Thursday, March 24, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor's Cleopatra Eyes

When I learned yesterday morning that Elizabeth Taylor had died, my thoughts went back fifty years plus, to a cosmetics counter in New York. Here's what came next, from my book, Fujiyama Trays & Oshibori Towels.

"Shopping on layovers in New York City was a favorite activity. New York pulsed with the latest trends in everything, fashion above all. It was the perfect groove for twenty-something young ladies in the 1950s. Thus it was that Bonnie Murray and I were drawn to the cosmetics counter at Saks Fifth Avenue to scope out the new and noisily trumpeted Cleopatra look. Encouraged by the sales lady to experiment with the bold and colorful eye paints, we hoped that the images we constructed would transform us into clones of Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, star of the ill-fated movie in progress. The reflections in the counter-top mirrors must have satisfied the impostors, sans the violet eyes, of course. Triumphantly reflecting the look du jour, we each spent the equivalent of a week's pay on the recommended eyeliners, eye shadows and mascara for our new false eyelashes and carried it all back to Minnesota.
The movie seemed jinxed from the beginning. The original director (Rouben Mamoulian) left after six days and was replaced by Joseph Mankiewicz. Filming began in London, where the elaborate sets, props and exotic plants deteriorated in the damp London air. The actors hired to play Julius Ceasar (Peter finch) and Marc Antony (Stephen Boyd) left due to other commitments and were replaced by Rex Harrison and Richard Burton. Elizabeth Taylor became very ill and, after barely surviving an emergency tracheotomy, had trouble recuperating in London. The movie was shut down. After six months the production was moved to Rome where a titillating public romance bloomed between Taylor and Burton. Believe me, it would have easily fed today's 24/7 news cycle for months. It took another three years to complete the movie. Both Bonnie and I had resigned from the airline to marry and had become mothers by the time the film opened in 1963.
"By the time the bugles sounded the opening fanfare, the film's costs had soared to $44 million - the equivalent of more than $295 million in 2008 dollars - making this the most costly film in American history, until Superman and Harry Potter entered the race. Originally budgeted at $2 million, Cleopatra is famous for nearly bankrupting 20th Century Fox. And the bottom line: the film was a colossal dud.
"A similar fate awaited the Cleopatra impostors upon their triumphant return to Minnesota with overflowing make-up cases. It didn't take nearly as long for the dynamic duo to meet their critics, however. After scurrying home from the airport and spending hours applying the Cleopatra look, Bonnie and Anne welcomed their dates and sped off with them to the Five-Eight Club, a hamburger joint near the airport. It wasn't until we slid into the booth, the guys on one side and ladies on the other; that anything was said about our carefully constructed visages.
"Our dates thoughtfully and silently sized up the apparitions before them. My date finally broke the silence. He turned to Bonnie's date and said, "Should we hose them off and see what we're with?
"It was the Five-Eight Club and not Hollywood, but we were colossal duds too."