StMU Research Scholars

Elizabeth Taylor the Vixen Savior

It’s the beginning of a new era in cinematics and film production! Actors, producers, and executives make their way inside the majestic Rivoli Theater in New York City to finally see the movie that overtook the media. Almost ten-thousand fans roaring outside the theater, all waiting for the appearance of the two biggest stars of the epic 1963 film Cleopatra. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, the star-crossed lovers in the epic movie Cleopatra were the talk of the town and everyone was anticipating their onscreen performance that created a new era of social media for celebrities.

Cleopatra 1963 Movie poster | Courtesy of Amazon

Time set’s the premiere: “Cleopatra. In scarlet letters volted with excitement the notorious name hung throbbing and enormous in the night sky over Broadway.”1 Most people were expecting the couple to arrive at the premiere and rejoice in their pristine performance. To everyone’s disappointment, Taylor and Burton did not appear for the exclusive event. Their absence was considered rude or inconsiderate due to their relationship and the highlight it became during the production of the epic movie. Cleopatra is known to be an epic drama of over-the-top costumes, warfare, and intense love affairs with the Roman Empire. Elizabeth Taylor not only captured the essence of the character Cleopatra, she emulated every characteristic while on set.

1963’s production of Cleopatra was surrounded by bad publicity, high demanding contracts, and changes in set, actors, and locations in very short time frames. Elizabeth Taylor was not just the star of the movie, but seemingly the star of most conflicts. The British-American actress started her acting career in the early 1940’s. She moved with her family to Los Angeles, California fleeing from the fear of war in Europe. Universal Pictures originally signed Elizabeth Taylor in April 1941 and her first movie was a minor role, in There’s One Born Every Minute. Her contract ended a year later, and she continued her film career with MGM studios from January 1943 to 1961.2

With her high-ranking movie career and her vivacious looks and attitude, the demand for a 1-million-dollar contract was nothing but expected.3 She was the highest paid actress in film production during that time. While filming Cleopatra in England, Elizabeth was a damsel in distress. Illness kept drastically striking and she was diagnosed with pneumonia. Being in and out of the hospital and sets being destroyed by gloomy weather, Fox lost 16-weeks of production and 7 million dollars, only producing ten minutes of an original six-hour film.4 Her sickness cascaded a negative chain of actions. Luckily for Fox, they were insured for sickness. The downfall, the original director Mamoulian was terminated for the loss. In the departure of Mamoulian, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who previously worked with Taylor, was brought on to take over the chaos. The set was moved to Cinecitta and around the same time, Peter Finch and Stephen Boyd had previous accords to attend too. Leaving Mankiewicz, a brand-new stage, re-writes, and no actors.5

A scene from Cleopatra (1963), directed by Joseph Mankiewicz | Courtesy of Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation

It wouldn’t be a Cleopatra movie if it didn’t start with chaos. Nonetheless, Mankiewicz recruited Rex Harrison and Richard Burton to replace Finch and Boyd, giving Harrison the part of Julius Caesar and Burton the part of Mark Anthony.6 From a new director, new location, and new people, the start of production was in a whirlwind. When Taylor finally returned to set, from the moment Burton took his place, Taylor had a smitten eye. The passion shown between Cleopatra and Mark Anthony was surely not just acting. Taylor’s lust started the wave of obsession with the social life of celebrities. In that time period, the private life of a celebrity was chosen by what the celebrity wanted to publish. “It was probably the most chaotic time of my life,” Taylor told Vanity Fair in 2011. “What with le scandal, the Vatican banning me, people making threats on my life, falling madly in love … It was fun and it was dark—oceans of tears, but some good times too.”7 Taylor was on her fourth marriage and Burton was married himself. She was already recovering from being labeled a homewrecker, and the affair scared Fox.8 

Burton and Taylor on set | Courtesy of Vintage News

There was so much investment in Cleopatra, what scared Fox was if the affair became public, it would confirm Taylor’s involvement in a previous affair, as well as creating a possibility for boycotts on the film.9 Elizabeth’s life was scandalous. Everyone wanted pictures and information on what she was doing and with whom. Fox executives did their best to keep this affair secret. Despite it all, an array of photos confirmed the affair. The two were shown kissing and sunbaking on the back of a yacht in the Mediterranean.10 The photos made headlines worldwide causing, as Fox predicted, bad publicity. Taylor was shunned by America, the Italian media, and even the Vatican questioned her motherhood to her three children.11 20th Century Fox may have feared the publicity, yet the affair was exactly what they needed to save their despaired film.

20th Century Fox spent $44 million to produce Cleopatra and almost went bankrupt. They not only had to suffer the cost of production, but Fox had to find extra money for the movie campaign. $10 million dollars were funded to the campaign, including, the cost for an exclusive premiere at The Rivoli Theater in New York City.12 Fox’s income for the movie was 40.4 million, yet it was not enough to cover the 44 million in production. Fox Century only reached its goal when it sold the film to ABC for 5 million dollars.13 Cleopatra was centered around Taylor’s life. If it wasn’t for the notorious photo of the affair, the movie would have probably crumbled. That affair had people thriving and anticipating the on-screen performance because they wanted just a glimpse of what the relationship looked like. That anticipation is what filled the seats for the exclusive premiere.

Extras on the set of Cleopatra | Courtesy of Pinterest

Production of Cleopatra was chaotic. No other couple in history had commanded the media’s attention the way they did.14 Paparazzi and media displayed Taylor’s life like a soap opera. With all the attraction from the media, the film was even nominated for 9 awards and won 4, including Best Cinematography (color), Best Art Direction- Set Decoration (color), Best Costume Design (color), and Best Special Effect.15 Elizabeth Taylor was the star of Cleopatra from the moment she joked about the deal.16 Her lust and damsel ways created the chain of conflicts and also saved a sinking movie. With the title of most expensive movie, there’s no doubt it’ll come with a little drama. It wouldn’t be acting if there were no dramatics.

  1. Ellis Cashmore, Elizabeth Taylor: A Private Life for Public Consumption (Bloomsbury Publishing, USA, 2016), 150.
  2. Kitty Kelley, Elizabeth Taylor, the Last Star (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981), 456.
  3. Daniel Bukszpan, “The Profitable Career of Elizabeth Taylor,” CNBC online, March 23, 2011). https://www.cnbc.com/2011/03/23/The-Profitable-Career-of-Elizabeth-Taylor.html.
  4. Peter M Nichols, “FILM; Extravagant (Except in Quality),” The New York Times (website), August 5, 2001), sec. Movies. https://www.nytimes.com/2001/08/05/movies/film-extravagant-except-in-quality.html.
  5. David Kamp,  “When Liz Met Dick: The Making of Cleopatra,” Vanity Fair (website), Accessed February 24, 2020. https://www.vanityfair.com/news/1998/03/elizabeth-taylor-199803.
  6. David Kamp,  “When Liz Met Dick: The Making of Cleopatra,” Vanity Fair (website), Accessed February 24, 2020. https://www.vanityfair.com/news/1998/03/elizabeth-taylor-199803.
  7. E.L. Hamilton, “The Epic ‘Cleopatra’ Was the First Movie to Generate More Heat from What Happened behind the Scenes with an Illicit Affair than Onscreen,” 2017, The Vintage News (blog), December 16, 2017, https://www.thevintagenews.com/2017/12/16/cleopatra-behind-the-scenes/.
  8. E.L. Hamilton, “The Epic ‘Cleopatra’ Was the First Movie to Generate More Heat from What Happened behind the Scenes with an Illicit Affair than Onscreen,” 2017, The Vintage News (blog), December 16, 2017, https://www.thevintagenews.com/2017/12/16/cleopatra-behind-the-scenes/.
  9. Jennifer Corkin, “Meet The Burtons – The Celebrity Legacy of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton,” Semantic Scholar (blog), 10. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/f464/c6b0e106478fdfea03f2648479338fd8719c.pdf
  10. Jennifer Corkin, “Meet The Burtons – The Celebrity Legacy of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton,” Semantic Scholar (blog), 10. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/f464/c6b0e106478fdfea03f2648479338fd8719c.pdf
  11. Jennifer Corkin, “Meet The Burtons – The Celebrity Legacy of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton,” Semantic Scholar (blog), 10. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/f464/c6b0e106478fdfea03f2648479338fd8719c.pdf
  12. Ellis Cashmore, Elizabeth Taylor: A Private Life for Public Consumption (Bloomsbury Publishing, USA, 2016), 150.
  13. Alex Ben Block and Lucy Autrey Wilson, George Lucas’s Blockbusting: A Decade-by-Decade Survey of Timeless Movies Including Untold Secrets of Their Financial and Cultural Success (New York: itBooks. 2010), 982.
  14. Ellis Cashmore, Elizabeth Taylor: A Private Life for Public Consumption (Bloomsbury Publishing, USA, 2016), 151.
  15. Oscars.org | Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. “The 36th Academy Awards | 1964.” Accessed February 8, 2020.
  16. David Kamp, “When Liz Met Dick: The Making of Cleopatra,” Vanity Fair online, Accessed February 24, 2020. https://www.vanityfair.com/news/1998/03/elizabeth-taylor-199803.

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17 Responses

  1. When I saw who this article was about I had to read it! Elizabeth Taylor was one of my favorite actresses for a while and in my theatre class we read many of the scripts of the movies that she was in. It is very crazy how many times she remarried, and even more crazy how much she had to try and hide it. I think that the Vatican questioning her motherhood was uncalled for. What she did in her life is her deal, not the rest of the world’s.

  2. This girl’s life is chaotic. I was interested in reading this article because I recognized the picture. I did not realize how much chaos went into the production of this film. Crazy! The movies turned out really well. I just cannot get over all of the drama in her life! How does one get banned from the Vatican? The affair must have been good enough to convince a lot of people to watch the movie with everything else happening! Good job!

  3. This article was very informative on the life of Elizabeth Taylor. The production behind the movie Cleopatra was so scandalous and I had no idea. Due to Burton and Elizabeth’s affair, the public became interested in celebrity life. Who would’ve thought that the reason the movie made such a hit was because the public wanted to see how Elizabeth and Burton’s chemistry was.

  4. I had no idea who Elizabeth Taylor was before this article and I can tell you, based off this article her life was so chaotic. The labels she had and simply her reputation didn’t draw her opportunities away they all wanted her especially after the film Cleopatra. Out of all honesty, Elizabeth and Burton’s affair they saved the production leaving the audience wanting more.

  5. This article gave good insight to the life of Elizabeth Taylor through just a single point in her life. The production of Cleopatra was chaotic and dramatic just as it paralleled the personal life of Taylor herself. It is interesting to read of the connection made between the scandalous affair and how that contributed to the revenue of the movie itself. The writing was clear and did not offer too much unnecessary information.

  6. This is such a well written engaging article. Very captivating and informative. I had heard of Elizabeth Taylor being such a dramatic women, however had no idea her life was filled with scandal. The interesting part was even though her life was filled with scandal she was still the highest paid actress of her time. Also, the theme of scandal helping the production and advertisement of a film is still current today. Job well done! Enjoyed it!

  7. It is weird to know that big men with big cameras weren’t following these big stars everywhere they went. The media has changed drastically. They had a choice, something that these stars don’t have now. This article really shows the power of the people and how they can save not just a film, but a company, from completely crumbling just because they were interested in someone else’s love life. Elizabeth Taylor was such a scandalous actress, and I like how she was bold enough to not care if the affair became public. The film was a disaster in the making, but it worked out in the end.

  8. I had never heard about this scandal before reading this article, and I have to say it is quite interesting. I also was surprised to read that there was no concept back then of regular people stalking and prolifically following the every move and action of celebrities. Without a doubt this had to be an incredibly stressful time for just about anyone involved with the movie but it must have definitely been the most stressful for Elizabeth Taylor.

  9. This article was a great source of information on Elizabeth Taylor and how this one movie revolutionized public interest in celebrity life. I didn’t know this production of Cleopatra was so scandalous and dramatic, but this article showed how important this one movie was to the entire company. I think it is interesting that public interest in Elizabeth Taylor’s private affair with a co-star may have saved the movie as well as the production company.

  10. Elizabeth Taylor was an intriguing woman actress with whom some did not want to work because of her demands. Though most of her movies did well, her personal life diverted the attention. At times her attitude towards Bette Davis and Joan Crawford became box office poison. This article was good, something different because not many really know her history with Cleopatra, even if they have heard of some of her movies and her perfume.

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