Elizabeth Taylor put on her most stoic face as she took her seat on a gilded platform before an enormous sphinx. Her entrance into Rome, drawn by slaves during an elaborate procession, was conceived as the visual high point of Cleopatra, but the star felt terrified. “She had gotten death threats. She was scared she was going to be killed or that the extras would boo her,” says Kate Andersen, author of Elizabeth Taylor: The Grit and Glamor of an Icon.
The 6,000 Italians playing citizens of the ancient republic were supposed to cheer and shout “Cleopatra!” Instead, when they caught sight of Elizabeth — who had just been vilified by the press and the Vatican for her scandalous affair with costar Richard Burton — they screamed, “Liz! Liz!” and “baci! baci!” while blowing air kisses. “She burst into tears,” says Andersen. “It was an emotionally exhausting time for her.”
Sixty years ago, the public got its first look at Cleopatra. With a budget that swelled to $44 million — or over $300 million today — the swords and sandals epic became the most expensive movie ever made. The production burned through two directors and several lead actors. Its script had been in constant flux. One of its many elaborate sets, a fake Roman forum, cost $1.5 million to build, and was twice as large as the original. It’s no surprise that it came close to bankrupting 20th Century Fox.
The film would make Elizabeth the first actress to be paid $1 million for a project, but it came at a considerable personal cost. Plagued by respiratory illnesses on the London set, she underwent an emergency tracheotomy to save her life in 1961. The near-death experience made her rethink her marriage to Eddie Fisher. “It was only a matter of time for us. The clock was ticking,” she said.
After a months-long pause to allow Elizabeth to recover, production moved to Rome with a new director and new leading man playing Mark Anthony — Richard. Elizabeth had met the Welsh star before and written him off as a pompous bore — but when he showed up on the set with a hangover, she saw his vulnerable side. “He wasn’t a snob. He was the son of a coal miner and a self-made man,” says Andersen. “To Elizabeth, that was sexy and attractive.”
Chaos erupted when news of the married costars’ affair got out. Photographers posed as extras to spy on the lovers. Richard waffled about leaving his wife. Elizabeth missed call times to fight with Eddie. “The day I left Rome, it cost them another $100,000,” said Eddie. “Elizabeth screamed and carried on. Work stopped that day.”
Before long, Eddie flew back to Rome. Elizabeth had overdosed on prescription sedatives summoning both her husband and her lover to her hospital bed. “It wasn’t a suicide attempt,” she said. “I’m not that kind of person. I needed the rest.”
On June 12, 1963, The Tonight Show sent Bert Parks to report on the premiere of Cleopatra live in New York, but Elizabeth and Richard were conspicuously missing. “We’d just had it with Cleopatra by then,” said Elizabeth, who would marry Richard the following year. “The whole thing. It was probably the most chaotic time of my life.”