My Life With Cleopatra: The Making of a Hollywood Classic by Walter Wanger and Joe Hyams



An Oxfam find. I think I first read this forty years ago or so. This editions was re-published to coincide with the 50th anniversary blu-ray release in 2013. It’s a book that’s useful for many reasons, the first being that it’s a producer’s account so one’s allowed in from the very first stages of planning, casting decisions (Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, Burt Lancaster, Joan Collins, Noel Coward — all were discussed seriously), the hiring of key personnel and the production planning. We get to see why it was decided to film in the UK (the Edy plan) and Egypt (free use of military as extras) and why the eventual move to Rome and Cinecittà. We eventually understand why Rouben Mamoulian was hired and why he was eventually replaced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. There are lots of pages about getting Sidney Guilaroff to do Taylor’s hair, how the British unions were against this, and the bribes involved to get them to aquiesce. Taylor comes across as supremely sane, intelligent, and helpful. Wanger, married to Joan Bennet for many years, and a distinguished independent producer since the thirties knew how to deal with stars, what to expect, how to make things comfortable. It’s the other producers who come off badly here, power-hungry, indecisive, incompetent. In a line that’s become a commonplace recently, ‘I don’t care what the facts and figures say, just make it happen’. Well something did happen: the most expensive film ever to that time. We get a complete budget breakdown of the final version, and we’re also told — that contrary to its legend — the film went into profit in 1966 with its $5 million dollar sale to ABC. According to Kenneth Turan in the afterword, ‘Cleopatra became one of the highest grossing films of 1963, ended up playing in New York for sixty three weeks, and went into profit in 1966′ (p.224) .

Turan writes, ‘On one level the limited success Cleopatra achieved in the face of ungodly obstacles can be seen as a triumph of the system, the victory of industry worker bees over snarky gossipistas. But from another point of view the lesson of this film fifty years down the road is how little remembered that triumph is and the recognition of how often perception becomes reality in this town ‘(224-225).

An entertaining and useful read.

José Arroyo

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