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Thursday, February 17, 2011

HISTORY LESSON: Something's Got to Give and It Ain't Cleopatra

During the last gasps of the studio era, there were no bigger stars than Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor. Both talented, beautiful women and indomitable forces, these ladies were greatly valued by the studios for their box-office appeal. Their roller-coaster love lives and love/hate relationships with the tabloids also bound them together in a kind of celebrity sisterhood. Aside from this, two women never had less in common. This would become blatantly obvious during the Twentieth-Century Fox cataclysm of 1962 when the faltering studio's prayers for salvation rested on these two stars and their respective projects. While Liz drained the Nile dry in Egypt (actually Rome), Marilyn's illness infected the lot at home, and Fox could only pray that box-office receipts would recoup their almost unfathomable financial losses when Joseph L. Mankiewicz (director of Cleopatra) and George Cukor (director on Something's Got to Give) finally called "cut." This was not to be. The Fates were against the Goddesses this time, and the Moguls would pay the forfeit. In history, Liz Taylor is remembered in this debacle as the frothy shewolf who ate up Twentieth-Century for breakfast, but at the time is was Marilyn Monroe who was held up as the sacrificial lamb, publicly blamed for the collapse of yet another Hollywood empire. As in most cases, it is always the drama behind the scenes that is most riveting. Today's Movie: The Buck Stops Here. The Stars: Liz Taylor and Marilyn Monroe. Aaaaand, action!!!

Fox needed a hit. A Supreme Court decision had abolished studio-owned theater monopolies in 1948, cutting profits in half. In addition, the phenomenon of television continued to thrive and keep viewers at home. Cinema was hurting. Twentieth even had to sell the land on its backlot to real estate developers to stay afloat: thus, when you're shopping at Century City Mall, you're actually walking on the sacred ground that was once Fox Studios. The idea to re-vamp the all time vamp Theda Bara's Cleopatra (left) was not a new one in 1959. Cecil B. Demille had already done so with the help of Claudette Colbert back in 1934 and George Bernard Shaw's play Caesar and Cleopatra was translated to film with the help of Vivien Leigh and Claude Raines in 1945. When producer Walter Wanger suggested that the time had come for yet another makeover of one of history's most notorious vixens, it seemed like a surefire success. Love, tragedy, war, sex, betrayal: it was a soap on wheels! Originally, the budget was a minimal one, with the studio hoping to produce an attractive, cheaply made B-movie to reel in major profits. Because of this, relatively unknown newcomers were suggested for the lead. Joanne Woodward's name came up, but it appeared that Joan Collins would be crowned as the chosen Egyptian deity. However, Wanger had envisioned a much more elaborate production; an epic no less. He wanted to make the movie to top all movies, one that he proposed could save Twentieth. Using set design artists to woo the money men, elaborate sketches were prepared to lure them into his dream. Surprisingly, President Spyros Skouras signed on. Thus, out of a small idea and a story as old as time itself would grow one of moviedom's greatest monstrosities.

Now that the picture was given the green light, Director Rouben Mamoulian was tasked with giving life to the old Bara film. The script was dated, appearing nearly like parchment itself when unearthed for editing, and it needed hefty revisions. Nunnally Johnson was one of many writers who contributed to sprucing it up. In the lead roles, Peter Finch was cast as Caesar, Stephen Boyd as Antony, and after discussing Audrey Hepburn and Sophia Loren as Cleopatra, Wanger put in his vote for Elizabeth Taylor, recently released from her MGM contract and for the first time working as a free agent. Not everyone was in favor of this idea. Liz (right) was not only a contractual liability, being constantly ill, but she was also going through one of her fan slumps. After the death of her husband, producer Mike Todd, Liz had found comfort in the arms of friend Eddie Fisher, snatching him out from under Debbie Reynolds's unsuspecting nose. She was almost unanimously declared a homewrecker. Still, few women packed the power or punch of Liz in those days, and this alone was enough to suggest that only she,  the diva extraordinaire, could portray a woman who had once been the most powerful female in the world. Liz herself had doubts. For this reason, when 20th called with the offer, Liz told new hubby Eddie to ask for $1,000,000. No one was more surprised than she when she got it. Or was she? A savvy business woman, Liz knew her star power. Uncertain whether or not she really wanted the role, she took a gamble and won big, becoming the first performer to earn a mil' for one role. She would make further stipulations in her contract that offered her additional income: the implementation of her deceased husband's groundbreaking, wide-angle camera, the Todd-AO, for which she too got royalties. Crafty, crafty.

For the time being, this all seemed like chump change. All the money the studio was sure to make off the film would more than make up for these early, lush expenditures. Oh, naive vanity. When cameras started rolling at Pinewood Studios in London (left) in September of 1960, the film was almost immediately doomed. For starters, the weather was horrendous. London was no Egypt. The rainy weather caused the elaborate sets to peel, the transported tropical vegetation had to be replenished almost daily as it died, and the weather too was wreaking havoc on Liz's frail health. She was able to appear in some wardrobe tests but overall was absent from the entire shoot. Mamoulian was forced to shoot around her, focusing on Finch and Boyd, but there was little to be done without the central character. When Liz's illness lapsed into pneumonia and induced a coma, she lay at the brink of death at her hotel. Luckily, a doctor was attending a party in another guest's room and was found, brought to her bedside, and able to stabilize her until an ambulance was summoned. An emergency tracheotomy was performed, the scar from which can be seen in the subsequent film. It was just disaster upon disaster. Mamoulian eventually walked when Finch and Liz continued to complain about the poor nature of the almost juvenile script, leaving the film with no director. As per Liz's contract, she would approve but two replacements: George Stevens or Joseph L. Mankiewicz,  the latter of whom she had just worked on Suddenly Last Summer. It was Joe who got the job. This big coup in addition to Liz's survival after her brush with death, which brought back a wave of fan sympathy, made it seem like Cleopatra still had a shot at being a success. Joe moved the set to Rome and began re-writing the script himself. Act Two was about to begin.

More drama followed as the film was pushed into production. Hard-working pro Mankiewicz, a wizard both with the camera and with words, wasn't even halfway finished with the script when he was forced to start filming. He was therefore stuck shooting all day and writing all night, kept awake with a series of drugs that left him an overworked zombie. Forced to shoot in sequence as a result, certain actors sat around while being paid with nothing to do, and already built sets were left vacant and un-utilized. Fox was bleeding money. The cast had also changed, as the months that had lapsed between the initial call to action and the current production had taken Finch and Boyd out of the running. Joe happily called upon friend Rex Harrison to take on the role of Caesar, and Fox bought out Richard Burton's stage contract on "Camelot" to win him over as Antony. It was a steal, or so they thought. The soon shocking love affair of Liz and Dick (right) caused enough of a scandal to earn even the Pope's wrath. Liz too was enjoying the luxuries of her own house-sized dressing room, gallons of champagne, and her favorite chili delivered all the way from Chasen's in West Hollywood, all at Fox's expense. This, in addition to the exotic costuming of 1000s of extras and the intricately designed and detailed sets, led to Cleopatra costing $70,000 a day alone to produce. Spyros Skouras was sweating bulletts, Liz and Dick were drawing tabloid ire, and Mankiewicz was left nearly crippled when one of his daily injections hit a sciatic nerve. However, the film had become too expensive to just drop. Fox needed another savior. Their only other bankable star was called upon to save them with a quick, fun romantic comedy. Act Three-- Iris in, Enter: Marilyn Monroe.

Fox again went digging for a script in their vault that could quickly and efficiently be produced and rushed into theaters. The success of My Favorite Wife in 1940 suggested that a slightly modernized re-write with Marilyn Monroe, Dean Martin, and Cyd Charisse would fare equally well, if not better, at the box-office. However, there were the same hesitations: Marilyn was notorious for holding up productions with her lateness, which resulted from her insomnia, which resulted from her nerves, stresses, and performance jitters. Still, the studio was forced to hedge its bets, and they decided to roll the dice once more with their most famous star. They were right to worry, for almost from the beginning, things went sour. A power struggle was constantly ensuing between director and star. Initially, Nunnally Johnson was called in (yet again) to help with rewrites of the script. Marilyn approved of this, as she had enjoyed working with Nunnally on How to Marry a Millionaire. Nunnally was attentive to Marilyn's own ideas and was ably trying to tailor her character specifically for her. Cukor, however, was not happy. He wanted to maintain the charm of the original 1940 film, and effectively had Nunnally replaced by his own choice, Walter Bernstein. Marilyn took the snub admirably, but was to suffer another one. At a phenomenal wardrobe test in April (left), in which Marilyn looked fresh, beautiful, and softer than ever before, Cukor was noticeably absent. Not much later, producer Henry Weinstein, who had replaced Cukor's friend David Brown, had to suffer the shock of finding Marilyn in the throes of an accidental overdose, from which she quickly bounced back. In fact, many marveled at the seemingly unfazed way her doctors reacted to what must have been a regular occurrence. Indeed, the suffocating nature of her relationships with both her psychiatrist Dr. Greenson and her acting coach Paula Strasberg would be future matters for the production to contend with. Cukor abhorred Paula's presence and executives were a little unsettled at the way Greenson, a shrink, was handling Marilyn's business affairs. He at one point assured them during a moment of hesitation not to worry because he could "convince Marilyn to do anything." Prior to the first day of shooting, Marilyn attended a script meeting, then flew to New York for a private acting class with Lee Strasberg, from whom she sought advice for her character. Unfortunately, she returned to Los Angeles with more than Lee's counsel; she too caught his cold.

For weeks, Marilyn was unable to come to work. Diagnosed with chronic sinusitis by the studio's own doctor, Lee Siegel, Fox thought it was just a case of the actress crying wolf. However, many saw her struggling-- blinded by headaches, shaking with chills, and barely able to rise to her feet. Her housekeeper Eunice Murray witnessed her waking up in cold sweats, and her own chauffeur sent her back into the house when he saw how ill she was. Head of Production Peter Levathes himself bore witness to her poor health, and tried to have the production pushed back until she was fully recovered. A resounding "No" echoed through the vacant Fox back lot. In the meantime, as during Liz's illness on Cleopatra, Cukor was forced to shoot around Marilyn. He did scenes with Dean and Cyd, scenes with the child actors, the supporting cast, whatever he could. Marilyn, who was eager to begin working, finally forced herself to come to set, though her initial attempts resulted in collapse. In later years, certain members of the cast and crew would maintain that Marilyn was not, nor did she ever appear, ill, which added to the false perception that her entire illness had been contrived. It had not. However, the studio had started administering drugs, given by Siegel, to get her going. Marilyn was giving daily injections-- "hot shots"-- of amphetamines. So, when Marilyn arrived to set, ready and glowing, people did not realize the true source. The drugs masked her symptoms and implied a picture of health. However, there were also witnesses who saw Marilyn faint on the set under the strain or witnessed her trying to psyche herself up in a corner, barely able to stand, because she was light-headed and dizzy.

The infamous kiss heard 'round the world.

It is interesting to note the strange similarities both films exhibited. Both sets were plagued by chronically ill female stars, who, as annoying as they may have been to executives, were legitimately unwell. Whether or not these ladies were able to psychosomatically induce sickness, which almost seems possible, does not deter in either event from the fact that they were indeed almost deathly ill at various stages of shooting. (Another parallel is that both Liz and Marilyn were raised with a background in Christian Science, and though Marilyn in particular did not adhere to this religion, the effects of the power of mind over body is evident in both of their lives. Suspiciously, whenever plagued by doubt, insecurity, or sometimes plain stubbornness, their health with give out in unison with their waning spirits). However, pros that they were, they both managed to muddle through the shoots, even triumph, doing impressive work-- though the use of drugs on both parts, and sometimes alcohol, helped to carry out this chore. For her part, Liz Taylor's behavior induced Fox to have an ambulance always parked nearby on "suicide watch" as her relationship with Burton grew increasingly tumultuous.

Both films were also driven by almost maniacally detailed directors. Cukor (right with Marilyn) insisted that the set be designed to mirror his own lush abode-- the same pleasure palace designed by William Haines-- and saw that every aspect, down to the exact shade of green on the trees, was the same. He too was suffering the physically debilitating effects of one of his crash diets-- aka starvation. For his part, Mankiewicz was working overtime, equally driving himself to a mental and physical breakdown, and essentially performing the duties of producer, director, and writer. The overly ornate designs of the Cleopatra sets, which he made sure appeared authentic, were diligently and expensively crafted-- some with pure gold leaf. The Roman Forum was designed to be three times its actual size, because even that wasn't deemed grand enough. Every aspect, down to the smallest walking stick had to be extravagant, and most of these details were only seen for a fraction of a second, if they remained in the final cut at all. However, despite all of Joe's stresses, he was never tyrannical on the set. Cukor on the other hand, who had not gotten along with Marilyn since their Let's Make Love days, took an uncharacteristic and almost sick pride in demeaning his lead actress and blaming her for every little thing that went wrong, though footage shows her maintaining her composure far more often than he.

Liz "arrives" in Rome.

Sex was also a common denominator. Many people recalled the day that Richard Burton marched onto set with a devilish grin and proudly announced: "Well, I finally f*cked Elizabeth Taylor in the back of my Cadillac!" Martin Landau, who must have missed this press release, was however present when the still married Richard strutted into wardrobe and surprisingly laid a wet one on the still married Taylor-- to which Landau internally exhaled an "Uh oh..." For some time, studio heads were fearful that Liz's star power would diminish under the swell of growing public hatred against both herself and Burton. Despite Joe Mankiewicz's feeble attempt to calm the storm with his crack that it was actually he with whom Richard was really in love-- resulting in Richard arriving to work and too laying a wet one on Joe-- the Vatican proclaimed Liz a "whore," the US Congress tried to have her dual citizenship (she was born in England) revoked, and Skouras feared that ticket sales would continue the anti-Liz onslaught. However, when Cleopatra's grand entrance to Rome was filmed-- one of the most awe-inspiring moments in cinematic history-- Liz triumphed yet again. The Italian extras were supposed to scream "Cleopatra!" But instead, they screamed "Liz! Liz! Baci Baci!" (Baci meaning "kisses"). It was at this moment too that many believe Richard Burton truly fell in love with his Queen, for in seeing her incredible hold over the public, he witnessed a force that nearly brought him to his own knees. He went from being the man that was sleeping with Elizabeth Taylor to the man who was infatuated with her. Thus, when Liz bows to Caesar and rises with a smile, her simple wink speaks volumes. Liz the tigress had prevailed.

Marilyn's sexual shenanigans also foiled the set of Something's Got to Give, however her great "arrival" occurred on the stage of Madison Square Garden for President Kennedy's birthday gala on May 19, 1962 (left). Upsetting Cukor and the other execs by skipping out of the shoot to attend the illustrious celebration, Marilyn was assured by Bobby Kennedy himself that the problem would be solved. It was a promise the hot-headed younger brother wouldn't keep. However, the cleverly orchestrated idea to have Marilyn sing a seductive rendition of "Happy Birthday" (complete in a barely there Jean Louis dress) to JFK was not a moment to propel her to the heights of stardom, as Liz's affair with Burton seemed to. It was instead conceived to publicly ridicule her and announce her as the lusty and misogynistic Prez's sexual plaything. In a brash move, JFK had inflated his ego by having his mistress all but publicly announce their affair. He had even given Marilyn private instructions over the phone on how he wanted the song performed. Marilyn knew that she was taking a gamble, even acknowledging the fact that she was about to make a fool of herself before she walked on stage, but she was so in love with and infatuated with Jack Kennedy that she let her need to please and be loved overshadow her reason. The result has remained one of the longest running jokes in history, and it is sad that after Marilyn had worked so hard to rebuild her image as a serious actress, she had all but annihilated such a prospect by illustrating herself once again as nothing but the embodiment of sexual desire. Her absence from the film set to perform this infamous song both infuriated the studio and sent shock waves through the nation. After this, Marilyn's days on Something's Got to Give were numbered.

36 and not too shabby.

Marilyn returned to a hostile setting, drawing antipathy for yet another absence when she failed to report for work after the party. She feared that she looked too tired after her whirlwind trip. This angered Cukor, but was rational on Marilyn's part. Knowing the effect fatigue would have on her beauty, and thus her fans, she used her clout to rest up so she could return only when refreshed and beautiful. When Dean Martin came to work ill, Marilyn too refused to work with him for fear that his health would again impair her own. Irrational as her behavior may have seemed to those on the other side of the camera, all was forgiven when Marilyn bared all for her infamous nude swim, enduring four hours in the water, shivering all the while . Even George Cukor, not Marilyn's biggest fan, behaved like a kid at a candy store when this actress did what she did best: exude sex appeal, beauty, and charm. After this success, Marilyn had a mysterious weekend. She returned on Monday, May 27th, a shell of a woman. There has been much debate over what happened, why she could barely remember her lines, why she seemed completely unglued... Many assumed that it had something to do with her relationship with Jack  Kennedy, who it was theorized had finally severed their relationship. Marilyn's only answer was scrawled on her dressing room mirror in lipstick: "Frank, help me!" Frank meaning Frank Sinatra. Dean himself kicked everyone out of her dressing room and tried to get to the root of his friend's problem. She was finally sent home. Footage shot that day was destroyed by Cukor, who knew how damaging the drug-addled performance would be to his star-- nemesis though she may have been. After pulling herself together and completing a few more successful scenes, Marilyn celebrated her 36th birthday early on June 1st with a decidedly modest party on the set. Cukor refused a real party, but was finally forced to acquiesce to a cake and birthday card after all the day's shooting had completed. The card read "Happy Birthday (Suit)."

That evening, Marilyn went to a fundraiser for muscular dystrophy at Dodger Stadium. After being out in the cold weather all night, Marilyn's health collapsed once again. She relapsed and was unable to report to work the next day. This was the last straw. Marilyn Monroe was fired. Of course, the reasons behind this were more than her supposedly temperamental behavior. In retrospect, Marilyn was not causing any more trouble in LA than Liz was in Rome. Liz too was chronically late, chronically ill, and worse-- chronically arriving to set drunk as a skunk after lunch with Richard. The costs of filming Something's Got to Give were far from the exorbitant expenditures of Cleopatra. The simple fact was that Fox had mismanaged its money, had poured too much into Cleopatra, and Something's Got to Give became the easier project to dismantle. There had in fact been several failed attempts to fire Liz, but she somehow always got out if it, much to the confusion of the executives. Marilyn instead was the one to fall. If ever there was anything to snap Marilyn back into gear, it was the fear of losing her career (she fights back in a strategic George Barris photo, right). After the studio started planting false and salacious articles in the press, claiming that Marilyn was both incoherent on the set, a drug addict, and mentally unstable, Marilyn rebelled. Footage and outtakes of the remains of Something's Got to Give are enough to refute these claims. Marilyn was present and focused on set, normally moreso than Cukor himself. The press release infamously issued by the crew of Something's Got to Give, thanking Marilyn for the loss of their "livelihoods," was yet another false scheme. Horrified by the news, Marilyn issued apologies to all involved. However, no member of the crew knew anything about the statement. It was a planted ploy of Fox to turn the public against its former star. Marilyn had become their scapegoat, but it had been their own mismanagement that was primarily to blame for the film's failure. When Shirley MacLaine and Kim Novak both turned down Marilyn's role out of respect and Lee Remick was announced as her replacement, Dean Martin walked off the set. Without Marilyn, there was no Dean, and no movie.

After forming her own publicity campaign to repair the damage that was being done, Marilyn won her fans back to her side as she always had. She was even able to enlist the help of Fox figurehead Darryl F. Zanuck. Zanuck had been increasingly angered by his studio's gross misconduct, which had impeded the completion of his own masterpiece, The Longest Day, at that time filming in Europe. Zanuck had never been Marilyn's biggest fan, but he at least was able, shrewd businessman that he was, to know the true culprit for the catastrophes of both Cleopatra and Something's Got to Give. As Cleopatra inched closer to completion, after years of hard work, and with Liz Taylor banking $7,000,000 total for her work on the film-- the extra dough resulting from overtime-- Zanuck decided to fly back to America, regain control of his studio, and get Something's Got to Give back up and running-- with Marilyn in the lead. Thus, mere weeks after she was fired, Marilyn got her job back. Unfortunately, she did not live to finish it. Her death was announced to the world on August 6, 1962.

This mural originally only showed Liz and Dick, but
Rex's contract demanded that he be painted in as well.

Cleopatra would finally conquer, wrapping on July 28, 1962. The movie, originally intended to be two separate films: Caesar and Cleopatra and Antony and Cleopatra was cut from 6 hours to 4. Reviews were mixed, with some calling it a triumph and others calling it a "monumental mouse." Fans still came out in droves, proving that Liz and Dick's allure and the public's fascination with them had not wavered. However, theaters were only able to show the film once a night due to its length, meaning that it was only bringing in half of an average film's revenue. For this reason, Zanuck ordered more cuts, bringing the film down to somewhere around three hours. Elizabeth Taylor saw this version when it premiered in London. And threw up. Cleopatra is recalled as one of Hollywood's greatest flops, but in truth it was not. It fared well at the box office, but recouping the film's incredible costs was not something easily done. It wouldn't be until future re-releases and DVD sales that it could completely make up for Twentieth-Century's losses. It went on to win four Academy Awards, and is at least successful in that it is still notoriously recalled today. As for Fox, Zanuck was able to slowly bring it out of its slump and enjoyed another hey-day with the smash success of The Sound of Music.

In the battle of Liz vs. Marilyn, there were no real winners nor losers. Both films, though one incomplete, had moments of brilliance and folly. Marilyn, who longed to be, yet never was able to become, a mother in her private life, is both vibrant and tender in her interaction with the actors playing her children in Something's Got to Give. Her new found sophistication and maturity also present an intriguing and distinguished Marilyn Monroe, one far removed from the elegant yet cheesecake Marilyn of the past. Liz, for her part, possesses both the brass and the class to portray the Queen of the Nile, and though the overly long and melodramatic scenes can lag on the viewer, by the time Cleopatra nears its end, there is a quietness and a dignity present in the defeated ruler and a palpable pain in her sacrificed love. 

It is strange how two such women, equal in stature, parallel in tragedy, and dissimilar in persona, were so closely linked for a brief time. Battling it out for survival-- not their own, but their studio's-- only one would even survive the task. Ironically, Marilyn had lobbied for the role of Cleopatra when the film was but a whisper of an idea years before it was produced, but despite her many talents, Marilyn lost out to Liz's more guttural snarl. This, among other things, is why Liz was for the most part able to triumph where Marilyn failed. Marilyn, impassioned  and shrewd as she was about her career, lacked the killer instinct that could keep her in an impenetrable position of power. Both women were able to get what they wanted, but Marilyn lacked the ability to hold onto it for an uninterrupted passage of time. This fact was evidenced by the ladies themselves at a party thrown by Frank Sinatra in Las Vegas. The two gals had never gotten along too well, perhaps jealous of each other and rightly sensing the threat of an equally beautiful, equally bankable female star. At the party, Marilyn became drunk and was wobbling around unsteadily, causing much concern and annoyance from friend and sometimes lover Frank. In a statement that said more than even she knew, Elizabeth declared to an observing reporter: "Marilyn shouldn't drink if she can't hold her liquor. I know how to hold my liquor." With that, she kicked her head back and took a big swig of her martini. She partied on long after Marilyn was carried upstairs to bed.

Long live the Queen...


  1. OMG I am in love with this post! So much great information! I'm having a little giveaway to celebrate my blog makeover. Come check it out! Kori xoxo

  2. E Susan Hayward?

  3. Kori: Glad you liked it. There were so many other things I had to leave out because the article would have become a book. One of the most fascinating debacles ever!!!
    Antonio: Yes! Love Susan, and indeed she was also in the running for Cleo for awhile :)