May 15, 2013 at 3:17 PM

Cleopatra Rules!—The 1963 Classic is Back on The Big Screen…But Not For Long

By Casey St. Charnez

Media Rare

Casey St. Charnez has been video editor for Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide since 1986 and buyer for Lisa Harris' Video Library since 1981. He likes Lisa, cats, crosswords, and the Metropolitan Opera, probably in that order.

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Hard to believe, but it has been half a century now since the epic “Cleopatra” was at our local movie theaters. Happily, here it comes again, thanks to Twentieth Century-Fox Home Entertainment, which in partnership with Cinemark Theaters brings it once more to the big screen, come May 22.

Notorious in its day for its unprecedented cost, its liberal European sensibilities regarding language (“Egyptian whore!”) and nudity (topless dancing girls), as well as the defiantly scandalous off-the-set behavior of its stars, the status of “Cleopatra” in both film history and popular culture is something short of grand.

That’s really a shame. For I’ve long thought it to be vastly underrated, surprisingly accurate historically, and perhaps the supreme example of high 1960s production value. Not to mention having one of the coolest moments in all cinema.

And that’s why I am so going to be there next Wednesday, when Fox does a very 20th-century thing, re-releasing “Cleopatra” to 268 Cinemark Theaters.

Of course, Cinemark has no Santa Fe screens. But Albuquerque has four, two of which--the Century Rio 24 just off I-25 and Jefferson, and the Downtown 14 on Central—will have two showings each, at 2pm and 7pm. There will also be a single encore on Sunday May 26th at 2pm. Advance tickets are at www.cinemark.com and www.fandango.com.

There are only two showtimes per day because Fox has restored the picture to a hefty 243 minutes. (By comparison, “Ben-Hur” is 212, “Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” is 200, “Titanic” is 194.) But to me, that’s a pretty spectacular four hours and three minutes.

It was originally intended in 1960 as a $2 million movie to shoot in England, starring Joan Collins, Susan Hayward, Audrey Hepburn, or maybe even Dorothy Dandridge, plus Peter Finch (as Caesar), and Steven Boyd (as Antony), under the direction of supreme film stylist Rouben Mamoulian (“The Mark of Zorro,” “Blood and Sand”). Lousy British weather and Taylor’s chronic illnesses shut it down, but Fox was determined to make it happen.

Thus, three years later, the remounted effort had ballooned to a $40 million runaway, sometimes shooting in Rome, sometimes not, with Elizabeth Taylor, Rex Harrison, and Richard Burton, directed by the literate Joseph Mankiewicz, a multiple Oscar winner, principally for “All About Eve.”
   
The gala London premiere on July 31, 1963, preceded worldwide release, but in various lengths according to the whims of local censors. It did become the top-grossing film of the year. Then, the following April, the Motion Picture Academy awarded it four Oscars out of nine nominations…but not one for Best Picture. That was the year of “Tom Jones.” And the Beatles had displaced Taylor on the cover of Life magazine. 

Fifty full years later, the gilded, guilty pleasures of “Cleopatra” have not waned. It continues to be lavishly tragic, jaw-droppingly eye-filling, and every time I’ve seen it—on network TV, in full-frame VHS, on DVD with two commentaries—I always wait for that aforementioned cool moment. Hint: It’s a wink.

Yet, how neat to get to see it again on the big screen. What a treat. Truth be told, this is actually a promotional event, heralding Fox’s two-disc Blu-Ray streeting May 28th. Naturally enough, I’ve got one on order, salivating in advance over the sure plethora of home video extras.

This Blu-Ray will be valuable for research. One of these days I’d like to write something really large about this ambitious, deeply misunderstood movie. After all, Mankiewicz first gave the studio his six-hour cut, intending it to go out as two films, “Caesar and Cleopatra,” then “Antony and Cleopatra.” However, those missing two hours of finished footage remain elusive, so one can only hope that someday…

…for now, though, the 70-millimeter Todd-AO and the Cinemark popcorn—a jumbo, please—are quite enough.

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