31 January 2011

Movie Adaptations: Cleopatra

By Stephanie Dray

"Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety." ~ William Shakespeare, on Cleopatra

Cleopatra is a timeless icon of femininity and feminism. She is the most famous woman in the history of the world--perhaps because she was, and remains, the most powerful woman in the history of the world. No subsequent queen or prime minister or secretary of state has ever had the geographic dominion, relative wealth, and unfettered authority that was enjoyed by Cleopatra VII of Egypt.

Yet, almost everything we know about her has been filtered through the propaganda of her enemies. The unbiased facts seem to be these: She was a woman of extraordinary charm who shared a bed with not one, but two of the most powerful men in the ancient world--Julius Caesar and Marcus Antonius. She would become mortal enemies with a third--Octavian, otherwise known as Augustus Caesar--who did more to immortalize her than either of her lovers.

She comes down to us through the ages without a face. Her coins--many of which depict her in quite severe and haggish ways--are stylized portraits, meant to impart terror rather than admiration. The few busts that we believe portray the Egyptian queen cannot be verified. There are no extant portraits nor textual descriptions of her. Because of this, artists have a blank canvass upon which they can imagine this cunning political queen in any way they like.

That is a siren's call to Hollywood.

The first cinematic portrayal of Cleopatra was in 1917. It was a silent film starring seductive actress Theda Bara who paraded on stage in a variety of costumes that would be considered risky even by today's standards. Unfortunately, not much is known about the film because even though it was popular in its day, it was deemed profane under the Hay's Code in the 1930s and subsequently destroyed. Only fragments of it exist today in a museum. However, we do have some images of Theda Bara, the so-called Serpent of the Nile, and they are oh, so pretty to look at.

In 1934, Claudette Colbert starred in a Cecil B. DeMille production about the Queen of the Nile. The production is in black and white, old-fashioned in style, but the dialog is often fun. This is an Egyptianized version of the queen, which is not necessarily entirely inaccurate, but there is little visual reference to her cultural heritage as a Macedonian Greek. I especially like the invention of Herod making trouble between Cleopatra and Antony--which is unlikely to have happened the way it plays out on screen, but hints at the genuine trouble between the two client monarchs! There's a certain jaded maturity that Claudette Colbert brings to the role, but the entire picture seems too small to incorporate such a big historical figure.

Almost thirty years later, Hollywood had another go at it, this time creating a budget-busting visual extravaganza that would give the world its most iconic images of Cleopatra in the person of violet-eyed actress, Liz Taylor. The movie is a huge, splashy melodrama that bankrupted the studio, launched careers and destroyed the marriages of its co-stars; it's the film on which Richard Burton and Liz Taylor fell in love. Their sexual chemistry burns up the screen, their personal lives echoing those of the characters. One cannot watch without feeling the tiniest bit voyeuristic, and the authenticity of their connection makes what might otherwise be a schmaltzy production into something emotionally gripping.

This is not to say that the film is all eye-candy and soap-opera. The acting is stupendous. Rex Harrison is utterly charming as Caesar. Richard Burton smolders as a brooding Antony. And Liz Taylor is a revelation as Cleopatra. She's by turns clever and naive, petty and big-hearted, grasping and generous. She's a difficult woman, but not a foolish one. There's a reason that even though she'd go on to win awards for other films, this one will probably be her most memorable role.

The costuming and set-decor is an interesting mix of Egyptian, Roman and Greek--all of this in keeping with accounts we have of Alexandria where cultural fusion was the norm. Though the film never mentions Cleopatra's children by Antony--including the heroine of my own debut novel, Cleopatra Selene--it's fairly historically accurate; viewers will learn from this film as well as be entertained. Not much better can be said for Hollywood than that!

Perhaps with an eye to how difficult it would be to top the 1963 Elizabeth Taylor version, Cleopatra has appeared primarily on the small screen ever since. The 1999 Television Mini-Series starring Billy Zane, Timothy Dalton and Leonor Varela was based on Margaret George's excellent novel. Unfortunately, the series bears little resemblance to the book. In this version, Cleopatra is a foot-stomping, whining, little brat. Alexandria is rendered similarly unimpressive. Worse, the story has many small gratuitous inaccuracies which make little sense in light of the fact that the older versions managed to get it right. But what kills the miniseries is Leonor Varela. Her acting is so atrocious that it's painful to watch. The only redeeming thing about this version is actually Billy Zane’s boyish rendition of Marcus Antonius. He's very convincing as a hedonistic Antony and brings all his considerable charms to bear. He's not hard to look at either.

Which brings us to the latest incarnation of Cleopatra: Lyndsey Marshal's version on HBO's Rome. While I can find nothing bad to say about the series as a whole, which was masterfully written, funny, absorbing and dramatic--our Egyptian queen got the short end of the stick. Here she's portrayed as a drug-addled slut who deceives Caesar about the parentage of her son. Other than Augustus' accusations against her, there's nothing in the historical record to suggest this but not every portrayal can resuscitate the queen's image. Marshal's Cleopatra is without moral scruple--in that, hers may be the closest portrayal of the historical woman.

Now Hollywood seems poised to make another attempt. Given the run-away success of Stacy Schiff's recent biography, a new movie is being planned starring Angelina Jolie. Given that she's the biggest, most scandalous star in Hollywood, the choice seems apt. Moreover, her appearance in the ill-fated movie Alexander may have costume designers eager to turn her into another ancient queen. Reportedly, this film will focus more on Cleopatra as a mother and strategist. It remains to be seen what sort of images will leave their mark in popular culture this time, but Cleophiles like me will be waiting in line to find out!

Stephanie Dray's debut historical fiction novel, LILY OF THE NILE , was just release by Berkley Books. The sequel is expected to release at the end of 2011. Both novels are set in the Augustan Age and feature Cleopatra's daughter.