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'Cleopatra' feted at 50 with restoration, Cannes gala, Blu-ray

| Sunday, May 26, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

There was the spectacle, the runaway budget, the fights with the studio. But almost everyone thinks about the 1963 movie “Cleopatra” for one thing: Liz and Dick.

Martin Landau remembers the day when he realized “Cleopatra” stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were having an adulterous affair during the troubled production in Rome of Joseph L. Mankiewicz's 243-minute epic.

“There were days when we literally had 10,000 extras,” recalled Landau, who played Rufio, the loyal right-hand man to Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) and Marc Antony (Burton). “They would come at 5 in the morning and be sprayed with makeup to darken them before they got into the costumes.”

But on this day, only Burton and Landau were scheduled to work. When Landau arrived at makeup at 7:30 in the morning, he was shocked to see Taylor, married to crooner Eddie Fisher at the time, relaxing in the room.

“I am sitting there looking in the mirror and Burton comes in in a half-tunic, goes to Elizabeth and kisses her on the forehead and then says ‘good morning' to me. I said to myself, ‘Oh, my God.' They had not gone to their respective homes that night. Around 11 a.m., Eddie Fisher shows up.” And 30 minutes later, Sybil Burton arrived.

“They came to see what happened to their spouses,” said Landau, who spent a year on the film. “Mankiewicz and I were rolling our eyeballs a little bit.”

Suddenly, “Liz and Dick” were everywhere in the press. Their affair was so scandalous the Vatican newspaper in an “open letter” harshly rebuked Taylor, who had been married four times, for “erotic vagrancy.”

Century Fox. Though it was the box-office champ of 1963, it took several years for it to make a profit. Still, F ox is pulling out all the stops for its 50th-anniversary celebration.

The digitally restored “Cleopatra” had a lavish screening and party last week at Cannes, followed with a re-release in 200 theaters. And on May 28, the Blu-ray arrives.

Despite all the problems on the production — Taylor nearly dying of pneumonia, changing the casts and directors, the firing of producer Walter Wanger, Darryl F. Zanuck ousting studio chief Spyros Skouras and taking over editing of the film — and decidedly mixed reviews, “Cleopatra” went on to receive nine Academy Award nominations, including best picture and lead actor for Harrison, winning for its stunning cinematography, special effects, art direction and costume design.

Hollywood's craftsmen — working long before the age of computer imagery — created monumental sets, especially in the scene in which Cleopatra arrives in Rome pulled by slaves riding a mammoth re-creation of the Sphinx.

“The movie is so beautiful to look at — the costumes and the production design,” says Schawn Belston, senior vice president of library and technical services at Fox, who was responsible for the restoration of “Cleopatra.” “But I can't think you can separate the experience of seeing the film (without) knowing at least about the scandal between the two lovers.”

“I think what happened is that the movie came out, and it was so overwhelmed by their relationship,” says Kate Burton, the actress daughter of Richard Burton. “It basically became ‘we are watching them fall in love for the first time.' ”

Even half a century later, the world is mesmerized by “Cleopatra,” as witness to last year's “Liz & Dick” Lifetime movie with Lindsay Lohan and Jess Walter's bestseller “Beautiful Ruins,” which revolves around a young American actress who becomes pregnant by Burton during the production of “Cleopatra.”

It wasn't the mystique surrounding Taylor and Burton that really interested Walter but the “train wreck” of the production.

“In my research,” says Walter, “this is where modern celebrity began — the Kardashians and the Lohans — you can trace it to this moment where a kind of Hollywood decadence reached a peak.”

Susan King is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times.

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