This week the 50th Anniversary of CLEOPATRA (1963) is being celebrated at the Cannes Film Festival where a digitally restored print of the film is making its debut. This will be followed by a limited theatrical release and a new lavish double-disc Blu-ray set that’s arriving in stores on May 28th. The film has been marred in controversy since it went into production and reviews and articles about CLEOPATRA tend to focus on the scandal that rocked Hollywood after Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton began their very public affair on the opulent sets of this big-budget historical epic. Instead of treading down that tired old path I thought I’d take a different approach and share some thoughts about why I enjoy the film and how it helped make Elizabeth Taylor one of the most influential style icons of the ‘60s.

Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s CLEOPATRA has often been criticized for being a slow-paced bloated bore that’s too talkie and much too long. I can’t completely disagree with all those criticisms but I enjoy the movie as pure spectacle and as a pop culture milestone it absolutely delivers. The sets are stunning and expansive, which gives the story of the Egyptian Queen some much-needed depth and scope. And Cleopatra’s entrance into Rome always leaves me breathless and is as spectacular as anything Cecil B. DeMille ever imagined. As for the performances, Rex Harrison and Roddy McDowell are typically hailed as the few bright spots in the film and they’re both very good as Julius Caesar and Octavian but the only reason I keep returning to CLEOPATRA over and over again is to watch Elizabeth Taylor chew up the scenery. Strip CLEOPATRA of Taylor’s domineering presence and you remove the imperious heart and decadent soul of the film. Taylor and her countless costume changes are what keep this 4-hour cinematic opus afloat.

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Elizabeth Taylor was 30 years old when she agreed to star in CLEOPATRA for the record-breaking sum of one million dollars. No actor had ever been offered that much money to appear in a film but Elizabeth Taylor wasn’t just any actor. At the time she was making headlines around the world following her recent marriage to Eddie Fisher and the press was having a field day slut-shaming the actress for her perceived role in the breakup up of Fisher’s previous marriage to America’s sweetheart, Debbie Reynolds. Studio executives at MGM attempted to profit from the public’s fascination with Taylor’s exploits by insisting that she star in BUTTERFIELD 8 playing a prostitute and 20th Century Fox undoubtedly hoped for a similar media frenzy when they offered her the starring role in CLEOPATRA. But Taylor surprised everyone when she demanded a one million dollar salary and 20th Century Fox agreed. Numbers are extremely important in Hollywood and in 1963 that number was staggering. Taylor’s unprecedented paycheck came at a time when women in America were lobbying to get the same pay and benefits as their male coworkers. Today it seems significant that the Equal Pay Act, which required employers to offer women and men equal pay for equal work, was signed into law by John F. Kennedy the same week that CLEOPATRA opened in theaters across the US. Sisters were eager to start doing it for themselves and the royal figure of Cleopatra was a powerful symbol of feminine strength and independence that indirectly helped usher in a new era. Conscious of it or not, Elizabeth Taylor was part of that sea change.

The most observable example of the impact CLEOPATRA had on popular culture was in the way the film transformed women’s fashion. Women may have worn kaftans, wigs, hairpieces and liquid eyeliner before 1963 but after CLEOPATRA these ‘60s fashion staples were everywhere. Here’s a quick rundown of some of the people who were responsible for Cleopatra’s decade changing look.

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Top: Elizabeth Taylor designing the makeup she wore in CLEOPATRA
Bottom: Taylor reapplying her makeup during shooting.

Elizabeth TaylorTaylor had always enjoyed doing her own make-up and the actress single-handedly designed her extravagant eye makeup for CLEOPATRA, which gave the Egyptian Queen an instantly recognizable appearance. Elizabeth Taylor continued to wear muted catlike eyeliner that accentuated the dramatic curve of her famous violet eyes off the set and women everywhere quickly followed suit. During 1962 and 1963 countless magazines published eye makeup how-to articles detailing how you could achieve Taylor’s distinct look and it was mimicked and modified by top makeup artists and models throughout the ‘60s.

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Some of the wigs Sydney Guilaroff designed for CLEOPATRA

Sydney Guilaroff: Cleopatra’s multiple wigs and hairpieces were created by Sydney Guilaroff, the legendary Hollywood hairstylist who had previously given Louise Brooks her famous bob, made Lucille Ball a redhead and styled Grace Kelly’s hair for her wedding to the Prince of Monaco in 1956. Guilaroff’s impressive array of wig designs for CLEOPATRA guaranteed his reputation as a taste-maker throughout the ’60. Big cascading curls, thick blunt bangs, and long bobs became commonplace and wigs and hairpieces became essential fashion accessories. It’s hard to imagine a woman’s closet without a wig box or two after 1963 and that’s partially due to Sydney Guilaroff ‘s creative influence.

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Top: An early photo of Renié with her sketchbook and Irene Sharaff dressing Taylor
Middle: A few examples of the many costumes that were designed for CLEOPATRA.
Bottom: Original costume sketches.

Oliver Messel, Renié, and Irene Sharaff: The budget for Elizabeth Taylor’s costumes in CLEOPATRA was nearly $200,000, which broke all previous records. Naturally, many of Hollywood’s best costume designers were eager to manage the project and Oliver Messel, who had designed magnificent costumes for Vivien Leigh in CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA (1945) and previously worked with Elizabeth Taylor on SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER (1959), was originally hired to create Taylor’s wardrobe. When Taylor’s health problems slowed down the production, Messel was replaced by Irene Sharaff but many of Messel’s heavily altered designs still found their way into the film. The creative two-women team of Renié (aka Renié Conley) and Irene Sharaff created 65 different costumes for CLEOPATRA, which was another record-breaking number in a film that contained many. Taylor’s dazzling wardrobe consisted of luxurious flowing fabrics in bold, bright hues and adorned with gold trim, rich embroidery and jewels. And the magnificent gold costume Taylor wore as Cleopatra made her grand entrance into Rome was allegedly made from 24-carat-gold cloth. Renié and Irene Sharaff received an Academy Award for the work on the film and they inspired fashion designers around the world. Emilio Pucci and Oscar de la Renta are just two of the fashion-forward designers who were influenced by CLEOPATRA but the film’s impact on the fashion world reverberated throughout the ‘60s. Here’s a paragraph from a Feb. 1962 issue of Life Magazine that detailed the rise of the “Cleopatra Look”:

“The stunning look of the vamp from the ancient Nile promises to overflow all the way from the source of the Seine to the mouth of the Mississippi. Inspired by a pair of historic charmers – Cleopatra and Elizabeth Taylor – the Cleopatra look has already shown up in the collections of top fashion designers in Paris, Italy and the US. Its wearers sport huge billowing hairdos, heavy black eye make-up, elaborate jewelry and lots of it. The dresses they wear reflect early Egyptian drapery and form. Guaranteed to stop traffic in chic supper clubs or crowded super markets.”

The last sentence of Life Magazine’s piece is the key to the widespread popularity of the “Cleopatra look.” At the time fashion magazines were increasingly appealing to a younger audience that was interested in tighter fitting clothes and rising hemlines. At age 30 Elizabeth Taylor was already considered middle-aged and matronly. After all, the ‘60s was a decade that brought us catchphrases like, “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” But there were plenty of groovy fashion conscious women over 30 who still wanted to look good while they were hosting cocktail parties and shoving shopping carts down the aisle of their local supermarket. The “Cleopatra look,” which encouraged comfortable loose fitting long dresses and kaftans along with big hair and lots of eyeliner, was attainable by just about anyone no matter what their waist size was.

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Although it’s easy to assume that the appeal of CLEOPATRA was all about fashion and the media frenzy surrounding the production, a large part of the film’s allure was due to Elizabeth Taylor herself. Women admired the tenacity Taylor displayed when she lost her husband Mike Todd and their admiration grew for the actress after she nearly died while filming CLEOPATRA but returned to the set with a visible tracheotomy scar. Taylor’s bravery in the face of tragedy and lifesaving surgery was admirable. I also suspect that some of the adoration for Taylor was the result of a backlash against the media that was trying desperately to paint Taylor as a wanton woman and a villain who preyed on other women’s husbands. Many women admired Taylor for having the audacity to follow her passions and run freely into Richard Burton’s arms without giving a damn that the Vatican was calling her an “erotic vagrant.” Taylor’s actions, as well as her body, were always under incredible scrutiny.

Every pound she gained or lost was reported as if it was newsworthy and this obsession the media had with trying to manipulate and subjugate Taylor’s image must have rattled plenty of women’s nerves, particularly when they were suffering similar scrutiny at home. And her apparent financial independence and unscrupulous sexual appetite was a challenge to the preconceived ideas about women’s worth and appropriate feminine behavior. She seemed unafraid and boldly asked the men in her life for the world and she occasionally got it handed to her on a diamond encrusted platter. Elizabeth Taylor had become Hollywood royalty despite many challenges and like Cleopatra, she demanded royal treatment.

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Examples of some Cleopatra inspired beauty products that were marketed at women in 1963

In my own experience, I have yet to meet a woman over the age of 40 who doesn’t admire Elizabeth Taylor in some capacity. Men, on the other hand, don’t seem to find her quite as appealing. Frankly, I think she scares the hell out of a lot of men and they typically attack her acting abilities, waist size or what they assume was the ball-busting control she had over the men in her life. Don’t believe me? Just browse the reviews of CLEOPATRA on IMDB or other film message boards and you’ll notice a distinct gender bias. Women commentators are much more forgiving of the film’s flaws while a lot of men seem much more eager to attack the film’s female star. Whether they’re aware of it or not, their behavior seems to go hand-in-hand with the way we tend to respond to aggressive women vs. aggressive men. When an actor follows his heart or his loins he’s given a slap on the back and a cigar. When an actress does the same she’s immediately labeled a whore and a home wrecker. And men are also allowed to age much more gracefully than women who have their looks relentlessly scrutinized by the media. When I watch CLEOPATRA today and think about the flurry that surrounded the production as well as the after effects, it plays like a film that encapsulates the early ‘60s. It’s also a solemn reminder of how far women have come and how far we still need to go. All hail Cleopatra! Queen of the Nile and queen of ‘60s style.

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by Kimberly Lindbergs

Originally written for Turner Classic Movies/Movie Morlocks blog