The sexualization of Cleopatra in Joseph Mankiewicz’s 1963 screen epic does scant justice to Cleopatra’s political stature and acumen, argues Isabella Jurcisin (’20)
The film opens with Julius Caesar, played by the esteemed Rex Harrison, looking down upon the lifeless bodies of soldiers after the bloody Battle of Pharsalus. This battle had been an excellent victory as Caesar had just defeated Pompey the Great. Pompey escapes to Egypt where he will try to find new resources in the hands of Cleopatra VII and her brother Pharaoh Ptolemy XIII. Therefore, Caesar decides to make his way to Alexandria leaving Marc Antony, his closest friend, in charge of Rome as he travels to protect Rome’s wheat. As Caesar reaches the port of Alexandria the audience is given a birds eye view of the majestic blue of the ocean and the busy markets down below. As Caesar arrives, young Ptolemy his waiting for him along with his advisors hoping that Caesar and his men will make fools of themselves by being brutal towards the Egyptians within the marketplace. Caesar, being a savvy leader, realizes this and tells his right-hand man Rufio, played by Martin Landau, that he will make his way through the market to the Egyptian Pharaoh by buying things. As Caesar arrives to meet young Ptolemy, played by Richard O’Sullivan, we see he is being managed by his regent, Pothinus, and other members of the Egyptian Court. The Egyptian Court consists of Theodotus, his tutor, and Achillas, the head of his armies. The members of the court glisten in gold clothing, exuding wealth. When Caesar asks of Cleopatra’s whereabouts, Ptolemy responds that she is dead as a consequence of trying to murder him. Pothinus clarifies the situation by stating that though Cleopatra had tried to kill Ptolemy she was not dead and had fled the city. Caesar responds that he has come to Egypt to resolve the civil war that has been created due to animosity between the siblings, as Rome was named their guardian after their father had died. Ptolemy, hoping to gain Caesar’s favor, presents him with the ring and head of Pompey. Caesar is visibly disturbed but hides it as he knows the Egyptian court is watching. Caesar states he will stay in the palace and asks Rufio to give Pompey proper burial rites.
Caesar makes himself at home in the palace and as he is preparing Rome’s military in case they are attacked, Flavius (George Cole) also Caesar’s dedicated servant, notifies Caesar that a rug merchant has arrived with a gift from Cleopatra. Caesar tells his fellow officers to leave him and Apollodorus, played by Cesare Danova and Cleopatra’s devoted servant, strides in with a large rolled carpet. As Apollodorus gently puts down the carpet on the floor out rolls Cleopatra. Cleopatra, played by the beautiful Elizabeth Taylor, immediately discusses with Caesar of how he must make her sole ruler. Caesar and Cleopatra begin loudly arguing over Cleopatra’s position and through this scene we see sparks flying as mutual attraction grows between them. Cleopatra acknowledges with severity in her voice that she knows that Caesar was disturbed by the decapitation of Pompey. Caesar recollects with sadness in his voice that Pompey’s ring was a gift from his wife, Caesar’s daughter Julia. Cleopatra leaves with more knowledge of the infamous Caesar. Suspiciously, Cleopatra spies on Caesar through a work of art and hears him describing infamous stories of Cleopatra’s personality and sexual endeavors. After Caesar’s advisors leave, she sees Caesar have a seizure and is visibly shaken. Cleopatra later asks her tutor, Sosigenes, about the seizures and what the illness entails. Cleopatra begins to have romantic feelings for the esteemed leader and knowing he is coming to see her, ensures he sees her bathing completely naked with only a thin blanket covering her. During this meeting Cleopatra notifies Caesar that her brother’s army will outnumber him soon and surround the palace. Visibly flustered by Cleopatra’s beauty and strong personality, Caesar heeds her advice and begins to burn the Egyptian fleet. Unfortunately, the fire spreads to nearby buildings including the historical Library of Alexandria. Cleopatra, a known intellect, is furious by this and confronts Caesar. They begin a ferocious battle with words, with Cleopatra calling Caesar a barbarian, and Caesar silencing her with a passionate kiss. Caesar leaves and defeats the Egyptians fleet.
The next day, Cleopatra is almost poisoned by a servant and in retaliation, forces the servant to drink the poison. Later, Caesar hosts a trial and Pothinus is sentenced to death and Ptolemy and Theodotus are sent to join the army, a path that will most likely end in death. After this, Cleopatra tries to speak to Caesar but he is visibly ill and asks her to leave. Cleopatra, having spied on him before knows he is about to have a seizure. She saves him and they share a moment of intimacy with Caesar expressing his fears and Cleopatra comforting him. Later, Cleopatra is crowned sole ruler of Egypt and even Caesar bows before her which brings discomfort to his fellow Romans. Cleopatra then shows Caesar Egypt and all its glories. In the next scene, Cleopatra discusses with Caesar her desire for them to work together in order to fulfill the goals of Alexander the Great. After this, they are seen in bed where Cleopatra talks of how she is a real woman who can give Caesar a son, unlike his current wife who is barren, and they make love. When Caesar learns that Cleopatra is pregnant he is overjoyed; this contrasts the response of the Roman Senate who are weary when hearing that Cleopatra and Caesar are having a child and have married. Mark Antony, played by Richard Burton, is seen trying to quench the fears of Caesar’s wife Calpurnia as she hears of the romance between Caesar and Cleopatra. As Cleopatra is about to give birth she commands her servant to lay her son at Caesar’s feet in front of his advisors after he is born hoping that Caesar will acknowledge him publicly. Caesar does just this and the Romans see the vision Caesar has for the future of Rome through his son Caesarion. After this, we see the Roman senate discussing the birth of the child with Brutus announcing he is happy for Caesar and Octavian, played by Roddy McDowall, purposefully keeping his thoughts quiet. Caesar leaves Egypt and three years pass until Caesar is finally named “dictator for life” and asks Cleopatra to join him in Rome.
Cleopatra arrives in Rome with a show of dancers, gold, and soldiers in front of her. She and her son Caesarion are on a throne atop a massive sphinx emulating wealth and royalty. Cleopatra is seen wearing gold from her headpiece to her shoes, showing Rome just how powerful she is. The crowds welcome this wealth with screams and shouts of appreciation. Caesar comments on the stature of his son while Marc Antony has his eyes glued to the beautiful queen. The Roman Senate begrudgingly rise for her arrival and Cleopatra and her son bow before Caesar. As Cleopatra resides in Rome, Caesar spends time with his son and also hopes to be made emperor. The senate disapproves of this, begins to see Caesar as a radical tyrant, and comes to the conclusion that they must kill him. As Caesar is notified they have made a decision on his title he leaves Cleopatra who is left with the notion she might never see him again. Caesar arrives at the meeting and is brutally stabbed. After this, Cleopatra and Caesarion escape Rome with the help of Marc Antony who states that this will not be the last time they will see each other.
In the second part of the film Marc Antony is seen leading a successful war against those who killed Julius Caesar. As Antony is cheered by his fellow Romans, a sickly Octavian, hears the news of his rival’s victory. Antony comes to Octavian and they decide to divide conquered lands amongst prominent Roman leaders. This agreement leads to Octavian having control of Italy and Antony control of the East. Atony then comes up with a plan to move against Parthia; unfortunately, Rufio reminds him they are running low on supplies and money. Rufio hints at Antony at who could be the solution to their problem: Cleopatra. Antony is angered by this but begrudgingly agrees to meet her, so he has Rufio summon her. Yet, Cleopatra states she will only meet him on Egyptian soil. Later, Antony meets her on the most decadent of ships and they discuss finances while it is extremely obvious Antony yearns for Cleopatra romantically. Antony is constantly seen looking at the golden necklace of coins with Caesar’s face on them that Cleopatra adorns around her neck. This makes Atony extremely jealous, however through a passionate conversation they later have sex. As these two lovers fall more deeply in love, Octavian has taken up the legacy of Caesar and is threatening companions of Antony. Therefore, Antony is forced to leave Egypt and Cleopatra and return to Rome. In order to divide Cleopatra and Antony, Octavian offers his sister as wife to Antony. In order to portray the image of a “true Roman” Antony is forced to accept, however, when Cleopatra hears of this she is infuriated. Later, Antony arrives in Egypt and is forced to kneel before her in public. Cleopatra demands that with a new treaty Rome must give Egypt a third of their conquered lands. After this, they speak privately and Cleopatra demands that Antony marry her and abandon his wife. Antony agrees to this union and Octavian uses this and Antony’s will which states he be buried in Alexandria to turn the Roman Senate against Antony. To the Roman senate this is a clear rejection of his Roman roots and with Octavian as their leader they go to war. Antony’s rejection of his Roman roots is again seen when he dismisses his officers and takes his soldiers to fight over sea instead of land which they are used to fighting on. As Antony sails farther away from Cleopatra we can see him make his way to the ship with Octavian’s insignia on it. Unfortunately, he is trapped between enemy ships and due to the fire that blazes the ships Cleopatra is told he is dead. All Antony sees is Cleopatra sailing away from him and he is visibly hurt fortunately, by jumping onto a nearby boat he is able to make his way back to Cleopatra’s ship.
After Cleopatra abandons Antony nothing is quite the same between them as Antony harbors animosity towards Cleopatra for forcing him to abandon his men. Octavian sends a delegation to Egypt asking Cleopatra to send the head of Marc Antony in return for peace between Rome and Egypt. Yet, Cleopatra states she will not give Marc Antony over to Octavian. Marc Antony overhears this, yet, still states that he is dead inside to which Cleopatra slaps him repeatedly across the face. Marc Antony enraged slaps her back with such force she falls to the ground. Cleopatra is able to reach him when she states how much she loves him. The next scene, is Antony and Rufio getting ready for battle. We see Octavian tell his advisor that he will take Antony and Cleopatra alive. Unfortunately, due to lack of resources Antony’s men abandon him and he rides back to Cleopatra. Sadly, he believes that Cleopatra has abandoned him again and he falls on his sword believing he has no other choice. Antony is taken to where Cleopatra is hiding and dies in the arms of the love of his life. Octavian is made aware that Antony is dead and is ecstatic. He then searches for Cleopatra, curious to see this enigma of a woman, and tells her she can rule Egypt as a province of Rome as long as she accompanies him to Rome first. She sees Octavian wearing the ring of Pompey and immediately knows her son Caesarion is dead. She makes a series of empty promises to Octavian and later makes the arrangements to kill herself. She puts her hand in a basket and a poisonous snake bites her; Cleopatra dies and her final word is, “Antony”.
Cleopatra has been recreated in many forms through a list of influential films in the last few decades. In the film Cleopatra (1963) Elizabeth Taylor portrays Cleopatra as sexy, strong, and enamored by powerful men. Historically, Cleopatra was many of those things but as she was a queen she was born with great power. Many historical sources state she was not particularly beautiful, which does not align with Elizabeth Taylor’s portrayal as she is stereotypically gorgeous. Taylor as well does nothing to downplay her stereotypical beauty but instead wears eye makeup that accentuates her eyes and dresses that outline her curves. Historically, as Cleopatra was not particularly beautiful she relied on her skills of persuasion. Historian, Plutarch, alludes to this and states, “Her beauty, so we are told, was not itself outstanding; it did not immediately strike those who saw her; yet being with her had an inescapable hold; when talking with her, she was persuasive, and the character which surrounded her whole manner in company had a force to it.” This proves that there was much more to Cleopatra than just “physical appearances”. She was also a known intellect who was the first member of her family to speak the local language in order to better communicate with her citizens. (Kleiner 2009:27)
In the film, Cleopatra’s characteristics are shown through her interactions with her male counterparts. The film is divided into two parts: her relationship with Julius Caesar and later Marc Antony. Yet, in the film they forget that Cleopatra married her younger brother Ptolemy XIV, whom she brought to Rome when she stayed in Caesar’s house. In the film, this was not shown in order to fully concentrate on her relationship with Caesar. The reason Cleopatra felt the need to ally herself to these powerful men was because she felt her brothers did not have the qualities to assert themselves as rulers. The key word being “ally” she did not need them to overshadow her. One of the most prominent moments in the film, was when Caesar declared Cleopatra sole ruler of Egypt. This is historically inaccurate as Cleopatra was co-ruler with her younger brother Ptolemy XIV. In the film, this moment represents Cleopatra seeing the world and future that Caesar can help give her. Historically, however, Cleopatra was said to have poisoned her younger brother in order to become sole ruler. This proves that Cleopatra did not need a man to assist her in gaining power within her own country. (Kleiner 2009: 85)
When creating Cleopatra’s relationship with Mark Atony it seems Mankiewicz was trying to portray Cleopatra as manipulative and in multiple scenes had her constantly comparing Antony to Caesar. This is not historically accurate, as Cleopatra did not continually compare the two, yes, they were both prominent Roman men (Kleiner 2009: 104-106); but, Caesar was older and extremely dedicated to his aspirations, while, Antony was younger, enjoyed partying, and was often compared with the Greek god Dionysus: god of wine. This tension between Cleopatra was further highlighted as the film aptly left out the births of Antony and Cleopatra’s three children: Alexander Helios, Cleopatra Selene, and Ptolemy Philadelphus (Kleiner 2009: 25). Without mentioning these three children the film was able to focus more on the dramatic relationship between Antony and Cleopatra. This was a consequence of Cleopatra constantly reminding Antony of Caesarian. If the film had brought in these three children Cleopatra’s main romantic relationships would have been more comparable and on equal footing. Therefore, Cleopatra wouldn’t have had to spend the last scenes of the film trying to convince Antony to love her but to remind him that her empire was in danger (3:90). By leaving out these three children the film focalized more on Antony and his fear of being overshadowed by Caesar. Therefore, taking away from the main character: Cleopatra.
Techniques, Production, Reception
The beginning of the long convoluted story that is the production of Cleopatra began when Walter Wanger started as a producer in October 1958 at Twentieth Century Fox (Klawans 1998). When Wanger gave his idea of “Cleopatra” to the studio, they gave him a budget of between $1 million and $3 million. As they searched for a director they looked towards “big names” such as Alfred Hitchcock, who rejected the offer, and finally settled on Rouben Mamoulian. The actors hired for leading characters such as Marc Antony and Caesar were Peter Finch and Stephen Boyd. Wanger desired to have Elizabeth Taylor and refused any other actresses yet her proposed salary was much too high for the film’s budget. The studio’s executives agreed to pay Taylor $1 million. In the middle of the year 1959, the studio agreed they would save money in building the set in London instead of the Fox lot. In September 28, 1960 shooting of the film started in chilly London and still “Cleopatra” had no script. Various drafts for the script had been rejected and Wanger asked for a fourth writer. To add to the turmoil, Elizabeth had caught pneumonia and was said to have been near death, therefore, production was forced to leave London and move to Rome (Cyrino 2005: 139). These constant location changes forced the budget to rise. Taylor also pleaded with Wanger to hire Joseph Mankiewicz, as director, whom she had worked with in a previous film and who she said had earned her an Oscar nomination (KLawans 1998). Mankiewicz was an independent filmmaker and took full control of the film–script and all. He chose the book “The Life and Times of Cleopatra” by C.M. Franzero as the basis of his script (Cyrino 2005: 140). Finally, on September, 1961 the film again began shooting, to the studio’s misfortune, only 10 and ½ minutes had been filmed and $7 million had been spent (Klawans 1998). Mankiewicz hired new actors to play Caesar and Antony, these actors being, Rex Harrison and Richard Burton. Mankiewicz strayed from Wanger’s original idea and wrote Cleopatra as more of a “freudian drama”. As if this production could not have had much worse luck, during the filming of the iconic scene where Cleopatra enters Rome, the animals Mankiewicz had hired proved to be unruly and the weather was treacherous. Therefore, production had to be pushed to the spring. Yet, Mankiewicz did not cut down his sets and in the Cinecittá Studios in Rome he had the Forum reconstructed. This scene construction alone cost $1 million. Along with the extra costs of these complex sets Cleopatra’s “costumes and wigs (thirty) and jewelry (125) pieces cost more than $130,000” (Solomon 1995: 70). Another calamity to add to the list was when Taylor and Burton’s affair had been leaked. After the affair had been publicized Burton and Taylor made no effort to hide it as they were often seen in public together. As both of these actors had their own respective marriages, television host Ed Sullivan “denounced them on his show for their ‘appalling impropriety’” (Cyrino 2005: 140). On top of this, it was said that Burton tried to restore his marriage; unfortunately, this hit Taylor very hard and she was admitted into a hospital. Burton stated to publicists, “I’ve had affairs before… How was I supposed to know she was so f–king famous?” (Klawans 1998). This only led the fire to grow and in June of 1962 Wanger was fired and Fox president Spyros Skouras resigned. Fortunately, this was great publicity for the film as the public wanted to see the real-life couple on screen. The production added up to be a colossal $33 million.
The reception of the film was mixed for many applauded the acting of Rex Harrison who many felt did justice to the revered Julius Caesar. Solomon discusses the faults in the editing of the film such as the “thinness” of Elizabeth Taylor’s voice (Solomon 1995: 30). Taylor herself noticed this and asked if she could redub some scenes but because of the already costly film the studio declined. Since the film had been lengthy the studio felt forced to cut it down, therefore, removing critical scenes which Mankiewicz argued made Richard look like a bad actor for his Antony was shown as “weak.” The Hollywood Reporter applauded Elizabeth acting stating the actor’s beauty had never shined that brightly before. They also stated that Rex Harrison’s Caesar was, “crisp, humorous, and authoritative.” This position was agreed by many as Harrison won the best actor award from the National Board of Review and also received nominations from the Academy and the New York Film Critics (Solomon 1995: 71). The magazine Variety was not as kind to Taylor criticizing her for not pulling off the character of “child-queen.” They also criticized Burton for not fully delving into Antony’s “hero” persona calling Burton overweight and further stating the weakest scenes were between him and Elizabeth.
In the end, the film Cleopatra, many would say, was not worth the cost or the trouble. Twentieth Century Fox sued Taylor and Burton for all the trouble they had caused through publicity (Klawans 1998). Due to the length of the film and the terrible editing most critics ripped it apart leading to it suffering at the box office (Solomon 1995: 75). Positively, it did win four Academy Awards and the television station, ABC, showed the film twice on TV (Klawans 1998). Therefore, all the capital the studio spent did not go to waste.
Themes and Interpretation
The film Cleopatra has a list of extremely complex characters, therefore, there are a variety of themes within it. The theme of love and what it manipulate a person to do is prevalent throughout the film as both Marc Antony and Caesar leave their wives for Cleopatra. This manipulation can prove to have drastic impacts. This can be seen as Marc Antony even dissociates himself from the Romans to align with Cleopatra and goes to war against them. Another theme is jealousy and what it can make great men do, this specifically seen in relation to Marc Antony who constantly lives in the shadow of Caesar and constantly second guesses himself in relation to Cleopatra’s love for him.
The most important theme, I believe, is the idea of the “female leader” and what that entails. In this film Cleopatra is overly sexualized, constantly overshadowed by her male counterparts, and treated like a child. Cleopatra, historically, was an intelligent young woman who studied architecture and helped construct buildings in order for ordinary life to be easier for citizens (Kleiner 2009: 68). She was very strong and had gained the following of thousands. This film was weak in the way it portrayed Cleopatra. This is first seen when she starts falling in love with Caesar. In the film, when Cleopatra is aware Caesar is coming to see her she makes sure she is seen “bathing” which equates to her being naked with only a thin sheet to cover her (:34). Caesar is obviously taken aback as she is beautiful but as they fight over Ptolemy’s army the camera seems to focus on Taylor holding the sheet over her body revealing a huge proportion of her breasts. This over sexualization and the focus of the camera takes away from the importance of this scene which is how Cleopatra may lose her stability as ruler (:34). Instead, the audience is focusing on the romance that is building between Caesar and Cleopatra. In a later scene, when Cleopatra has just been notified that the Library of Alexandria is burning she runs to confront Caesar who had set the fire (:41). This action on Cleopatra’s part is noble for she is fighting for something she has invested in: literary works. Historically, she was known to speak various languages and was extremely well read. Yet, before we see her enter Caesar’s room she is seen shouting, “Take your hands off me!” (:41). She is then carried in by a guard like a scorned child. This is no way for a queen to act or be treated, specifically, one as strong and intelligent as her. They are using her to juxtapose Caesar who is revered and strong. This is disheartening for she is one of the strongest female leaders in history. Later, as they are disputing the qualities of Romans, Caesar silences Cleopatra with a kiss (:43). This kiss for Caesar and Cleopatra is sealing their partnership to work together. It is hard for me to believe that such an astute and perceptive woman such as Cleopatra couldn’t have calmly discussed her reservations with Caesar. This would have given much more to Cleopatra’s character further proving that she is not just a beautiful heated queen but a pragmatic ruler.
Female leaders, Cleopatra and Hypatia, are portrayed drastically different but still have some similarities. Cleopatra is constantly seen in tight dresses, revealing her breasts and her hourglass figure (2:33) This contrasts how mathematician and philosopher, Hypatia, is represented in the film Agora. Hypatia is seen with little to no makeup on and in loose white dresses (:26). In moments of tension she is calm and practical often with tranquil expressions when others are yelling (:27). She is quite emotional but in a deeper and less superficial way than Cleopatra who when angered cannot seem to control herself. Therefore, if one was to choose between these two as a leader, a rational person would choose Hypatia who is less driven by her emotions and more by pragmatism. It also further proves that for a “female leader” to be seen as strong and beautiful she does not have to be sexualized constantly. In comparison, however, in both films these powerful female leaders are silenced by some sort of sexual act. As mentioned before, Cleopatra was arguing with Caesar over the Library of Alexandria which later leads to Caesar alluding that Cleopatra must obey his will (:43). Caesar then silences Cleopatra with a passionate kiss. This aligns with a scene in Agora where after the Christians had laid ruin to Hypatia’s library, Hypatia is seen gathering scrolls she had saved. Out of the corridor comes her slave, Davus, who had always been in love with her and silences her by kissing her body (:56). While, in Hypatia’s case this is clear sexual assault. It further enforces the idea that “female leaders” can only be silenced by sexual acts and need to be tamed by men. Instead of having a battle of wits and intellect it instead must be something physical. Therefore, I believe the weakest part of the film Cleopatra is the constant sexualization of Cleopatra and the concentration of the strength of her male counterparts instead of focalizing on her strength and intellect.
This film as Mankiewitz wanted to make it a “Freudian drama” fits well with genre of dramatic love stories (Klawans 1998). The constant back and forth between Caesar and Cleopatra in the beginning of the film leads the audience wanting more. The film has passionate love, death, and betrayal. These qualities are imperative to dramas. As I focused on the themes of “female leaders” it is important to understand that during this time women were constantly sexualized in film, as Cleopatra was in this film. Contrasting the film to Agora, I believe, helps us see how far we have come in film and how filmmakers feel compelled to represent women.
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Mankiewicz, Joseph L., director. Cleopatra. Twentieth Century Fox, 1963.