Cleopatra: Elizabeth Taylor stars in trailer in 1963
Cleopatra was released in UK cinemas 60 years ago on July 31, and returns to TV screens this weekend on BBC2.
The film remains notorious as the most expensive made at that time, with Elizabeth Taylor’s record-breaking $1million salary and exorbitant spending and wastage pushing production costs to $44million ($439million today).
That doesn’t include the $5million blown on a disastrous UK shoot and, despite becoming the highest grossing film of the year, the whole saga almost bankrupted 20th Century Fox.
The financial drama rocked Hollywood but still overshadowed there, and across the world, by the shocking affair between Taylor and her co-star Richard Burton.
The scandal was condemned by The Vatican and ended both their marriages as Taylor succumbed to the man she swore she wouldn’t years earlier.
Read more… ‘Elvis had something special below the waist’ says co-star that became a nun[LATEST]
Back in 1953, Burton arrived at a Hollywood party at the home of Jean Simmons and Stewart Granger and was immediately smitten with Taylor.
Taylor was not impressed: “He flirted like mad with me, with everyone, with any girl who was even remotely pretty. I just thought, ‘Ohhh, boy – I’m not gonna become a notch on his belt.'”
We use your sign-up to provide content in ways you’ve consented to and to improve our understanding of you. This may include adverts from us and 3rd parties based on our understanding. You can unsubscribe at any time. More info
Nine years later, Burton was a late addition to the Cleopatra cast and their reunion ignited an un stoppable passion.
When filming started on Cleopatra, Taylor was married to Eddie Fisher who she had ‘stolen’ from her friend Debbie Reynolds in an emotional rebound after the death of her husband Mike Todd.
Burton had been with his wife Sybil since 1949, but was notorious for his numerous but fleeting sexual infidelities. She preferred to look the other way, always sure that he would come home to her.
The two stars filmed their first scenes together in Rome in December 1961 and Taylor said: “For the first scene, there was no dialogue—we had to just look at each other. And that was it – I was another notch.”
Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich 60-year feud after ‘they were lovers'[LATEST]
Sophia Loren drove Charlton Heston so crazy he demanded a body double[LATEST]
Burt Reynolds’ four-decade feud with Hollywood bombshell[LATEST]
Burton may have manipulated the situation, claiming he was hungover and nervous, and encouraging her to look after him and help steady his shaking hands as he lifted a coffee cup to his lips. Taylor later admitted: “He was probably putting it on. He knew it would get me.”
And it did. Their attraction was instant and explosive but neither realised at the time what it would become.
Burton assumed it was just another fling and apparently burst one day into the men’s makeup trailer and boasted: “Gentlemen, I’ve just f***ed Elizabeth Taylor in the back of my Cadillac!”
Soon, the whole set knew what was going on and the Italian press began to spread the gossip, which shot around the world.
When it hit The Times in the UK Sybil couldn’t ignore it and flew to Italy. Fisher, meanwhile, was employed by the studio to ‘manage’ his wife and tried to ride out what was happening but later said in 1991: “She just wasn’t ‘there’ anymore. She was with him. And I wasn’t ‘there.’”
Burton’s brother Ifor was employed on set as his bodyguard and was enraged by what was going on.
A crew member reported: “Ifor beat the living sh** out of Burton for what he was doing to Sybil. Beat him up so that Richard couldn’t work the next day. He had a black eye and a cut cheek.”
Fisher visited Sybil and later recalled; “I said, ‘You know, they’re continuing their affair?’ And she said, ‘He’s had these affairs, and he always comes home to me.’ And I said, ‘But they’re still having their affair.’ And she went to the studio, and they closed [production] down. And that cost them $100,000. And the day I left Rome, it cost them another $100,000. Elizabeth screamed and carried on. Work stopped that day. They had that in honor of me.”
When he heard about their spouses’ meeting, Burton furiously called Fisher and said: “You nothing, you spleen. I’m going to come up there and kill you.” He would also taunt Fisher, saying: “You don’t know how to use her!” Or ask Taylor who she loved, in front of her husband.
The affair stopped and started for six torturous month, mainly due to Burton and Taylor’s own fighting. She was twice hospitalised after taking tablets, but later said it was never to end her own life, simply to force a break and recuperation in hospital.
Burton was also having an affair on set with a dancer, causing more arguments with Taylor.
They both returned to their partners after the shoot wrapped in the summer of 1962. Taylor was effectively separated from Fisher but he wouldn’t grant her a divorce until March 1964. However, she had already been reunited with Burton on another film, The VIPs, where their affair reignited in early 1963.
Sybil petitioned for divorce on the grounds of “abandonment and cruel and inhumane treatment” in December. Three months later Burton and Taylor married in Montreal.
Burton died at just 58 in 1984, and Taylor later said: “I was still madly in love with him the day he died. I think he still loved me, too.”