cover image Cleopatra and the Undoing of Hollywood: How One Film Almost Sunk the Studios

Cleopatra and the Undoing of Hollywood: How One Film Almost Sunk the Studios

Patrick Humphries. History, $29.99 (240p) ISBN 978-1-80399-018-7

This bustling chronicle from biographer Humphries (Rolling Stones 69) details the troubled production of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1963 historical epic, Cleopatra. The film started out as 20th Century Fox’s attempt to chase the smash success of MGM’s Ben-Hur, with studio executives hoping spectacle would bring audiences back to theaters amid an ongoing decline in ticket sales caused by the increasing number of household TVs in the 1950s. Recounting the many blunders made during filming, Humphries notes that Fox’s acquiescence to star Elizabeth Taylor’s demand to shoot the movie outside the U.S. “for her own tax purposes” led the studio to spend $600,000 on outdoor sets in London, only to realize the overcast skies could never pass for Egypt and production would have to relocate to Rome. Original director Rouben Mamoulian dropped out after London production wrapped, leaving Mankiewicz, his replacement, to oversee filming during the day and work on the movie’s still unfinished script at night. Further complicating matters, the affair between Taylor and costar Richard Burton, who met on set and were both married, made tabloids around the world. Humphries does a competent job of recounting the on-set drama, but his argument that Cleopatra unintentionally inaugurated the rise of independent films by showing the folly of the studio system is underdeveloped. Still, cinephiles will be entertained. (Apr.)