50th anniversary DVD release of Cleopatra, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton(Photo: 20th-Century Fox)
USA TODAY - The epic spectacle Cleopatra - one of the most expensive and controversial films in Hollywood history - made a resplendent return this week as a newly restored version of the classic premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in celebration of its 50th anniversary.
The gloriously opulent tale of the Egyptian queen (Elizabeth Taylor) who seduced Roman military leaders Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) and, years later, Mark Antony (Richard Burton) to hold onto power, is making its Blu-ray debut. The Cleopatra - 50th Anniversary Edition (1963, 20th Century Fox, G, $25; limited edition 2-disc + book, $35) arrives Tuesday.
Director Joseph Mankiewicz's lavish film was the highest grossing film of 1963, pulling in more than $24 million as fans - some attracted by the spectacle, some by the scandalous love affair of Taylor and Burton, flocked to theaters. Still, it didn't come close to covering the $42 million ($300 million in today's dollars) that it cost to make and for decades it was considered a monumental flop. It nearly bankrupted the already financially troubled 20th Century Fox, which had started the project with a $2 million budget.
Critics had mixed feelings about the movie, but it was nominated for nine Academy Awards and won four -- art direction, cinematography, visual effects and costume design. The latter was particularly well-earned. In addition to outfitting legions of Romans and Egyptians, Taylor's 65 costume changes earned her a Guinness World Record.
The behind-the-scenes intrigue during the three-year production of the film is as compelling as schemes hatched on the screen. Director Rouben Mamoulian began filming in London in 1960, but there were costly delays due mainly to weather, and Taylor had to be rushed to the hospital after a lingering illness for an emergency tracheotomy to save her life. Mamoulian was later fired, Mankiewicz was hired and the London operation was shut down.
Mankiewicz moved the production to Rome and began rewriting the script from scratch. Costs continued to skyrocket, but the studio continued to back what seemed like a sure box-office winner. Mankiewicz completed the film but would be fired while editing it. The studio rehired him because nobody else could piece it all together. Still, executives rejected his initial six-hour edit (he proposed breaking it into two films) and made him cut it so that it could be shown more than once a day in theaters.
Taylor, who was the first actor to receive a $1 million contract for a single role, in 1960, wound up earning $7 million because of all of the production delays. In 1963, the tabloids were all over her illicit affair with Burton, which inspired everything from curiosity to morale outrage from the public. They were denounced by the Vatican and on the floors of Congress as both were still married - Burton to Welsh actress Sybil Williams and Taylor to singer Eddie Fisher. (In another scandal, Fisher had divorced Debbie Reynolds to marry Taylor four years earlier.)
Taylor and Burton would marry and divorce twice from 1964-74 and 1975-76. He would count as two of her eight husbands. Taylor died in 2011 at age 79; Burton died in 1984 at age 58.
The limited edition Cleopatra is packaged with a full-color book with rare images from the making of the film. Both versions come with bonus material that include the full-length documentary Cleopatra: The Film That Changed Hollywood, a feature on the cultural history of Cleopatra, plus lost footage, commentaries about the film and original trailers. There is also footage from the film's premieres in New York and Los Angeles.
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