We can only guess what Cleopatra (r. 52–30 B.C.) actually looked like. A bust of the Ptolemaic queen in the Vatican Museum, the only known statue of her to survive from antiquity, is missing its nose. One bronze coin minted in Alexandria, however, depicts a confident young woman whose prominent nose projects a sense of power—reminding us of the 17th-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal’s observation: “If Cleopatra’s nose were shorter, the shape of the world would have been different.”
Hollywood filmmakers have indeed given us Cleopatras with shorter noses—and plenty of sizzle. As early as 1917, Theda Bara (actually Theodosia Goodman, a Jewish girl from Avondale, Ohio) re-invented Cleopatra’s dangerous sexuality in the silent film Cleopatra. With revealing costumes designed to showcase her voluptuous figure and smoky bedroom eyes, Bara’s Cleopatra (above) inflamed the audience’s wildest fantasies as she seduced her Roman lovers. The first “sex symbol” created by the nascent film industry, she arrived for press conferences in a gleaming white limousine attended by “Nubian” footmen.
By the time Claudette Colbert (above) portrayed Cleopatra in Paramount Studio’s 1934 film, the queen’s sensuality had been transformed into a kind of strong-willed, street-smart spunkiness. Director Cecil B. DeMille included other contemporary touches: 039Egyptian palaces were decorated in Art Deco style; and Julius Caesar, played by Warren William, gives orders to his scribe as if he were a 20th-century magnate barking at his gal Friday: “Take a message—to Mark Antony—Rome.”
Vivien Leigh (above) starred as young Cleopatra in the 1946 film adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s acerbic play, Caesar and Cleopatra. Here Cleopatra is no siren; rather, she is a beautiful but innocent maiden who learns cynical lessons about life and politics from a venerable Julius Caesar, played by Claude Rains. The film’s lavish sets were really the star of the show, not Vivien Leigh: Director Gabriel Pascal even insisted on importing sand from Egypt to achieve the right cinematic colors.
In 1963 Joseph L. Mankiewicz tried to reinvigorate the genre of the historical epic by remaking the story of Cleopatra. An old-fashioned, DeMille-style celebration of spectacle and sex, the film featured Hollywood’s hottest actress, Elizabeth Taylor—who made headlines with the industry’s first million-dollar movie contract and her tempestuous love affair with co-star Richard Burton, who played Antony.
Unfortunately, Taylor’s mesmerizing beauty couldn’t overcome the audience’s growing impatience with Hollywood pageantry. One of the most expensive historical films ever produced, Cleopatra was a box office flop, failing to make back even a fraction of its cost.