This year marks the 50th anniversary of Joseph L. Mankiewicz's's 1963 Cleopatra, a grand spectacle beset with production hell, hirings, firings, budgetary insanity and one of the most legendary affairs in Hollywood history. Re-released to coincide with Cleopatra's 50th is the book "My Life with Cleopatra: The Making of a Hollywood Classic" by Cleopatra producer Walter Wanger. Wanger's journals offer some intriguing inside information, but digging into the producer's own life and scandal proved extra fascinating. I discuss at The Los Angeles Review of Books. Here is an excerpt from my piece.
Cleopatra producer Walter Wanger had surely seen it all. Having lived and worked through the silents, the talkies, and Todd-AO, the movie veteran understood the art and commerce of Hollywood, the deals and decadence. The eminently erudite and sophisticated producer also understood the infidelities — the groin-crushing infidelities — and with a cinematic vengeance, he shot a man for it. So it’s quietly startling to read, in his published production diary, My Life with Cleopatra, this miniature entry regarding Eddie Fisher’s infamous betrayal by wife Elizabeth Taylor and her new lover Richard Burton. It’s darkly amusing, and almost winkingly cryptic:
"March 19, 1962
"Eddie Fisher to New York.
"I think it is ill-advised to leave now. He didn’t ask me for advice, however, which is just as well. I was no expert in solving a similar problem myself."
Indeed, he was not. Wanger went to the slammer for the felonious confrontation with his wife’s lover. There was no “we need to talk about this, honey”; no higher ground or any of that path-of-least-resistance business. Simply put: he shot his wife’s paramour in the crotch. But with prison comes wisdom. And, certainly, with Elizabeth Taylor comes wisdom.
Had heartsick crooner Fisher actually sought advice from educated ex-con Wanger, perhaps he would have learned something. Or, perhaps he would have gotten too many ideas. In any case, Eddie Fisher did not seek counsel with Walter Wanger before exiting the Cleopatra set, so distraught over his violet-eyed wife lusting for that ruggedly handsome Welshman-in-the-grass that, according to Elizabeth Taylor (via Vanity Fair contributing editors Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger), he put a gun to her head. “I’m not going to kill you. You’re too beautiful,” he told the woman who’d just survived a life-threatening and emergency tracheotomy the year prior.
Who knows what might have happened had Eddie Fisher shot Elizabeth Taylor? The bullet would have connected, for Liz was notoriously catastrophe-prone, but something would have saved her, for she was also freakishly resilient. A jewel from one of her glittering headdresses or a flinty sequin from her customized Cleo eye-makeup would have deflected the fell bullet. Instead of spending a couple days in the morgue, Liz would have returned to the hospital after a months-long vigil while Fischer anguished darkly in the slammer. Wanger would have had no choice but to endure the production delays as he had all the others, and Taylor would have returned to the set alive and refreshed. Wonderful. Except for the hair department. They’d have to alter all of her wigs to cover that damn bullet wound.
But Fisher’s fresh hurt must have rustled up some past tumult within Wanger — much more than that skinny, enigmatic 1962 diary entry suggests. One can only speculate how much Wanger knew of Fisher’s rage, but he surely reflected on l’affair — particularly when considering Liz’s lover, Burton. Fisher reportedly bought a gun just for Burton, whom he dreamt of shooting (I can’t help but think of Fisher humming his own hit “I’m Walking Behind You” in his sleepless fantasy murder scenarios), but, thankfully, never fired a bullet.
Walter Wanger was a different kind of man. When in 1951 he found himself in a similar predicament, the pipe-smoking producer didn’t pack his bags and run to New York. He packed a heater and headed for the MCA parking lot.
Wanger barely discusses his own scandal (of course he doesn’t) in My Life With Cleopatra (co-written with Hollywood columnist and author Joe Hyams), his making-of diaries dating from the film’s beginning in 1958 to his epilogue dated March 7, 1963:
"It would be pleasant to say that the trials and tribulations which characterized the making of Cleopatra ended with that day in Egypt eight months ago when I made my farewell speech. It would also be pleasant to say that the pleasures of fame and fortune made all our sufferings worth while and, that in the true Hollywood tradition, we lived happily thereafter. The truth is something else again."
Read the rest of story at The Los Angeles Review of Books.