Monday, May 13, 2002


In a completely unplanned twist of fate, I wound up with the opportunity to see both CLEOPATRA (1963) with Elizabeth Taylor and CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA (1946) with Vivian Leigh in the same day. First, I have to say that the 1934 version with Claudette Colbert remains my favorite. But the Taylor film isn't as bad as its reputation has led me to believe. At four hours, it's way too long, and Taylor is the weak link as fas as acting--I eventually got used to her thin, little-girl voice, and she is undeniably sexy in the part, but she is unable give the character much depth. Richard Burton is good as Marc Antony, and Rex Harrison (Caesar) and Roddy McDowell (Octavian) are even better. The sets, costumes, and photography are astounding, a DeMille wet dream come true. Still, I wound up coming away from it exhausted rather than exhilarated. Character development overall is weak--the writers seem to assume that we will flesh out the characters and situations with our own knowledge of the story (and virtually all of mine comes from the movies).

The plot, in a nutshell: Caesar comes to Egypt to mediate in a battle for the throne between young Ptolmey and his older sister Cleopatra. He installs Cleopatra on the throne, then stays on longer than he should; captivated by her beauty, he becomes a pawn in her plans for Roman power, although she does appear to genuinely love Caesar (an epileptic according to this script, although that plot line goes nowhere). On a return to Rome to declare himself emperor (and Cleopatra queen), a group of Roman Senators assassinate Caesar. Intermission. Next, Marc Antony comes to Egypt and he too is swept away by Cleopatra. More power struggles follow until the inevitable tragic conclusion. Burton and Taylor have the chemistry, Harrison makes a great Caesar, and Martin Landau and Hume Cronyn stand out in a cast of many supporting players. Roddy McDowell is quite good as Antony's rival, Octavian; his performance as his character moves from effete lad to a scheming cad is Oscar-worthy. The letterboxed DVD was beautiful--this is one movie that definitely should not be seen pan-and-scanned.

CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA, based on Shaw's play, was shorter but far more tedious. Vivien Leigh does a fine job taking Cleopatra from kittenish and naive to mature and conniving, and Claude Rains is good (as he always is) as Caesar, especially in the earlier scenes. Even though it's just a bit over 2 hours, it felt longer than the Taylor version. The film covers the first half of the same story, but nothing much really happens; people just talk, philosophize, pontificate, and try to be witty. Sometimes it works, but mostly it doesn't. The opening scene where Rains and Leigh meet accidently in the moonlight is as good as it gets. At the time, it was the most expensive British production ever, but it's an ugly looking movie. There are lots of extras, but little sense of spectacle. I can't imagine sitting through this one again, but I might be tempted to see the Taylor film once more before I die.

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