Saturday, January 3, 2015

Failed Oscar Campaigns: "Cleopatra" (1963)

As awards seasons pick up, so do the campaigns to make your film have the best chances at the Best Picture race. However, like a drunken stupor, sometimes these efforts come off as trying too hard and leave behind a trailer of ridiculous flamboyance. Join me on every other Saturday for a highlight of the failed campaigns that make this season as much about prestige as it does about train wrecks. Come for the Harvey Weinstein comments and stay for the history. It's going to be a fun time as I explore cinema's rich history of attempting to matter.

The Movie

Cleopatra (1963)
Directed By: Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Rouben Mamoulian, Darryl F. Zannuck
Written By: Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Ranald MacDougal, Sidney Buchman, Plutarch (Histories), Suetonius (Histories), Appian (Histories), Carlo Mario Franzero (book - "The Life and Times of Cleopatra)
Starring: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Rex Harrison
Genre: Biography, Drama, History
Running Time: 192 minutes
Summary: Historical epic. The triumphs and tragedy of the Egyptian queen, Cleopatra.

The History

Cleopatra is a film that lives forever in infamy. For starters, it was a film that started as a "modest" production with a budget of $2 million. With a whole slew of production problems and star Elizabeth Taylor becoming ill, the budget quickly ballooned to $44 million, or $297 million when adjusted for inflation (numbers representative of 2007). It almost bankrupted Twentieth Century Fox (which survived long enough to recoup their losses with the highly successful The Sound of Music in 1965) and is accused of ending the phenomenon of swords and sandals epics that were popular at the time, notably including Best Picture winner Ben-Hur

The production is riddled with problems that is evident by the amount of talent involved in the production. To go through it all would be a phenomenal tangent. However, the best starting point is to observe the claim from Joseph L. Mankiewicz that Cleopatra was the toughest THREE films pictures he ever made. If you're getting tripped up on the numerical value in that statement, you'd be right to. With consent from producer Darryl F. Zannuck, Mankiewicz set out to make two films spanning three hours called Caesar and Cleopatra and Antony and Cleopatra. The final product ended up being one conjoined four hour film.

Having earned good will Best Picture winner All About Eve, Mankiewicz started in 1960 on the project. What started off as modest quickly ballooned into something bizarre. Of course, it wasn't uncommon for blockbusters to have occasional problems. As revered as Gone with the Wind was at its time, it also had a consistent rotation of problems. Still, the film had notorious problems with its star Taylor, who was coming off of Suddenly Last Summer. For starters, it was where she met her notorious lover Richard Burton, whom she collaborated with 11 times. It even got so bad that Rex Harrison was willing to sacrifice his salary to continue production. 

But why cut up the film in half? It was a studio note that was clearly thinking with their pockets. Taylor was at the peak of her popularity and the studio believed that the first film, Caesar and Cleopatra, wouldn't do too well simply because Taylor didn't appear in the film. As a result, the studio insisted on editing it down to one. A lot of coverage needed to be filmed in order to make sense of the edits from six hours to the final four. There have been reports that Taylor didn't like the cut and supposedly vomited upon first seeing it.

The film was the most expensive production of its time. Despite being the highest grossing film of 1963, it was also considered a bomb. It finally recouped its losses in 1973 at which point the studio decided to keep any additional income secret to avoid paying those who invested it the film. Still, the film's reputation survives to this day as one of the most iconic Hollywood bombs. Sure, there have been a few other noteworthy ones since (Heaven's Gate being also important), but it remains the one that altered the studio system in unfathomable ways.

The Campaign

If the film's financial notoriety wasn't enough, the film also suffered from a clerical error. With the studio almost bankrupt and rushing rewrites, there wasn't much of a push for the film to receive a big elaborate campaign. Still, among the more noteworthy acclaims was Roddy McDowall as Caesar Agustus. When it came to compiling materials for the film, Twentieth Century Fox labeled him as a leading actor. He was actually in a supporting role: a category which many predicted for him to be a front runner in. 

When asked to fix this, The Academy refused with the claims that the ballots were already at the printers. No matter how much they pleaded, nothing could change the fate. He was omitted from a nomination as a result. It got so bad that Twentieth Century Fox eventually released an open letter in the trade papers stating that "We feel that it is important that the industry realize that your electric performance as Octavian in Cleopatra, which was unanimously singled out by the critics as one of the best supporting performances by an actor this year, is not eligible for an Academy Award nomination in that category . . . due to a regrettable error on the part of 20th Century-Fox."

To add insult to injury, MacDowall was overshadowed by co-star Rex Harrison. While the film managed to earn a heap of nominations, Harrison was the only actor to receive a nomination. It was in Best Actor. Tragically, MacDowall would never earn an Oscar nomination for the remainder of his career. What should have seemed like a lock (he won the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor) was now for naught, going to Melvyn Douglas for Hud

The Payoff

To call Cleopatra entirely a Failed Oscar Campaign is to improperly judge. Yes, the film wasn't the triumphant title it should have been. Mankiewicz's status was high after All About Eve and should have made this into a knock-out. While many would debate the actual merits of Cleopatra, it was a film that had a reputation that didn't match its success at the time. Yes, it was a disaster on set, but it was the highest grossing film of 1963. It also managed to receive nine Oscar nominations including Best Picture. This is pretty good for a "bomb."

As a whole, the film won four Oscars including Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design (Taylor had a record 65 costume changes. This was a record held until 1996 with Madonna in Evita) and Best Visual Effects. True, these awards aren't indicative of its actual quality and more of its technical prowess. However, it still was evident that even if the film was doomed to a bad reputation, it at least had some merit.

It wasn't enough to beat the Best Picture winner however. Tom Jones won largely thanks to its fourth wall breaking structure that mixed historical drama with stylized genre tropes and a renegade sensibility. It was a film full of personality that was more than half the length of Cleopatra. Still, it was a film that was both suggesting the death of the epic while also arguing against it. 

True, the popularity of the historical epics at the Academy Awards wouldn't return until the 80's, but it is doubtful that Cleopatra is a film entirely warranting of its reputation. Is it sloppy? Yes. However, its production is more problematic than its actual content. It is a miracle that the film could be salvaged after the dumb editing down (a move that also hurt The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby in 2014). This may not be one of the more traditional Failed Oscar Campaign pieces, but then again this isn't a conventional film. 

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