Sunday, June 20, 2010

A Tale of Four Cleos

Word out of Hollywood is actress Angelina Jolie will play Cleopatra in the biopic based on the best selling book Queen of the Nile, Cleopatra: A Life (Little, Brown). Will fourth time be the charm for Cleopatra?

While the first Cleopatra of note was silent film star Theda Bara in 1917, Claudette Colbert really put the exotic Queen on the map in Cecil B. Demille's 1934 production. The film is pure Demille filled with campy, over the top sets and lavish costumes. Although widely panned by critics, the film was nominated for Best Picture.

The sets tried to depict the period of the times but also reflected the art deco trends of the decade as well.

Production sketch for Cleopatra 

Perhaps the most controversial Cleo of all was the 1963 mega-production starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Considered one of the most expensive films of its time, the film was also known for its romantic pairing of two celestial stars of all time, Taylor and Burton. The backstory of the filming was more entertaining than the actual movie itself, with a production plagued by affairs, illness (Taylor had an emergency tracheotomy for starters), bad weather, cast replacements, financial problems, moving entire sets from London to Rome and lawsuits etc. The film's 42 million dollar budget nearly sank Twentieth Century Fox (chronicled in a fascinating documentary "Cleopatra: The Film that Changed Hollywood"). 

The legendary production designer/renaissance painter, illustrator and set designer John De Cuir Sr. (coined Hollywood's Da Vinci) built the spectacular sets of Alexandria and the number of costumes hit a record 26,000. Seventy sets were built on such a vast scope (such as the Sphinx below) that it was rumored to cause a lumber shortage in Italy. for The dress above for Ms. Taylor was reported to be made of 24 carat gold cloth. Andy Warhol considered the film to be one of the most influential in design -- even trendy sixties stylist Vidal Sassoon designed a tribute hairstyle.

One of the many incredible works of art/production sketches by John De Cuir Sr. 

And for more on the Burton-Taylor saga, check out this month's Vanity Fair with Liz on the cover.

Wonder who will play Marc Antony to Angelina's Cleo? I guess Brad Pitt is too obvious a choice.

Photo Credits: Top, Design by Oliver Messel for Cleopatra's head-dress in the film of Caesar and Cleopatra
Watercolour on paper, Victoria and Albert Museum, John De Cuir Jr., Twentieth Century Fox, Paramount Pictures.