For the past 50 years, Cleopatra has remained the gold standard of Hollywood excess. The 1963 epic nearly sank Twentieth Century Fox. It took two-and-a-half years to shoot. It burned through two directors and two regime changes at the studio. Its budget rocketed from $2 million to a then-unthinkable $44 million. And, most famously, it left the marriages of its two stars — Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor — in ashes. Nowadays, in an age when celebrity breakups and affairs are more or less routine happenings dissected and dispatched by the tabloids in the blink of an eye, we aren’t so easily shocked. But the early ’60s were a different time. And the titillating, tawdry gossip coming from the Roman set of Cleopatra was like catnip for the world. Once they’d had a taste of Liz and Dick and ‘Le Scandale,’ celebrity would never be the same again.
Cleopatra was already off to an inauspicious start by the time the production got to Rome’s Cinecitta studios in 1961. Filming had begun a year earlier at Pinewood Studios in England, only to be scrapped after 16 weeks. The film’s first director, Rouben Mamoulian, had spent $7 million and produced only 10 minutes of usable footage before he quit. All About Eve director Joseph L. Mankiewicz took over for Mamoulian. The first order of business was overhauling the script. The second was recasting the two male leads — Burton and Rex Harrison replaced Stephen Boyd and Peter Finch as Antony and Caesar. Then there was the film’s million-dollar leading lady, Taylor.
When filming on Cleopatra began, Taylor was 29 and already on husband number four, Eddie Fisher. Fisher had left his wife, Debbie Reynolds, for the violet-eyed seductress. That may seem like a dramatic description, but Taylor was regarded by many at the time in dramatic terms — as a “homewrecker.” In other words, she was a risky proposition to carry a big-budget Hollywood film like Cleopatra. Another risk in hiring the million-dollar leading lady was her reputation for illness on the sets of her films. During the first part of shooting, in London, Taylor fell ill from “Malta Fever,” bringing production to a grinding halt. Later, in February 1961, Taylor came down with double pneumonia. She was sleeping in an oxygen tent in a London clinic when she slipped into a coma. Some newspapers actually reported that Taylor had died.
It was around that time that Burton, the 36-year-old Welsh rogue, was cast as Antony. He was married at the time to Sybil Burton. But that hadn’t stopped his reputation as a ladies’ man. In fact, years earlier, Burton had met Taylor at a party and flirted heavily with her. She declined him, saying that she would not be another notch on his belt. Now in Rome, Taylor’s health seemed to take a turn for the better and so did her impression of Burton. By the beginning of 1962, the two stars were swept up in Le Scandale. Onscreen, their chemistry was palpable. Off-screen it was downright incendiary. Taylor and Burton weren’t just playing Cleopatra and Antony, they were living it.
Soon, word of the taboo romance spread like wildfire. The Italian press, with the paparazzi in its infancy, bribing its way onto the set as extras, took the adulterous story and ran with it. When Fisher packed his bags and left Rome, it was as much confirmation as anyone could want. The fact that the two stars would hole up in their trailer all afternoon when they were due on the set didn’t help quiet speculation. Neither did the alternating sounds of clinking highballs, screaming fights, and giggling frolics. The mad love between Liz and Dick made headlines around the world. A congresswoman from Georgia asked the Attorney General to block the stars from coming back into the country on grounds of “undesirability.” The Vatican newspaper printed an Open Letter taking Taylor to task for “erotic vagrancy.” The latest tidbits in the scandal knocked John Glenn’s orbit of the Earth from the frontpages of several newspapers. Long-lens telephoto shots of the couple cavorting on holiday were splashed everywhere. Both marriages would soon be over.
When Cleopatra wrapped, two-and-a-half years after it began, Taylor made Burton husband number five. Meanwhile, the film’s director, Mankiewicz, said, “If you want a textbook on how not to make a film, this is it!” After all of the drama, Taylor refused to go to the film’s premiere. The months — years — of merciless tabloid coverage had worn her out on the subject of Cleopatra. The final humiliation, she quipped, would be having to see the film.
Cleopatra was over, but the long, tumultuous saga of Taylor and Burton was just beginning. The couple married in 1964, divorced in 1974, remarried in 1975, and divorced once and for all in 1976. Only in Hollywood.
For more on Liz Taylor and her storied life both on-screen and off, pick up the issue of Entertainment Weekly on stands April 1.