Walter Wanger originally approached Taylor in 1959. The plan of budgeting
the project at $1 million went by the wayside when Liz demanded – and got
- $1 million, plus 5% of the gross. She was the hottest property in Hollywood
and was to receive an Oscar for her appearance in ‘Butterfield 8.’ Laurence
Olivier was originally offered the role of Caesar, but declined. Rex Harrison’s
name was put forward, but when work began in England in September 1960,
Peter Finch had been cast as Julius Caesar and Stephen Boyd as Mark Anthony,
with Rouben Mamoulian directing. The studio had intended to take advantage
of the Eady Levy which offered financial incentives to foreign film producers
working in Britain. Work on the huge sets began and the gigantic Alexandrine
Palace was built at Pinewood, but work became impossible because of continuous
rain and when Liz fell ill shortly after her arrival in Britain, Mamoulian
began shooting around her.
Then Mamoulian was replaced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Liz became terribly ill. As her health deteriorated it was originally diagnosed as Asian ‘flu, then staphylococcus pneumonia causing congestion of her lungs. Eight doctors, including the Queen’s surgeon, took part in a life-or-death emergency tracheotomy, during which it is said she ‘died’ four times. She had to be kept alive in a respirator. Fox President Spyros Skouras closed down production and rescheduled it for the following September. Only ten minutes of footage had been shot at a cost of $5 million – none of it usable. The phrase “If Taylor coughs, Fox catches pneumonia” was bandied about.
It was then planned to film on location in Italy and Egypt with interiors at Fox in Hollywood. Then it was decided that it would be filmed in its entirety at Rome’s Cinecitta Studios. By this time Rex Harrison had replaced Peter Finch and, as Stephen Boyd was unable to continue, it was decided to sign up Richard Burton as Anthony.
Italy costs continued to escalate as the locals ripped off the Hollywood
unit, charging extra for costumes they’d ripped while teams of extras were
collecting pay cheques without anyone checking to see if they were genuinely
appearing in the film.
The director had conceived of a six-hour film in two three-hour sections. The first part featuring Caesar and the second, Anthony. Although they’d bought Burton out of his ‘Camelot’ contract, no one had bothered to check when he would be needed and as Rex Harrison was filming his half of the epic, Burton was left to kick his heels for three months. He played his first scene with Liz in January 1962 and the crew said the atmosphere was electric. Burton hadn’t been overawed by Liz’s reputation and had been heard to comment, “I must don my armour once more to play against Miss Tits.” But he became completely enchanted by her. Elizabeth’s make-up artist Ron Berkeley was to say, “Elizabeth was not used to assertive men. Oh, they might put on an act for a while but they nearly all ended up showing love by deference, paying tribute to her beauty. Only one other man had taken her by sheer force of personality. When she encountered Richard Burton it must have seemed to her that she had rediscovered Mike Todd.”
Liz was 28 and married to Eddie Fisher. She’d originally been married to Nicky Hilton, son of the hotel multimillionaire; then to British actor Michael Wilding. Her third marriage, to Mike Todd, seemed to be the most successful of her relationships and she was totally distraught when he was killed in an air crash. She’d shocked America when she suddenly had an affair with Todd’s best friend Eddie Fisher, who was married to her close friend Debbie Reynolds.
Burton was a notorious womaniser and was currently having an affair with
Pat Tunder, who had appeared in ‘Camelot’ with him. His wife Sybil knew
of his affairs and tolerated them, believing that their marriage was strong
enough to survive his many dalliances. They also had two daughters, Kate
and Jessica. However, a genuine and strong passion built up between Taylor
and Burton which caused Sybil to depart with the children for their home
in Switzerland. Soon after, Fisher, who had been on the ‘Cleopatra’ payroll,
left for the home he and Liz had bought in Switzerland. Burton’s family
and friends tried to talk sense into him. He didn’t really want to wreck
his marriage and tried for reconciliation with Sybil, but his obsession
with Liz became too strong, the affair went public and became known as 'Le
Liz and Rich dined regularly at Alfredo’s on the Via Veneto, much to the delight of the paparazzi. No film, before or since, has received so much publicity and the lovers became the most famous people in the world, their affair making even more of an effect because they were portraying another pair of controversial lovers – Anthony and Cleopatra. While the media fed on the romance, it was also widely condemned. In the U.S. Congress, Iris Blitch introduced a bill to have Taylor and Burton banned from America. Liz vowed she would never return to the States. They were condemned on Vatican Radio and the Vatican newspaper Osservatore della Domenica demanded that Liz’s children be protected from her. By the time the filming had stopped, ‘Cleopatra’ had cost between forty to sixty-five million dollars, which would be around two hundred million dollars at current prices. Everyone knew that if it failed at the box office, Fox would perish. Four major distributors sued Fox for $8 million as compensation for loss of revenue, believing that the affair had damaged the film's box-office potential.
his book ‘Rich: The Life of Richard Burton,’ Melvyn Bragg writes, “The
film finally had three and a half hours chopped out of it – most of it
containing Burton’s best scenes which are somewhere in a 20th Century
Fox vault. According to Joe Mankeiwicz, the writer-director, they show
Burton giving a remarkable performance. So what he came originally and
finally to prove – that the great intellectual epic was possible – landed
on the cutting room floor on the West Coast.”
reviews for the film were the worst reviews Elizabeth Taylor would ever
experience in her film career, with comments such as: “Overweight, overbosomed,
over-paid and undertalented, she set the acting profession back a decade”
and “Miss Taylor is monotony in a slit skirt.” In the meantime, other
filmmakers were to see the potential fortune to be made out of the publicity
which surrounded the couple. Anton de Grunwald had been planning to film
a script by Terence Rattigan called ‘The VIPs’, which was to star Sophia
Loren and Burton. He quickly offered Liz a million dollars to take Loren’s
place opposite Richard and paid him half a million. Together with a percentage
deal, the pair were to make $3m out of ‘The VIPs’ which opened the week
after ‘Cleopatra’ and cleaned up. Strangely enough, the film was based
on another scandalous film affair. Rattigan had written it after hearing
of a moment in Vivien Leigh’s life when she left Laurence Olivier and
was attempting to run away with Peter Finch, only to find herself marooned
for several hours at the airport because of fog. Liz and Burton were to
divorce their respective spouses and were married in Monreal in 1964.