“Cleopatra,” 1963’s highest-grossing film, was also one of the most expensive movies ever made. Tidbits has the facts and figures on the film that chronicles the life of this legendary queen.
• The movie is the story of Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt, born to Pharaoh Ptolemy XII around 69 BC. Upon her father’s death, Cleopatra and her 10-year-old brother became co-heirs of the throne, but she quickly dethroned the young boy, and began forming political alliances to expand her empire.
• The film’s expenses exceeded estimates from the beginning. The studio forecasted a $2 million budget, with Joan Collins in the title role. With several production delays, she became unavailable. Elizabeth Taylor was contacted, and promptly rejected the role, holding off until the offer was $1 million. Twentieth Century Fox set a record as the first studio to pay a star that much for a single role.
• The filming required 79 different sets, including a replica of the Roman Forum, although it was three times the size of the original Forum. The queen’s barge was built at a cost equaling $2 million in today’s dollars. Production was further delayed when three construction workers were killed while building the set for the Egyptian city of Alexandria when undiscovered mines left over from World War II exploded.
• Twenty-six thousand costumes were made, including 65 costumes for Elizabeth Taylor. Her costume budget alone amounted to $194,800, and included a dress made from 24-carat gold cloth.
• Filming began in England where 20 acres of farmland was converted into Alexandria, including temples, a harbor, sphinxes, and palm trees flown in from California.
• England’s rainy weather led to delays in shooting, which cost up to $75,000 (in 1960 dollars) for every day the filming was cancelled. When Elizabeth Taylor contracted pneumonia after working in the harsh weather, the decision was made to change location to Rome. By this time, filming had been underway for 16 weeks at a cost of $7 million, with only ten minutes of film produced. All of the sets constructed in England were not relocated, rather they were re-created in Rome at a tremendous cost.
• Liz Taylor’s salary may have started out at $1 million, but her contract was written so that she would receive $50,000 a week if production exceeded 16 weeks along with 10% of the film’s gross. By the time production moved to Rome, she had already earned in excess of $2 million, and upon release of the film, her take was about $7 million. That’s well over $55 million in today’s dollars.
• More than two-and-a-half years after filming commenced, it wrapped up in March, 1963. The final cost exceeded $44 million, which is over $340 million in today’s dollars, one of the most expensive movies ever made. The production nearly bankrupted Twentieth Century Fox, and would have done so if not for the enormous success of “The Sound of Music, which saved the studio. As it was, the studio shut down for six months and laid off 2,000 workers.
• Although “Cleopatra” was the year’s highest-grossing film, earning $57.7 million in North America, the movie did not break even for ten years. This was only after the studio was paid $5 million by ABC for television rights.
• The film received Oscar nominations, including Best Picture (which it did not win), taking home four – Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Visual Effects, and Best Costume Design. At the time of its premiere, “Cleopatra” was 243 minutes long, but was later cut to a 194-minute version.
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