The biggest movie star in the world may play the Egyptian queen on the big screen
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Before there was Gigli — before even Ishtar — there was Cleopatra, the alpha and omega of celluloid fiascoes. It’s been close to 50 years since those tipsy tabloid darlings Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton fiddled in Rome while Twentieth Century Fox nearly burned to the ground. And still the tales from the 1963 sword-and-sandal colossus are enough to give 21st-century studio heads nightmares: the seemingly endless two and a half years of filming, the $2 million budget that ballooned to a then-unthinkable $44 million, the fact that it left the marriages of its two scandal-courting stars in ashes. Ahhh, the Golden Age of Tinseltown. They just don’t make ’em like that anymore.

Not so fast! While most Hollywood producers would probably regard Cleopatra as a cautionary tale — the kind of runaway fiscal sinkhole they’d want to avoid at, literally, all costs — Scott Rudin sees an epic opportunity. The prolific producer, who currently has two Oscar front-runners to his credit (True Grit and The Social Network), is nearing the starting line on a Cleopatra biopic for Sony. Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential, Mystic River) is finishing the script, and Rudin is now on the hunt for a director. James Cameron, who had been flirting with the project, opted for Avatar 2 and 3 instead. And while Rudin dismisses reports that he’s close to hiring The Bourne Ultimatum director Paul Greengrass, this much we do know: Based on Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stacy Schiff’s New York Times best-seller Cleopatra: A Life (one of EW’s top 10 nonfiction books of 2010), the big-budget, 3-D film will try to redefine what we’ve thought about the notorious woman who almost brought Caesar’s Rome to its knees. ”The story of Cleopatra has historically been told by men, starting with Cicero,” says Rudin, who’s been developing the project for the past four years. (He bought it based on Schiff’s proposal, before a page of the book had been written.) ”This is a very different look at this woman. Cleopatra was a politician, warrior, soldier, and strategist — as opposed to just a seductress.”

But if you’re worried that the film will be a snoozy, steam-free history lesson, think again: Angelina Jolie is attached to play Cleopatra. ”It’s only a movie with her [in it],” says Rudin. ”Who else could play it? Who do you get if not her? She’s a gigantic movie star, a great actress. She’s got an unbelievable variety of aspects to her.”

Schiff agrees. ”This is a figure where you have to have someone who is almost larger than life — a goddess. She’s got to be able to leap off the screen. There’s only a couple of actresses who fit that description.”

Actually, Jolie has been involved with the project ever since Rudin snapped up the rights to Schiff’s book. And the actress has long been a favorite of Sony Pictures head Amy Pascal, who most recently constructed the studio’s female action tentpole Salt around her.

Of course, the biggest — and most tantalizing — question remaining before Cleopatra goes in front of the cameras is one that circles back to the infamous ’60s version. With Jolie as one half of the most notorious love story ever filmed, who will be her Mark Antony? Brad Pitt, perhaps? Given the gallons of nasty gossip-column ink that were spilled chronicling Taylor and Burton’s offscreen exploits last time — and the near-bankrupting disaster that ensued — don’t bet on it.

A CHEAT SHEET FOR CLEOPATRA: A LIFE

Cleopatra wasn’t beautiful
”She sported a smaller version of her father’s hooked nose…full lips, a sharp prominent chin, a high brow,” writes Schiff. ”Her eyes were wide and sunken.”

She was fluent in 9 languages
Including Egyptian. Allegedly she was ”the first and only Ptolemy to bother to learn the language of the 7 million people over whom she ruled.”

She really loved her brothers
Cleopatra married at least two of her brothers, as was common at the time. (But familial love had its limits: She also murdered at least one other sibling.)
—Sara Vilkomerson

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