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The Siren of the Nile and Star of the Silver Screen!

By David Wolfe
Cleopatra movies
Cover of Cleopatra in the Movies

The real Cleopatra and movie depictions of the legendary Egyptian Queen are similar but certainly not the same. In actuality, she was a clever politician, a power-mad manipulator and no great beauty. Cinematic versions depict Cleopatra as a glamour girl, a seductress supreme and an astonishing clotheshorse. This paper doll book features four famous actresses who brought her to life on the screen in 1917, 1934, 1946 and 1963.

Cleopatra VII Theo Philopator, born in 69BC, was the last Pharaoh of Ancient Egypt. She co-ruled with her father and later with her two brothers (also her ceremonial husbands). After several members of her family murdered each other battling for the throne, 18 year-old-Cleopatra ruled with her 12-year-old-brother, Ptolemy XIII, but she tried to usurp all the power for herself which led to such great unrest that she was forced to flee the country.

When her brother had angered Caesar by having the Roman’s son-in-law, Pompey, beheaded, Cleopatra returned. She was soon restored to the throne, co-ruling with another younger brother, Ptolemy XIV. She accomplished that regal act by initiating a liaison with Julius Caesar, thirty years her senior. Their relationship, said to have begun when Cleopatra had herself smuggled into Caesar’s presence rolled in a carpet, inspired George Bernard Shaw’s play, “Caesar and Cleopatra.” She gave birth to their son, Caesarian, (who was later executed by Caesar’s legal heir, Octavian). Both mother and son visited Rome and were present on March 15, 44BC when Caesar was assassinated. She returned to Egypt where her ailing brother died, and she had her son named co-regent and successor. She also had her sister killed, just to safeguard her supremacy.

Two years later, Marc Antony, one of the triumvirs ruling Rome after Caesar’s death, summoned the Egyptian Queen to question her loyalty. She dazzled him and they spent the winter together in Alexandria where Cleopatra then gave birth to twins. Antony visited again in 37BC. The lovers were married and had another child. As the “power couple” of their time, they waged wars and crowned their own children rulers of the conquered countries. Cleopatra even had herself declared Queen of Kings. This so outraged the Roman Senate that war was declared against Egypt.

The famed Roman war machine was invincible and invaded Egypt, where in 30BC Antony’s army deserted him. Told that Cleopatra was dead, he committed suicide. Four days later, she died too, having arranged to be served a basket of figs garnished with a poisonous asp. The tragic romance of “Caesar and Cleopatra” was immortalized by William Shakespeare.

For centuries, the character of Cleopatra has been considered a star turn. In the 1600s, boys portrayed the Queen of the Nile on the London stage where laws forbade females from performing. That soon changed and a stream of actresses have since barged down the Nile. Sarah Bernhardt in 1892, Helen Hayes in 1925, Tallulah Bankhead in1937, Katherine Hepburn in 1960 and Helen Mirren in 1999 are just a few of the stars who brought Cleopatra to life on the stage. The movies and TV also contributed to the on-going legend of the Queen’s deathless allure. In 1908, Florence Lawrence was the movies’ first Cleopatra and she was followed by scores of stars including Rhonda Fleming, Sophia Loren and Lynn Redgrave.

The four most famous cinematic portrayals are the quartet in this book of paper dolls with some of their incredible movie costumes, each version interestingly interpreting Egyptian fashion into the contemporary style of each film’s time.

Theda Bara, 1917. Famed as “The Vamp” of the silent screen, the overly voluptuous star might have designed her own rather risqué costumes for the film, of which only 40 seconds remain viewable today.

Claudette Colbert, 1934. A spirited leading lady, this Paris-born star was equally adept at drama and comedy. She disliked Cecil B. Demille’s vision of her as a siren. But Travis Banton’s extravagant costumes turned her into a slinky, sultry seductress poured into barely-there bias-cut gowns.

Vivien Leigh, 1946. With Claude Raines as Caesar, the former Scarlett O’Hara sparked as the kittenish young Queen in ravishing costumes by Oliver Messel, some made from sari silks.

Elizabeth Taylor, 1963. First star to get a million dollars for a role, the actress’ private life overshadowed the film that almost bankrupted 20th Century Fox studios. Irene Sharaff’s costumes got the Oscar. Rex Harrison’s Caesar couldn’t compete with Richard Burton’s Antony, especially off-screen where the scandalous Taylor/Burton affair became a media explosion.

Cleopatra in the movies...her history captured on film again and again (with more to come, surely) ensures that the legend will live on and on, brought to life on the silver screen.

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