When it was made in 1963, Cleopatra was the most expensive film ever created, with costs of more than $40 million. This was not an accolade its producers at 20th Century Fox wished to attain; the film came very close to bankrupting the studio.
Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the production was talked about like no other film, but not always for positive reasons. Mankiewicz was brought in as an emergency replacement director, then fired, then re-hired. As he said: “I felt much like whoever directed Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre on the night Lincoln was shot.“
The whole production was plagued with problems from the get-go. Costs spiraled — Cleopatra’s gold dress alone came in at $6.5k (around $140k today) — and Elizabeth Taylor was given a record-breaking contract of $1 million. Shooting overran, the director was axed, and so was the cast, and so was the location.
But it was the relationship between Elizabeth Taylor (Cleopatra) and Richard Burton (Anthony) that really made the headlines — both good and bad. The legendary couple, who would go on to marry each other not once but twice, met on the set of the film. Each was then married to someone else and their relationship, and the scandal it brought, did not please 20th Century Fox.
Cleopatra was, by legend, the most beautiful woman in the world, but Burton took another view when it came to Taylor’s suitability to play the part. He was quoted as saying, “Calling her the most beautiful woman in the world is absolute nonsense. She has wonderful eyes, but she has a double chin and an overdeveloped chest, and she’s rather short in the leg.”
Taylor in turn had little positive to say about the film at all: “They cut out the heart, and tacked on all those battle scenes. It lacked reality and passion. I found it vulgar.” Even though it became the highest grossing film of the year, 20th Century Fox would not make its money back until three years later, by selling the TV rights to ABC for an unprecedented $5 million.
These candid shots show the early days of Burton and Taylor’s ever-evolving and ever-turbulent relationship, on set.