Friday, August 16, 2013

Cleopatra: 50 years later

There can be no doubt that 1963 was a year for significant movies. Frederico Fellini's 8 1/2 was a tour de force artistic achievement now beloved by film fans and critics, Dr. No began the James Bond film franchise that has since enjoyed an excellent 50 years, and Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds became an instant classic thriller. Big budget epics were also popular that year but by far the biggest, and the highest grossing, was Cleopatra, now probably best remembered as the film that nearly ruined 20th Century Fox. Much of the film's infamy also stems from Elizabeth Taylor's million-dollar salary, the first in Hollywood. Blaming Taylor
Movie Poster for Giant
Source: Wikipedia
was unfair, the film was over budget because of its size, not its star. However, Taylor's salary and the production of this film were milestones. They marked the beginning of the end for the epic as a movie genre and the rise of "star power" in Hollywood.

Elizabeth Taylor began her career under the old studio system where "movie moguls," the producers and studio owners, controlled the movie business in every aspect. Actors, even major celebrities like Clark Gable and Myrna Loy, were completely at the mercy of the studios that owned their contracts. These contracts limited the choices actors could make, and the salaries they could command. At age 15, Elizabeth Taylor realized that for her at least, things could be different. After publicly reprimanding Louis B. Meyer for verbally abusing her mother, Taylor stormed out of his office. While a lesser star would have been fired for standing up to a producer, Taylor suffered no recriminations. In an interview with Johnny Carson many years later, Taylor remarked that it was at that moment she realized "Elizabeth Taylor the commodity" was a source of strength. She realized that movie moguls could not act with impunity if a star's marketability was powerful enough.

By 1963, Elizabeth Taylor was a screen icon, with success in critically and popularly acclaimed films. She had worked alongside legendary actors including James Dean, Marlon Brando, Rock Hudson, and Paul Newman. She had attained the stature necessary to command a record-breaking salary. More actors would follow Elizabeth Taylor's lead; now, a million-dollar salary seems like only a modest fee for a star.