There had been stars before. There had been films prior to Cleopatra. But in all the cynical, greedy, magical, histrionic history of the movies, there had never been a combination like that of Elizabeth Taylor and Cleopatra.
Other films may have taken more money, won more awards or attracted better reviews, but none have come close to the legend that is Cleopatra.
What began in 1958 as a remake of the 1917 Theda Bara film, which starred Joan Collins and was projected to cost $2 million, would open five years later, having cost nearly twenty times as much. The budget had skyrocketed enormously as the production went through extravagant sets in two different countries, two directors and six leading men – and this was on top of Elizabeth Taylor’s $1 million fee.
But it was the off-screen romance between the two on-screen leads that really cemented Cleopatra’s place in cinema history. Within weeks of Richard Burton’s arrival in Italy, he and Taylor embarked on a tumultuous and passionate love affair that kept the Cuban Missile Crisis off the front pages and was denounced by the Vatican. Cleopatra and the Undoing of Hollywood is a story of lust, excess and hubris – and how one film nearly brought Hollywood to its knees.