1963: The Movies as Art

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Judith Crist ’45

Beginning at the New York Herald Tribune in 1963, and serving for decades as one of America’s pre-eminent film critics, Judith Crist offered hard-hitting film criticism that explored the medium with the care and respect afforded to other art forms. Crist has taught at the Journalism School for more than 50 years.

The New York Herald Tribune – June 13, 1963
“Cleopatra: A Monumental Mouse”

By Judith Crist

Long months – if not years – ago, I suspect, the majority of movie-goers made up their minds either to see Cleopatra no matter what or to avoid being caught dead in its vicinity. It’s for the undecided minority, therefore, that I must report that this film is at best a major disappointment, at worst an extravagant exercise in tedium. 

It depends, of course, on what you have been waiting for. Certainly if you want to devote the best part of four hours to looking at Elizabeth Taylor in all her draped and undraped physical splendor, surrounded by elaborate and exotic costumes and sets, all in the loveliest of colors, this is your movie.  And if you are able to adjust your focus from time to time, you will get two fine performances by Rex Harrison and Roddy McDowall, the lilting speech of Richard Burton and a couple of parades and divertissements that Flo Ziegfeld or Busby Berkeley might well have masterminded. 

But I think a bit more has been expected of this 1958-1963 Cleopatra under the aegis of Walter Wanger, with script and direction by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. We were led to anticipate a fresh and sophisticated character-oriented approach to the story of Caesar, Cleopatra and Mark Antony, courtesy of Mr. Mankiewicz’s past performances; a spectacular epic to take the breath away with panoramic scope and eye-filling extravaganza, courtesy of the thirty-four-million-dollar production cost; a vital history of turbulent times, alive with the excitement and fever of the politics and passions that framed them, courtesy of Mr. Mankiewicz’s coauthors’ researches and the breadth Todd-AO can give to near-global events. But Cleopatra is none of these. 

And I might note at the outset that an even greater disappointment awaits those whose interest has been titillated almost exclusively by the Taylor-Burton real-life parallel to their Cleopatra-Antony romance.  They should be warned that Mr. Burton does not appear for the first hour and twenty minutes; that another hour and fifteen minutes elapses before their first embrace and that, beyond much love talk and soulful ogling, their physical encounters are scarcely five degrees warmer than the Caesar-Cleopatra liaison – and that’s a cool one.  Perhaps the sexy bits ended up on the cutting-room floor.

I should prefer, in fact, to blame much of the film’s inadequacies on the fact that it was cut from six to four hours. This might well account for the choppy incoherence of the action (at times we have to search for columns and hieroglyphics and uniforms to discover whether we’re in Rome or Alexandria), for the sketchy portrayal of the pre-Cleopatra Antony (we know him only as a besotted, vain weakling – scarcely a man whose dying “should be shouted from the corners of the earth”), for the strangely abbreviated spectacle of the battles on land and sea and even of the “orgy” aboard Cleopatra’s barge. 

But cutting would not account for the level of the film’s dialogue, provided principally by Mr. Mankiewicz, hitherto one of our most adult and literate screenwriters.  Certainly he faced stiff comparison with Shaw and Shakespeare – but the resultant mélange or clichés and pompous banalities is unworthy of him.  “Nothing like this has come into Rome since Romulus and Remus,” Antony remarks of Cleopatra’s spectacular arrival; “A woman that cannot bear children is like a river that has run dry,” Cleopatra notes, adding, “I will bear many sons – my breasts are filled with love and life.”

Times and tides, the characters keep telling each other, are either running out or waiting for no one; “One world, one people, one nation” is Cleo’s political plea, apparently making her a World Federalist at heart; “The way to prevent war is to be ready for it,” she assures her generals.  “Antony—what has happened?”  “To me?  You have happened to me.”

And you want to weep for Rex Harrison – or, at least, to get some of Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra lines into his mouth.  He is so good an actor, however, that in spite of the script he manages to make Caesar the larger-than-life creature he must be to be believed.  Slightly amused, always superior, steadily approaching the ultimate ambitions that would destroy him, he conveys both the intelligence and the stature of an emperor, particularly in the subtle suggestion that, though he might succumb to her charms and ambitious chatter, he still regards Cleopatra as not too much more than a serviceable doll. 

And Miss Taylor makes little more of her than that, her accents and acting style jarring first with those of Harrison and later with those of Burton.  She is an entirely physical creature, no depth of emotion apparent in her kohl-laden eyes, no modulation in her voice, which too often rises to fishwife levels.  Out of royal regalia en negligee and au naturel, she gives the impression that she is really carrying on in one of Miami Beach’s more exotic resorts rather than inhabiting a palace in ancient Alexandria or even a villa in Rome.  And strangely, in the course of this eighteen-year history, she seems to reverse the aging process, looking a well-groomed thirty-plus when she rolls out of the rug at Caesar’s feet and a lovelorn twenty in her death throes. 

Miss Taylor’s costumes are nothing short of sensational and her doing without any at all in a couple of scenes is equally impressive.  But the fallacy is, alas, that neither her costumes nor her performance leaves anything to the imagination.  We have on hand a rather unsubtle siren, a blatantly ambitious beauty in search of a man to conquer the world for her, with not even the illusion or suggestion of that eternally mysterious woman whose fascination would outlast the centuries. 

With the mystique of Cleopatra missing, Antony loses heroic stature and winds up as a pathetic Caesar-ridding sot, given to occasional pangs of conscience, but a ninny.  There’s nothing grand about this passion for Cleopatra and no grandeur in his destruction.  There is grandeur in Richard Burton’s way with a line and a fit of remorse, but the monotony and inconsequence of his role limit this very able actor. 

As Octavian, however, Roddy McDowall does bring to Caesar’s heir an underlying shrewdness and strength under an impassive exterior that is fascinating.  Kenneth Haigh is briefly interesting as Brutus, but of the other “names” scattered in the cast Hume Cronyn seems oddly uncomfortable as Cleopatra’s adviser and Pamela Brown is strictly from Fu Manchu as her high priestess.  There’s the usual hodgepodge of accents, as in all made-abroad spectaculars, with the ludicrous achieved by the small boy, depicting Caesar’s and Cleopatra’s son at the age of four, who bursts out with a ripe Italian dialect. 

While there are the thousands of extras, the hundreds of Nubians, the dancing girls, the barges, the palaces, the statues, the sphinxes, Mr. Mankiewicz’s heart is obviously not in the large-scale action that a film of this subject and physical scope demands.  Aiming above, as he has put it, “the Taras Bulba crowd,” he has attempted to emphasize the main characters rather than the panorama.  But so grand and grandiose are the sets that the characters are dwarfed, and so wide is his screen that this concentration on character results in a strangely static epic in which the overblown close-ups are interrupted at best by a pageant or dance, more often by unexciting bits and pieces of exits, entrances, marches or battles. 

Mr. Mankiewicz frustrates the requirements of the wide screen by reducing the naval engagement of Actium, after a few disjointed clips of the actual fighting, interrupted by static close-ups of his various character, to a moving around of models on a map by Cleopatra’s admiral aboard her barge.  Given, at the outset, magnificent views of the battlefields at Pharsalia and Caesar’s camp after the battle, we hunger for more than the brief clash, clatter and fireworks at Moongate, the mere marching of legions, even Antony’s abortive one-man attempt against Octavian’s legions. 

We are cheated of a sense of size and power in the Roman Senate; Caesar’s assassination is downgraded by having it splotchily seen through the augury fires set for Cleopatra by her priestess, and not even his funeral pyre on the Forum steps, with Romans throwing what look like old pieces of furniture on it, achieves significance. 

The orgies?  A bit of wild dancing aboard the barge, with a suddenly drunken Antony joining in, is strangely skimpy – and not helped one bit by having one of the dancing girls decked out as a double for Cleopatra.  We should not be reminded that other girls can look just like Elizabeth Taylor, particularly when she is trying to portray the Queen of Queens. 

Certainly Cleopatra’s multimillion-dollar parade into Rome does beat the advent of Romulus and Remus; it’s a mishmash of cavalry, burlesque-show girls and Ballets Africains – Hot Mikado performers, topped by Cleo and son, in cloth of gold, riding an arch-high sphinx on wheels.  Unfortunately, the climax is dimmed for us by the unnerving but not illogical expectation that somewhere a tenor should burst out with “A pretty girl is like a melody.”

The Queen’s barge is impressive on the outside, what with pretty girls playing boatswain and lookout and all – and it’s deceiving, because inside it’s like the whole Hotel Manhattan laid out on one floor.  And the banquet!  Flaming shish kebab the Ambassador East never dreamed of, whole stuffed and fully feathered peacocks – “Fabulous feast,” says Antony.  “One is so limited when one travels by ship,” replies Cleo. 

A painstaking attention to tiny details makes it all too obvious that nothing has been spared on the sets and costumes.  There are indeed some beautiful and impressive photographic effects, with transitions made by having faded frescoes slowly brighten into a live scene or a scene free and dim into a fresco.  But the sets themselves never create an illusion of permanence.  The cardboard and paint are there.  Even in their most dramatic moment, when Cleopatra and Antony are slapping each other around in her tomb, one’s most immediate image is of Miss Taylor and Mr. Burton having it out in the Egyptian Wing of the Metropolitan Museum. 

All is monumental – but the people are not.  The mountain of notoriety has produced a mouse.

3 Comments

  1. raj vaidya
    Posted 04.15.12 at 7:25 am | Permalink

    It is rather surprising that John Kennedy`s assassination story has not been included in the list in the year 1963–though it made great news all over the world .Similarly, Nixon`s overtures to China in the year 1971 and the diplomatic relation USA established with China is one of the great events of those decades. How is that both are not included?

  2. Posted 05.03.12 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    Great journalist Judit. Thanks for the info…

  3. Edirin
    Posted 08.08.12 at 8:12 am | Permalink

    I was most saddened to read of Ms. Crist’s death this morning. Her writing made me think, made me laugh and inspired me to be the best arts journalist I can be. I had hoped if not to be taught by her, then at least to meet her and express my gratitude. My deepest condolences to her family and friends.

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