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The Arts Past and Present (AA100

) Book 1: Reputations

Transcript for DVD Video: Cleopatra


Narrator (Trevor Fear) Cleopatra is both an historical figure and a legend; her name has endured throughout the ages, providing writers and artists with a rich source of stories and imagery that reflect not so much the historical Egyptian queen but rather her power as a symbol to be reinvented by each passing generation. Some of the latest reincarnations of Cleopatra have been on the cinema and TV screens of the twentieth century. Why does she remain such a powerful image even today and how have these representations of Cleopatra shaped our own ideas about who she was and how she behaved? The first major Hollywood film to tell the Cleopatra story was as long ago as 1917 when she was played by an elaborately costumed Theda Bara against a backdrop of ancient Egyptian symbols and monuments. Bara portrayed the queen with a threatening and ominous air. She was well known for playing roles in which she sexually manipulated and abandoned married men. The press dubbed her the torpedo of domesticity. This image of an alluring, exotic sexual predator dominated Baras depiction of Cleopatra and was exploited by the studio with great gusto. The studios publicity machine presented her as a contemporary reincarnation of Cleopatra, born in the shadow of the sphinx and suckled on serpent venom. The reality was that she was the daughter of a Jewish tailor from Cincinnati. The 1917 Cleopatra reflected contemporary images of an imagined orient a land that was thought of as exotic and alluring but also alien and threatening. It also reflected the changing role of women and, in an age of increasing female liberation, it depicted powerful women as dangerous, sexual manipulators. Cleopatras evolving image on screen is not just a vehicle for epic entertainment, but also a telling commentary on changing issues and attitudes. By the time we get to 1934 and the Cecil B De Mille epic, theres a completely different look and feel to her image. Claudette Colbert plays the queen as a nonchalant and smiling sophisticate. Her Cleopatra is flirtatious rather than threatening, as we can see on the films billboard image with her flighty gaze across at the stiff and pompous looking figure of Caesar, seated on the left. The huge pillars, the assortment of cluttered objects on the table and the distinctly shaped table legs all project an ambience of oriental splendour. Yet, at the same time Cleopatras chic ensemble helps to foster an overall impression of an Egypt and a Cleopatra who have been remodelled to suit the art-deco age.

The 1934 Cleopatra was presented not just as an historical figure but also as a kind of brand. In an era that saw the dawn of the age of commercial movie tie ins, Colberts Cleopatra was a type of mannequin marketing Egyptian themed cosmetics, hairstyles, jewellery and clothes. The past had become a marketing opportunity. The way that Cleopatra is playfully posed here between two sombre, authoritative looking males, one Roman and one Egyptian, says a great deal about the likely dynamics of this movie. The warring clash of cultures is to be largely reduced to a battle of the sexes, where dealing with the might of Rome is just a bit of sophisticated fun. Nobody pretended Colbert was a reincarnation of Cleopatra, rather she was best known for her regular roles in contemporary romantic comedies and so its not surprising that this version of Cleopatra was, as one critic put it, a comedy of modern manners in fancy dress. The film was marketed primarily as an epic romance Clip of Cleopatra (1934) MCA Home Video Inc. / Paramount Productions, Inc. Voiceover the stirring human story of the queen whose two great loves change the course of history Narrator Cleopatras role as a queen and stateswoman is buried beneath the romance. When Caesar is assassinated, Cleopatra doesnt feel the loss of a political ally, but is tormented by the discovery that he never really loved her. Man It wasnt in his arms he wanted to hold Egypt, it was in his treasury. Woman Its true, you were blind. He didnt love you. You were blindblind. Anthony Ah, Im at war again Cleopatra No Anthony Narrator In similar fashion, when Antony finally throws off his torpor and decides to fight Octavian, Cleopatra swoons at his renewed virility and her role as queen of Egypt is replaced by that of a woman in love. Cleopatra Ive seen a god come to life. Im no longer a queen Im a woman.

Narrator The life of Colberts Cleopatra revolved not around her role as queen of Egypt but her destructive infatuation with the two great loves of her life. This 1934 production was set against the backdrop of the rise of the new woman in 1920s and 30s America. Women now had the vote, more women were working and there was increasing pressure for equality of pay and opportunity in the work place. Pre- and extra marital sex and divorce were all social trends on the rise. At the same time reactionary forces were at work trying to hold back this rising tide of change and Hollywood movies were seen as one form of modern decadence that needed policing. Hence, at the time of the 1934 movie, a new Production code was in place that demanded the film studios should actively promote marriage and the home as valuable social institutions, and a pressure group organised by the Catholic Church, the Legion of Decency, started to boycott movies that were judged immoral. In this climate, the historical film was a useful vehicle in which sexual manipulation and indulgent excess could be safely relegated to the past and when the dangers of modern woman were incarnated in the figure of Cleopatra they were always safely contained by the queens death at the end of the movie Clip of Cleopatra (1963) Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation It was nearly thirty years later in 1963 when Twentieth Century Fox released the most famous film version of Cleopatra starring Elizabeth Taylor. The movie maintains some of the themes that weve seen so far. Once again there is an emphasis on the past as elaborate and extravagant spectacle, as is clearly demonstrated in Elizabeths Taylor array of fabulous outfits. In fact the 1963 film took extravagance to a whole new level. At the time, it was by far the most expensive movie ever made. It brought Elizabeth Taylor the first million dollar fee and Twentieth Century Fox to the brink of bankruptcy. Nowhere is this opulence more evident than in the scene of Cleopatras entry into Rome, a scene that in itself cost over a million dollars to shoot. Here, the spectacle of an exotic Egyptian entourage entering the city of Rome reflected the on-going Western preoccupation with an orient imagined as luxurious and decadent. Romance is still a cornerstone of this production. The poster shows Cleopatra between the infatuated figures of Mark Antony and Caesar. This Cleopatra looks coolly imperious. Gone is the smouldering intensity of Theda Baras vamp queen or the girlish ditziness of Colberts Cleopatra. She uses the preconceptions the Romans have about her acting them out to turn them to her own advantage. Man reported to be extremely intelligent and sharp of wit. Queen Cleopatra is widely read, well versed in the natural sciences and mathematics. She speaks seven languages proficiently. Were she not a woman, one would consider her to be an intellectual

Second Man In obtaining her objectives, Cleopatra has been known to employ torture, poison and even her own sexual talents, which are said to be considerable Cleopatra We must not disappoint the mighty Caesar. The Romans tell fabulous tales of my baths and hand maidens and my morals Narrator Cleopatra is now a shrewd stateswoman who probes the weaknesses of her opponents and whose imperious nature overwhelms resistance. Cleopatra You will kneel Anthony I will what? Cleopatra On your knees Anthony You dare ask the pro-consul of the Roman Empire Cleopatra I asked it of Julius Caesar I demand it of you Narrator Again, the Cleopatra story reflects contemporary issues and politics. Standing at the tomb of Alexander, this queen talks of creating a single world culture suggesting the influence of the United Nations and the rhetoric of contemporary figures like John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Cleopatra Make his dream yours, Caesar his grand design pick it up where he left off. Out of the patchwork of conquests one world not a one world, one nation. One people on Earth, living in peace. Narrator At the same time, the off screen relationship between Taylor and Burton generated extra interest in the film. Again, as in the 1917 film, the historical figure of Cleopatra and the life of the films lead actress were run together, as the love affair of Taylor and Burton seemed to be a contemporary re-run of the relationship between Cleopatra and Mark Antony. 1960s audiences enjoyed the compelling parallel between the on screen excesses and the present day news stories of jet set living that dominated the lives of the two stars. Past and present were mingled in a pleasing symmetry.

Clip of Cleopatra (1963) Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation The extravagance of the film was so over the top that we can see on occasion a hint of self-mockery a point best illustrated by Cleopatras knowing wink to Caesar at the end of her extraordinarily lavish entry into Rome Elizabeth Taylors sly wink gave place the following year to the full-scale parody of Carry On Cleo. This time Amanda Barrie plays an air-headed Egyptian queen acting out all the clichs of the Cleopatra role over the usual improbable and bawdy Carry On plot. Clip of Carry on Cleo (1964) Studio Canal Voiceover This is Cleopatra. The fabulous queen of the Nile, whose only resemblance to an iceberg is that no more than one tenth of her is visible, the other nine tenths the better part of her is beneath the surface. Fate has decreed that the mighty leader of the Roman Empire and Cleopatra should be flung together into the melting pot of history Narrator It was a great opportunity to make fun of both the general pretentiousness of epic film and stereotypical images of Cleopatra. So iconic moments from the Cleopatra story are sampled and given the Carry On treatment. Carry on Cleo also parodies the way epic movies tried to pass themselves off as accurate representations of the past. The 1963 movie suggested that it was reanimating the pastwhilst the Carry On film humorously acknowledges the inevitable distortion of the past that it was undertaking. As we have moved from the last part of the twentieth century on into the twenty-first, Cleopatra has remained a topical figure and her image has once again been updated to keep in step with the new norms of our society. So, Cleopatra retains an image of glamour and seduction but her use of sexuality becomes much more pro-active. Clip of Xena Warrior Princess (2000) MM Studios USA Television Dist LLC / Renaissance Pictures / Studios USA / Universal When Cleopatra features on the popular camp TV show, Xena, Warrior Princess, sex as a manipulative tool is again a key aspect of the story as Xena, masquerading as Cleopatra, reworks the carpet scene into a form of erotic bondage. Xena I am Cleopatra queen of Egypt slave of Rome Clip of Rome (2005) HD Vision Studios / BBC / HBO Narrator When Cleopatra featured in the HBO series Rome, the flirtatious and relatively cagey sexual antics of Colbert and Taylor were overtaken by the forceful and unabashed use of sex as a political tool. Here Cleopatra deliberately plots to get pregnant by Caesar to secure her own position.

Man [Inaudible] reporting for duty, maam. Narrator Undeterred by his absence at the most opportune moment, she selects and sleeps with one of his soldiers instead and passes off the resulting child as Caesars. Inevitably, the proliferation of 1990s US television action-heroine series such as Xena-Warrior Princess, led to a contemporary reworking of Cleopatra and active sexuality here went in hand with a physical capability to engage and dispatch male opponents. Clip of Cleopatra (1999) Babelsberg International Filmproduktion GmbH & Co Betriebs KG / Hallmark Home Entertainment So, its no surprise to see the 1999 Cleopatra herself fighting in battle and delivering a symbolically castrating blow to a Roman soldier. We can also notice a change in the appearance of the more recent film and TV Cleopatras. A greater sensitivity to issues of race and ethnicity has meant that the white Anglo-American look of Colbert and Taylor has given way to more ethnic diversity in the portrayal of the Egyptian queen. The image of Cleopatra in popular culture has been in flux throughout the last century and into this one; its been subject to change and modification, but the major themes have remained constant. Luxury, extravagance, sexuality have all been at the heart of the portrayals of the Egyptian queen; but the differences in how they have been dealt with reflect the changing perceptions society has had of those issues. The many faces of Cleopatra show how we modify our perceptions of the past to suit contemporary issues, lifestyles and fantasies. Each era has recreated Cleopatra in its own image and history can be seen, therefore, as a continual source of reflection not just about the past, but also about ourselves, how we live, and the way we see the world around us.