As queen of a mighty land in a world run nearly exclusively by men, Cleopatra VI makes an ideal subject for Hollywood film. (Heck, that opener could start a trailer.) Cleopatra’s been given the silver screen treatment in a handful of films centered on her and has been riffed on even more frequently.
While the Academy’s accolades come Oscar time famous ladies past like Queen Elizabeth I (specifically as portrayed by Judi Dench in Shakespeare in Love), Princess Anastasia (Ingrid Bergman in Anastasia, 1956), Margaret Thatcher (Meryl Streep in Iron Lady, 2011), Cleopatra has killed at the box office for over a century. In more ways than one.
The original cinematic version of Cleopatra dates back to 1912.
Subtitled "The Romance of a Woman and a Queen" this film would set the pattern for cinematic versions of Queen Cleo in the same way that Dante Alighieri had created the prototype fictionalized version of the Egyptian ruler in the 14th century. The familiar tropes of Cleopatra movies to come are all here: Epic scope, big budgets for lush costumes and sets: Even the tagline for the movie was “The most beautiful motion picture ever made.” Plot-wise, the 1912 version of Cleopatra naturally emphasized the sexy aspects of Cleo’s political endeavors.
The $45,000 (approximately $1.2 million in 2016) movie was successful enough in ticket sales – despite actual movie-devoted cinemas not yet existing – that 20th Century Fox studios cranked out its own version of the Cleopatra story featuring early motion picture starlet Theda Bara, five years later. The producers of the 1912 version reshot some scenes, reedited their film and re-released it.
Unlike the original Cleopatra movie, Theda Bra’s version no longer exists, and we are left with literally a few seconds from the movie.
In 1934, Claudette Colbert’s version of Cleopatra was released; this was the same year audiences were treated to Colbert’s Oscar-winning performance in the romantic comedy It Happened One Night. Talk about your box-office rules: For a few years, Colbert was queen of the Hollywood empire like Cleo was in Ancient Egypt. Check out this incredible trailer which actually includes the producer Cecil B. DeMille discussing Cleopatra as a symbol of “love and romance.”
By 1950, Hollywood was returning to the popularity it had enjoyed in the 1920 and 30s, due in part to the exciting advance of color – but in terms of Cleopatra movies, the British stole Tinseltown’s thunder with a 1945 production called Caesar and Cleopatra featuring Technicolor technology and starring heavy-hitters Vivan Leigh (of Gone with the Wind fame) and Claude Rains (Casablanca). Hollywood wouldn’t again depict the legendary queen of Egypt until 1963.
And hoo boy, did Hollywood return to Cleopatra with notoriety. The 1963 movie Antony and Cleopatra is still synonymous with box office disasters on a level that would only later be matched by such “notable” flicks as Heaven’s Gate, Ishtar and Howard the Duck.
Fox Studios – now renamed 20th Century Fox – went back to the well in 1963 armed with megastars and real-life amours Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Right off the top, Taylor was paid $1 million (approximately $7.7 million today), making her the first actress to land a cool mil on a single-picture deal. Reshoots, delays and poor budgeting shot the price tag for Cleopatra to a ridiculous $44 million (over $340 million today; as of 2016, only the 2011 film Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides has had a larger budget). Cleopatra made just $26 million at the box office in its first year of release, with the losses incurred reportedly nearly enough to bankrupt Fox.
The 1963 version of Cleopatra ended up nominated for four Academy Awards, clearly the subject of conspiracies theories because, well, the film is actually quite awful.
Hollywood has subsequently mostly stayed away from Cleopatra since Taylor and Burton’s evisceration, instead lending the name to badasses in Blaxploitation (Cleopatra Jones, 1973), Boobsploitation flicks (Cleopatra Wong in 1979’s Mean Business) and parody (Cleopatra Schwartz in Kentucky Fried Movie, 1977).
As of this writing more than 50 years after Taylor and Burton’s evisceration of her, Cleopatra has yet to reappear in Hollywood movies; indeed, the name “Cleopatra” has apparently become recognized as a professional death sentence.
Proof of this was offered most intriguingly in the 2015 Sony email hack job. Among the 170,000 pieces of electronic correspondence between studio heads and industry players were a disproportionate number devoted to the subject of Angelina Jolie. Cleopatra had been a pet project of Jolie’s for, like, forever, but her dreams of production were naturally thwarted at every turn.
In summer 2014, Jolie was reportedly far enough into the pre-production process on a new Cleopatra film as to be vetting directors for the project, despite would-be producer Scott Rudin’s, let’s say, resistance to anything Jolie brought down the pike. As he put it to a colleague, “Kill me please.” Apparently unaware of such derision, Jolie proceeded with the embryonic project while Rudin ranted to higher-ups thusly:
“I’m not destroying my career over a minimally talented spoiled brat who thought nothing of shoving this off her plate for eighteen months so she could go direct a movie. I have no desire to be making a movie with her, or anybody, that she runs and that we don’t. She’s a camp event and a celebrity and that’s all and the last thing anybody needs is to make a giant bomb with her that any fool could see coming.”
Rudin may be correct about the bombabilty of such a film, but, whoa, seeing that cinematic trainwreck – imagine the studio resistance combined with the Brangelina breakup while Brad Pitt is inevitably playing Antony – would have been amazing...