1963, she said that immediately after the screening she just made the Dorchester in time to vomit. It seemed to both of them that everything they had done which had been any good had been cut out of the final print.

In his book ‘Rich: The Life of Richard Burton,’ Melvyn Bragg writes, “The film finally had three and a half hours chopped out of it – most of it containing Burton’s best scenes which are somewhere in a 20th Century Fox vault. According to Joe Mankeiwicz, the writer-director, they show Burton giving a remarkable performance. So what he came originally and finally to prove – that the great intellectual epic was possible – landed on the cutting room floor on the West Coast.”

The reviews for the film were the worst reviews Elizabeth Taylor would ever experience in her film career, with comments such as: “Overweight, overbosomed, over-paid and undertalented, she set the acting profession back a decade” and “Miss Taylor is monotony in a slit skirt.” In the meantime, other filmmakers were to see the potential fortune to be made out of the publicity which surrounded the couple.

Anton de Grunwald had been planning to film a script by Terence Rattigan called ‘The VIPs’, which was to star Sophia Loren and Burton. He quickly offered Liz a million dollars to take Loren’s place opposite Richard and paid him half a million. Together with a percentage deal, the pair were to make $3m out of ‘The VIPs’ which opened the week after ‘Cleopatra’ and cleaned up. Strangely enough, the film was based on another scandalous film affair. Rattigan had written it after hearing of a moment in Vivien Leigh’s life when she left Laurence Olivier and was attempting to run away with Peter Finch, only to find herself marooned for several hours at the airport because of fog. Liz and Burton were to divorce their respective spouses and were married in Monreal in 1964.




Mersey Beat Magazine Bill Harry attended the Liverpool College of Art with Stuart Sutcliffe and John Lennon and made the arrangements for Brian Epstein to visit The Cavern, where he saw The Beatles for the first time. Bill was a member of 'The Dissenters' and the founder and editor of 'Mersey Beat', the iconic weekly music newspaper that documented the early Sixties music scene in the Liverpool area and is possibly best known for being the first periodical to feature a local band called 'The Beatles'. He has worked as a high powered publicist, doing PR for acts such as Suzi Quatro, Free, The Arrows and Hot Chocolate and has managed press campaigns for record labels such as CBS, EMI, Polydor. Bill is the critically acclaimed author of a large number of books about The Beatles and the 60s era including 'The Beatles Who's Who', 'The Best Years of the Beatles' and the Fab Four's 'Encyclopedia' series. He has appeared on 'Good Morning America' and has received a Gold Award from the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors.


Article Bill Harry 2017               Original Graphics SixtiesCity 2017

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