Cleopatra & Godzilla: With or Without Backstory?

Most decidedly epic.

Cleopatra arrives in Rome, photo from 1963’s Cleopatra, 20th Century fox

I had the opportunity to watch both the 1963 Cleopatra and 2019 Godzilla, King of the Monsters this month and found myself loving them both. They share eerie parallels. Both are expensive movies, which also were wildly popular despite getting horrid reviews. Both reflect on the past and are engrossing films, even if you bring no prior knowledge to the viewing. But both really pay off if you know the history outside the story and let that backstory clothe your experience, almost like an extra dimension. Trashy pinnacles of cinema; perfect for summer watching.

History shows again and again
How nature points out the folly of men…

Blue Oyster cult

The 26th Most Expensive Movie Ever Made

By the time Cleopatra premiered in 1963, the film had overspent its $5 million budget by somewhere between $20 and $39 million. The lavish Roman epics that were popularized in the 1950s were driving up costs, but films like Ben Hur, which were costly and well-received, paved the way for Cleo. Variety puts the ultimate cost of the 1963 Fox epic at $44 million, so even before it came to the screen, it was rumored to be a disaster. Cleopatra was a huge box office success, the highest-grossing film of the year at $57 million, but was considered to have lost money. As you watch the scene where Cleopatra enters Rome on a giant barge, flanked by hundreds of costumed dancers, you can’t help but hear *ca-ching* with every painted golden trumpet.

Yet at least in Cleo, you can see where the money went. In this helpful list by Wikipedia of the most expensive films ever made (scroll to the middle table, adjusted for inflation), Cleopatra at #26 is flanked by Wild, Wild West, Spectre, and Prince Caspian, all movies which couldn’t hold Liz Taylor’s size eight sandals.

The 1963 film was also infamous at the time for another reason unrelated to the film. Burton himself called it Le Scandale.

Liz & Dick on the set of Cleopatra 1963, photo by Paul Schutzer

Liz and Dick, the Original Brangelina

Liz had already broken up one Hollywood marriage by the time filming started on the new epic. She was called by some the most beautiful woman in the world, and whether you appreciated her acting or not, as Cleopatra you can’t take your eyes off her. One modern review describes her as “pretty scrummy in Egyptian softcore porn clothes” but her wiles go beyond the gauzy veils.

Taylor had won an Oscar a few years earlier for Butterfield 8 and would win another in a few more for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? In fact, the reason it took me fifty years to watch Cleopatra is because it was hard for me to see Liz as anything other than the fright-wigged Martha from the later film. With enough time to re-objectify my opinion, I now find her over-the-shoulder haughtiness a perfect match for the character. Cleo, like Liz, had all eyes of the world on her, too, and had to navigate a world full of demanding old men with all the cunning and beauty she could muster.

How DARE you and the rest of your barbarians set fire to my library? Play conqueror all you want, Mighty Caesar! Rape, murder, pillage thousands, even millions of human beings! But neither you nor any other barbarian has the right to destroy one human thought!

Cleopatra, 1963

Yet the Liz and Dick attraction, parallel to those of the characters they played, ended up overshadowing the movie at the time. They broke up their own marriages with an affair obvious to the world, married a year later very lavishly and publicly, and ended divorcing, remarrying, and divorcing in a way that kept the tabloids solvent until Brad Pitt came along. Thus, when Antony first sits down with Cleo after Julius Caesar’s assassination, and she starts gazing at him with those violet eyes, and he starts drinking heavily… well, art imitates life imitates art, and it is delicious.

If you also come to watch the film without knowing ALL THAT, or even having forgotten ALL THAT, it’s still pretty good. Several contemporary reviewers point out that the director had in mind two three-hour movies but was forced by the studio to chop and edit until the single three hour version is a hash. To put it in words my spouse and the modern moviegoer would understand, imagine if you tried to smush Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame into a single three hour and forty minute blockbuster, oh, the horror!

Get Cleopatra off TCM, Netflix, or your local library and fire up the microwave popcorn as you ponder the key questions. How is Cleo going to seduce Julius, given that Caesar doesn’t respect Egyptian authority and is wise to the ways of young women and their fluttering eyelashes? What role will she play in Caesar’s assassination? If Antony is also wise to her tricks, why does he let her seduce him as well? Is Cleo just a femme fatale or does she use lust as a chesspiece? And how could you not have given Cleopatra an Oscar for Cinematography and Costume Design over How the West Was Won?

Movie poster, photo from Warner Bros

Godzilla has his Own History*

So we move from the sublime to the ridiculous. Or do we? I once designated the Godzilla franchise and films like Mothra as So Bad It’s Good, but I have started to rethink that designation. Critical history has been kind to the Godzilla franchise, which after the making of this summer’s version, is now 35 movies. Certain of the entries don’t hold together, due to inane dialogue, cheesy special effects, or lack of action. But the original 1954 film and some of the spinoffs and remakes–especially this one–are effective as films for a number of reasons.

The underpinnings of the franchise are the imbalance that humans have brought to the earth. In 1954, this was represented by the nuclear threat, which the Japanese would have felt so deeply and personally in their culture. Each movie variation that pays homage to that underlying theme is successful. The ones that don’t simply use a problem=monster, solution=clever science+guns+other monsters formula.

Furthermore, each version that pays homage to the original films becomes richer to watch because you will naturally compare. Versions like the 1998 abomination with Matthew Broderick are simply stomping and shooting, a hash of special effects and dialogue with the G-man’s name pasted on the poster. The 2019 version, which reverberates continuously with reverence for Mothra, Rodan, Ghidorah, and the Big Guy, succeeds in every way to live up to its predecessors.

Movie poster from the 1954 version with Raymond Burr pipesmoking, photo on Pinterest

Nature has a way sometimes of reminding Man of just how small he is. She occasionally throws up terrible offsprings of our pride and carelessness to remind us of how puny we really are in the face of a tornado, an earthquake, or a Godzilla.

Raymond Burr repeating his role in Godzilla 1985

Godzilla Is at Heart a Morality Play

If the Japanese in 1954 needed to create a mythology that evoked the imbalance of their world, how much more do Americans need it in 2019? Climate change is wreaking its own havoc as we have barely attempted to respond, some still arguing about whether it exists and others content to leave the mess for future generations to clean up. This 2019 version plugs itself straight into those concerns, which lets the film put some meat in the dialogue. Humans play roles that affect the action and there are plot twists beyond Run, the monster is coming!

Sam Coleman: Senators, we believe that these titans are just the tip of the iceberg. Which of these titans are here to protect us, and which of these titans are here to threaten us?
Senator: So you’d want to make Godzilla our pet?
[the other senators laugh]
Dr. Ishiro Serizawa: No. We would be his.

From 2019 Godzilla, King of the Monsters

There’s even a nod to a distant past where humans might once have lived in some kind of truce or harmony with Godzilla and Friends. I couldn’t help but think of Egyptian hieroglyphs when the ancient carvings are revealed. History runs in cycles, where civilizations rise and fall. If we are not listening to the earth, are we not doomed to repeat some of the catastrophic failures? Rome ruled the known world once, and the sun never set on the British Empire. Are there not lessons in history, even in Godzilla’s history?

The ancients lived in harmony with Godzilla, photo from Warner Bros

The more I think about these two movies together, the more fun it becomes. For example, what if Cleopatra had been able to forge a partnership with a contemporary Godzilla? What if he was her Big Strong Man, so that she didn’t need to rely on those testosterone-driven generals to stay in power? Ah, but what if the Romans had then had their own variation–a Rodan or a Ghidorah?

Or what if we think of Cleopatra and her contemporaries as symbolized by these monsters, epic historical characters and epic cinematic characters? Is she Godzilla, reigning over the known universe? Definitely not. No, Cleopatra is Queen, which makes her Mothra. Surely any scene where the twin princesses and the costumed dancers are singing and praying to the giant monster cocoon could remind you of the dancers bowing before the royal Egyptian beauty. That would make Antony into the macho King Godzilla, wreaking virile havoc on a world that will not curb its excesses.

Together, they would have ruled the world…

*Full confession: I have my own Godzilla history, having once nearly won a costume contest with my alien garb from Monster Zero.

Photo of and by kajmeister

SBIG: Mothra and Florence Foster Jenkins

20160831 FFJ historyvshollywood

I don’t know where my childhood went wrong. I was exposed frequently to art museums and the best music – both classical and jazz. The shelves were full of Shakespeare, Thomas Mann, Faulkner, and Plato; the walls were covered with Bruegel and Pollock.  My mother had no sense of humor. (Technically, that’s not true, she thought Bertolt Brecht and Edward Albee were hil-arious!)  My father had no appreciation for Star Wars or Steven Spielberg, and took us as children to see West Side Story and Rashomon instead. Yet, somehow, since I was a wee bit of a thing, I have always loved bad art.

Bad movies, bad music, bad theater, bad painting, bad poetry. There is a whole subgenre of the arts within each of these categories. Performances that were fiercely bad, sleep-inducing, screechy, ridiculous, and downright dreadful. In the Kaj household, we even labelled it in our classification system as SBIG – So Bad, It’s Good.

April showered me today
And got me kinda wet.
I wasn’t looking for the rain.
Glub, I’m a rivulet!
–From Spectrum, Author’s name withheld to avoid public shaming

What Makes The Performance Bad?
There is a fine line between dull and wretched, and we have to examine wretched just a bit, to understand where that line is drawn. Bad can take on many forms – maudlin, boring, insipid, confusing, blurry, not believable, or overly predictable – when it comes to films. This is tricky when it comes to comedy, because comedy can be highly subjective. You like the Hangover or Jim Carrey; I detest them. Yet vulgarity or farce on its own is not necessarily bad, but subject to personal taste.  You don’t “get” Monty Python; in our house, it is considered to be part of the genius canon.  Does that make any of these bad or good? Probably not.

The heaviest disagreement comes over whether something is “great” or one of the “greatest.” We will come to blows over whether to include Borat or Dumb and Dumber on a Best list. There is less disagreement about whether something is universally bad. Don’t believe me? Gigli. Howard the Duck. Fifty Shades of Black. Need I go further?

Music is easier to identify as bad. Off-key, strange lyrics, poor phrasing, off-key, off rhythm, constantly changing key, mispronouncing words, did I mention off-key? Is the song really only a chorus repeated over and over? Can the band play the instruments? A theme starts to emerge, that transfers to painting, poetry and so forth. Did the artist fail at what they were trying to achieve?  Do the mountains in a landscape really look more like ice cream cones? Does the interpretive dance consist mostly of hair flinging? Is the poem so cloying that it makes you cringe?

What Makes it So Fiercely Bad It’s Good?
The common theme to the best of the worst seems to do with pain. Painfully bad. Cringing, wincing, covering the ears or eyes (or nose!!!!), the performance takes entertainment which might just be mediocre into another realm entirely.

Boring, on its own, is not sufficient. A little flat in pitch isn’t really funny. A dumb script is fairly common; we need to have wooden acting, stupefyingly bad special effects, inappropriate product placement, and maybe the sound boom showing, to crank a bad performance up to that mythical level eleven.

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