When I learned that the From Left to Write Book Club was reading Cleopatra: A Life, I realized that I could picture Cleopatra in my mind. She looks exactly like Elizabeth Taylor. Apparently, I’m not the only one. The first page of Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff mentions that, among other things, Cleopatra is “a synonym for Elizabeth Taylor.” Liz makes an appearance again on page 2:
The Ptolemies were in fact Macedonian Greek, which makes Cleopatra approximately as Egyptian as Elizabeth Taylor.
We watched several Elizabeth Taylor movies after her death in March. My favorite was a sentimental choice from a memory of watching National Velvet with my family when it was shown on television sometime in the 70s. I also recommend The Sandpiper with some reservation. The storyline is unconvincing, but the cinematography and Taylor’s presence in that setting are stunning. The Sandpiper also has a haunting score that includes the 1965 Academy Award winner for Best Original Song, “The Shadow Of Your Smile.”
We did not watch Cleopatra this spring, so I requested that movie. Since the run on Elizabeth Taylor movies is over, I received it in time to watch it over the weekend, at the same time I was reading the book. I also requested another movie version of Cleopatra, the 1934 film that was directed by Cecil B. DeMille and stars Claudette Colbert. It was a Cleopatra weekend!
We watched the older movie first. The best parts were the scantily-clad women and suggestive dances from a time before the Production Code was rigidly enforced. We also got a kick out of laughing at the obviousness of the dialogue and plot in certain places, although it’s hard to judge old movies on that. Maybe what seems obvious now was cutting edge when Cecil B. DeMille did it.
We preferred the 1963 film. There were still scantily-clad women, the dialogue was more believable, and the story more cohesive. It probably helped that it was a four hour movie (we watched it over two nights). I liked the soundtrack in the older movie — it was more evocative. The ’63 soundtrack sounded like a sixties movie soundtrack. I was surprised how often this Cleopatra pulled me out of the ancient world and into sixties Hollywood with an anachronistic fabric, a jarring philosophical speech, or modern choreography. Still, over all it worked as the epic film it was meant to be.
I haven’t finished the book Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff, yet, but I’m very much looking forward to finding out what the films got right and wrong in the story of this powerful woman.
In Cleopatra: A Life, Stacy Schiff digs into the history books to share with us who the true Cleopatra was. As a member of From Left to Write book club, I received a copy of this book for review. You can read other members posts inspired by Cleopatra: A Life on book club day, September 27 at From Left to Write.