May 24, 2013
Cat on a Hot Tin Pyramid
Posted on Apr 1, 2011
Editor’s note: The third paragraph of this column has been corrected. Elizabeth Taylor did not win an Oscar for her performance in “Cleopatra,” as the original version stated.
Cleopatra has died, 2,000 years after she killed herself in ancient Egypt.
Long live Maggie the Cat.
I speak of course of Elizabeth Taylor, the American actress who played the Egyptian queen Cleopatra in the epic movie of the same name, in a performance that was not nearly as good as some of her others, such as her Oscar-winning work in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” But certainly it was noteworthy for a number of reasons, including the fact that she had nearly died of pneumonia while the movie was in production, and, off-screen, had been having a torrid affair with her co-star Richard Burton, who was married, like Elizabeth, and like Marc Antony, the character he played. She had already brought a great deal of notoriety to the project. For instance, to use tabloid parlance, she had “broken up” actress Debbie Reynolds’ marriage to Eddie Fisher, stealing the handsome crooner from “America’s sweetheart,” marrying him and then moving on when she fell in love with the explosive Welsh actor Burton on the set of “Cleopatra.” All of this became part of the national scripture at the moment it was unfolding—so celebrated were the players, so beautiful, so sexy. Yet those were not the only reasons. As it happened, Elizabeth Taylor’s affairs—and life—mirrored those of Cleopatra, the timeless seductress of powerful and married men, elevating a great Hollywood scandal to a fairy tale for the ages. The narrative was not simply “beautiful movie stars run away with each other,” but “film queen swept away by Roman general.” With the spectacle of this film, the figures of Cleopatra and Elizabeth Taylor were permanently conflated, creating a supernova the likes of which we shall not see again.
When Cleopatra killed herself in 30 B.C., she was 39 years old. She was already notorious, a woman who had descended from a line of royals and come into her reign as Rome was expanding and consolidating its empire. The intrigue of that era cannot be overstated: assassination within families to attain Pharaonic status was routine and so was murder of close associates. Along with that came marriages that were actually land mergers or acquisition of other privileges and treasure—certainly a precursor to a long-lived tradition (although latter-day prenuptial agreements have pre-empted the need for inheritance-related internecine assassinations, to a degree). Growing up in the house of Ptolemy, Cleopatra was well-schooled in palace operations and subterfuge. With Rome closing in for the kill, she saw her enemies and raised them one, forming alliances with two married suitors in succession, Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, thus maintaining Egypt’s sovereignty until the house of cards collapsed and Pharaoh was done. Rather than be hauled off to Rome in chains, she committed suicide, presumably by way of asp, although in recent times another theory involving some sort of poison has emerged. Her death was a Roman triumph, but it was not really a personal loss. In fact, she was just getting started.
But the mythologizing of Cleopatra began even before she died, with palace gossips and scribes noting the queen’s use of her sexuality to acquire power. Yet, as Schiff notes, it was Julius Caesar and Marc Antony who were truly promiscuous. In fact, Cleopatra may well have slept with just those men in her short life, but at the time she was known as “the consort of two men of voracious sexual appetite and innumerable sexual conquests,” and later “as the snare, the delusion, the seductress.” Over the centuries, her tale was told and retold by the men who wrote prevailing accounts of what happened, rarely giving her credit for her role in establishing the great (and vanished) library at Alexandria, and her ability to keep Egypt in business while the Romans sought to consume it. Instead, this parade of scribes saw Cleopatra in one way only, a creature of sexual desire, beginning with Propertius, the Roman scribe who called Cleopatra “the whore queen,” followed by Dante, for whom she was a carnal sinner, followed by Boccaccio, who called her “the whore of eastern kings.” And of course in the 16th century Shakespeare came a-knocking, with his play “Antony and Cleopatra,” which includes the famous passage:
Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
By the 20th century, Cleopatra was such a notorious siren that she received the Cecil B. DeMille treatment, played by the great beauty Claudette Colbert in the 1934 film named after the queen. But that’s not the same as being played by Elizabeth Taylor, in color, on a gigantic screen, in an extravaganza that nearly bankrupted the studio—one more reflection of ancient Egypt (for my essay on Hollywood as land of Pharaoh, see “Cairo-by-the-Mojave”). For her role in the movie, Elizabeth Taylor received $1 million, at that time the highest figure an actress had ever been paid—and apparently her salary skyrocketed, due to years of delays. The four-hour epic received mixed reviews but in addition to Taylor and Burton had a fine cast, with Rex Harrison as Caesar and Roddy McDowall as Octavian. All, though, were saddled with a ham-handed script. Like many Hollywood films, this one had several writers, actually make that eight, resulting in what is possibly the ultimate Tinseltown collaboration—Plutarch, Suetonius and Ben Hecht; accordingly—at best—it is overwritten. “My breasts are full of love and life,” goes one of Cleopatra’s lines. “My hips are round and well apart. Such women, they say, have sons.” Well, the movie didn’t win a best screenplay award, and this line explains why—although certainly only Elizabeth Taylor could get away with uttering a piece of dialogue better suited for opera or the cutting room floor. It’s all because of her looks.
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