Taylor and Burton's romance sizzled offscreen, but bombed in theaters

A Times Square billboard heralding the epic featured no title and no credits. It didn’t need them. By the time 10,000 New Yorkers gathered beneath the vast likenesses of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton to celebrate the June 12, 1963, opening of the four-hour-and-three-minute Cleopatra, three years of reportage on the movie’s calamitous production — capped by the news that Liz had cuckolded her fourth husband, Eddie Fisher, by taking up with Dick, who was himself married — had already made the film notorious.

First conceived by Twentieth Century Fox as a $2 million Joan Collins vehicle, Cleopatra finally sailed on screen at a reported cost of $44 million. That’s at least $219 million in current coinage, meaning that Cleo still outbloats any of the under-planned, overpriced superproductions for which it established the prototype, including Heaven’s Gate ($44 million in 1980), Last Action Hero (about $100 million in 1993), and Waterworld ($175 million in 1995). Part of the expense stemmed from writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s unprecedented plan to release two separate three-hour movies. ” The studio balked at that,” says Martin Landau, who played Roman general Rufio. ”So they butchered it. Ten of my best scenes got cut.”

Yet it wasn’t sheer length that upped Cleopatra‘s costs so much as pointless opulence. Ships’ figureheads were plated with real gold; sails were silk. Taylor’s 105 costumes cost nearly $200,000. Then there was the actress’ salary. She agreed to $1 million, but her eventual payout, thanks to overtime clauses and a guarantee of 10 percent of the gross, reportedly tallied almost $7 million. Many of the production delays arose from Taylor’s repeated respiratory illnesses, the worst of which required an emergency tracheotomy in the spring of 1961.

Nothing attracts press like the near death of a major star, and once Liz’s throat went under the knife, even more reporters and paparazzi descended on Cleopatra. As a result, every costly misstep in the film’s production reverberated in tabloids around the world — from Mankiewicz’s amphetamine-fueled schedule of shooting by day and rewriting by night to every phase of the volatile Taylor/Burton affair.

Cleopatra‘s U.S. film rentals ultimately brought the studio only about $26 million of actual income. Three years after the movie’s release, Fox execs claimed it would soon break even thanks to foreign box office and expected TV sales. Now Fox’s video division may scrape more loot from Cleo‘s barnacled fleets: There’s talk of resurrecting Mankiewicz’s intended six-hour version for a theatrical and video release. Then and now, it seems, Hollywood keeps hoping that excess will eventually equal success.

Time Capsule
June 12, 1963

Movie fans checked up on Tammy and the Doctor; The Beverly Hillbillies struck oil on TV; gossip maven Hedda Hopper’s memoirs told The Whole Truth and Nothing But; and Lesley Gore celebrated as ”It’s My Party” hit No. 1.

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