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June 20, 1963, Vol. VIII, No. 35
‘Cleopatra’: The Fall of Bosley Caesar
By Andrew Sarris
In case you’re still wondering, “CLEOPATRA” (at the Rivoli) is a complete disaster, and I kid you not. I vas dere, Charlie, for four hours and three minutes, not counting the intermission, on the evening of the eleventh and part of the twelfth of June 1963, in a house generously sprinkled with Fox employees and well-wishers, the kind of partisan preview audience which has been conditioned for generations to applaud the most esoteric credits at the beginning of the picture, and then cheer wildly at the end, no matter what. There were no hosannas that night. “Cleo” had laid a big dinosaur egg, and even the hired help were too depressed to pretend otherwise.
I am not writing now as an abstruse commentator on the art of the cinema, but as a candid long run of film history, “Cleo” will hardly be remembered as the worst picture ever made, but rather as one of the sorrier chapters in the directorial career of Joseph L. Mankiewicz, and conceivably as the beginning of the end of Elizabeth Taylor’s reign as the siren of the I’ll. For the present, however, let the reader be forewarned. “Cleo” is not really worth seeing for any reason, and certainly not within the three-to-five-dollar price scale for seats at the Rivoli.
It is not even bad enough to be perversely amusing. Liz’s first entrance is grotesque enough to prepare us for that high point of self-parody when she asks Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) if he smells anything burning as the library of Alexandria goes up in smoke, but there are not enough of these pungent moments to relieve the soul-destroying tedium of little people lost on big sets in the most expensive session of hide-and-seek ever to masquerade as a movie.
As I left the midtown torture chamber, I wondered if the daily critics, particularly Mr. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, could bring off another “Ben-Hur,” another betrayal of readers and audiences to save the industry from its own folly. Why not? “Cleo” is not all that inferior to “Ben-Hur,” it at all. Wyler’s direction is more graded dramatically than Mankiewicz’s mish-mash, but “Ben-Hur” is much uglier visually, and its plot is much sillier. The acting is equally dismal in both films, and despite the advertised intrusions of Christopher Fry (“Ben-Hur”) and Lawrence Durrell (“Cleo”), both scripts are models of witlessness. “Ben-Hur” threw in a chariot race, and “Cleo” countered with cleavage, a Mexican stand-off between the extra-curricular attractions of Roosevelt Raceway and Minsky’s. Yet, lest we forget, “Ben-Hur” won the New York Film Critics’ Award and swept the Oscars, and why couldn’t history repeat itself for the sake of the “industry”?
What seemed too cynical to contemplate on Tuesday night became reality on Thursday morning. Bosley Crowther mounted all the surface and subliminal prestige of the New York Times behind “Cleopatra” with a mammoth rave review beginning: “Forget all the fantastic sum that ‘Cleopatra’ is reported to have cost. Forget the length of time it took to make it and all the tattle of troubles they had, including the behavior of two of its spotlighted stars. The memorable thing about this picture, which opened last night at the Rivoli, is that it is a surpassing entertainment, one of the great epic films of our day.”
For the first time in anyone’s memory, Mr. Crowther’s review was literally undercut on the same page by a news story, which emphasized the mixed reactions to “Cleo” and neutralized Crowther’s enthusiasm for a film suddenly transformed into a critical scandal. Judith Crist of the Trib and Archer Winsten of the Post came out with straight pans, the Mirror and the Telegram with strong reservations about Miss Taylor’s performance, and only the News and the Journal-American with unqualified raves. The wire services were hostile, the radio and television critics devastating, and Fox stock somewhat panicky. After years of panning such works as “Citizen Kane,” “Shadow of a Doubt,” “Monsieur Verdoux,” “Day of Wrath,” “Torment,” “Children of Paradise,” “Odd Man Out,” “Diary of a Country Priest,” “La Ronde,” “Ugetsu,” “Cabiria,” “Wild Strawberries,” “Ivan, the Terrible,” “Picnic on the Grass,” “L’Avventura,” and “Shoot the Piano Player,” Bosley Caesar was out on a limb with “Cleopatra” simply because everyone who was anyone in New York had jammed in to see “Cleo” before the reviews came out. As far as the influential freeloading audience was concerned, Sphinx rhymed with Stinx, and not even the New York Times could say differently.
“Cleo” actually had a lot going for it. I think people were in the mood for a scorching sex film, a nostalgic throwback to Leigh and Gable, Garbo and Gilbert, even to Theda Bara, if need be. Mankiewicz decided that politics was more intelligent than passion — and succeeded with neither. His tepid epigrams hardly compensate for his blindness to the possibilities of a color film. I think a distinction should be made between visually distinguished spectacles with absurd plots (Vidor’s “Duel in the Sun” and Ray’s “55 Days in Peking”) and optical atrocities like “Ben-Hur” and “Cleopatra.” When in doubt, the eyes have it. To top everything off, Ava Gardner (“Peking”) looks much better than Liz, at least to these unjaded eyes.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]