Caesar and Cleopatra (1945): Born to Rule

post“You are very sentimental, Caesar, but you are clever. And if you do as I tell you, you will soon learn how to govern.”

—Cleopatra

If Vivien Leigh were alive today, she would be 100 years old. In reality, she lived barely over half that long. Like many astronomically gorgeous women, Leigh endured a nasty amount of disparagement by critics who claimed she used her looks to compensate for her acting.

Which is why I wanted write about Gabriel Pascal’s Caesar and Cleopatra, in which Leigh gave us the best celluloid incarnation of Egypt’s legendary queen, a role that rewarded both her beauty and her brains. Her monarch of the Nile is no royal cipher, no myth, and no parody, but a flesh-and-blood girl—a creature more tantalizing and paradoxical than a sphinx.

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George Bernard Shaw (on whose play the film was based) disliked Vivien Leigh’s performance, according to film historian Kendra Bean, webmistress of Viv and Larry. Upon previewing the completed film, Shaw moaned, “she’s ruined it.” But—and I write this with profound respect for Shaw’s literary genius—to hell with his opinion. He had some pretty dodgy opinions in his time. Acute observation may often be called cynicism, but not all cynicism deserves to be called acute observation.

After all, if this white elephant of a film holds up, it’s due in no small part to Leigh. Many of us drown in the fountain of Shavian wit. But who can’t relate to Cleopatra as Leigh plays her?

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Thanks to her interpretation, the audience senses that Cleopatra’s quavering reluctance and savage exhibitionism—flip sides of the same coin—hold the potential of greatness. When we first meet the teen queen, her flippant outbursts, her tyrannical gestures of rebellion, and her cutsey manipulations all strike a remarkable balance between annoyance and enchantment. She beguiles the viewer into recognizing that tremendous opportunity sleeps in her whimsy. In one lyrical shot, as Cleopatra snoozes in her virginal bed, the camera tracks over her towards the sea, as though destiny were keeping vigil over her, waiting with certainty for her character to ripen.

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Terence Rattigan once referred to Vivien as “one of nature’s grand Duchesses.” He meant that somewhat pejoratively, since her innate majesty limited her range, in his estimate. By contrast, I would argue that this quality brought out an added facet of many of her roles.

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Hoary old men of literature seem to enjoy the archetypes of the downtrodden or silly woman. However, I personally cannot help but find it refreshing that Vivien Leigh radiates grace and dignity at all times, even in the gutter. In her, substance and coquettishness aren’t separate. They fuse. The beauty of Leigh’s performance as Cleopatra elevates girlishness to a form of latent power.

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In On Acting, Laurence Olivier zeroed in on a basic flaw in the original play’s dynamics: “Shaw makes the most brilliant comic role for Cleopatra in the first act, but after the middle of the play she doesn’t get one laugh. He loses interest in Cleopatra and fastens his interest on Caesar; he just adores Caesar.”

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Spot-on, Larry. Shaw wanted to give us a witty play about education, a paean to the transformative effects of quasi-condescending, platonic relationships between world-weary middle-aged men and much younger women. Rather one-sided, isn’t it? Once Cleopatra proves a somewhat incorrigible pupil, killing traitors and not knowing how to handle the mess, Shaw seems to throw up his hands and reveal the work’s true purpose—letting Caesar preach the Zen of politics, the kindly non-governance that governs best.

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I suspect that Shaw resented Vivien’s efforts to counterbalance this swing of focus. If anything, her Cleopatra grows more fascinating in the second half. And although she obviously benefits from Caesar’s guidance, she was never a tabula rasa, a pretty, childish lump of clay for the conqueror to mold.

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Is it best that we should all be wise, steady, and a little jaded? Perhaps. But there’s something to be said for those youthful, uncivilized qualities that our elders try to break us of. Cleopatra’s vanity, her jagged energy, her impetuousness, her passionate nimbleness of mind, and even her egocentric spite come across as somewhat positive traits, though Shaw no doubt didn’t want them to.

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Vivien Leigh seized on the universality and charm of her role, awakening a side of Cleopatra that disturbs Shaw’s through-line. Just as Cleopatra learns from Caesar but discards the least practical bits of his wisdom, Leigh works with the architecture of Shaw’s play, but takes her performance in a different direction, one rather ahead of its time.

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Watching about twenty different expressions and deductions passing across Leigh’s quicksilver face in a minute, the modern spectator recognizes the strong, but confused girl-woman so prominent in today’s society. Why, you could plunk Leigh’s Cleopatra down in the midst of any gathering of bright millennials and she’d be right at home, with her curious blend of irrationality and competence, arrogance and insecurity.

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There’s enormous strength in girlishness, as Leigh shows us. Girlishness shocks scruples and overcomes the virtue of restraint—a virtue once you’re in control, but not necessarily a habit of highly effective people on the trip to get there. Most political strategy requires a kind of childish boldness, as suggested by Cleopatra’s lines like, “It is not that I am so clever, but that the others are so stupid.”

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The camera aids and abets Leigh’s interpretation of a Cleopatra who holds her own against Caesar’s dreamy equanimity. We might not want to feel the rush of intoxicating cruelty as she chases a slave around in her palace in long shot, her little veiled figure flitting and dancing around like a mischievous fairy, but I’d wager that most of us do.

She scampers up to her throne and raises her arms skyward, announcing, “I am a QUEEN!” The glorious self-absorption of this moment serves as both a warning and gratification, the initial glee triggered by a perception of absolute power. (Sadly, it was while filming this scene that then-pregnant Vivien slipped and took a fall that caused her to miscarry.)

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 As the Roman legions enter her palace, the film medium conveys Cleopatra’s erstwhile courage in a way a stage play never could. We witness her trembling anxiety in a number of tense reaction shots, as the soldiers get closer and closer. Rather than presenting a dramatic spectacle, the film offers up Cleopatra’s experience of bravery as the concealment of fear.

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Towards the conclusion, the film uses another close-up of Leigh to signify a key shift in the plot and to meld it with an emotional turning point in Cleopatra’s coming-of-age progression. When Cleopatra cowers over the body of her nurse, killed as a consequence of the Queen’s own meddling, she stares towards the camera with a blank look. The darkness of the murder scene slowly dissolves to the white-hot sands of the desert as Leigh’s face lingers, superimposed, over dunes, as troops march off to war.

Through the transition, it’s as though Cleopata’s wide, horrified eyes were seeing through the scene of a single death to witness a bloody battle, threatening imminent death for thousands of men. We recognize that a major upheaval has taken place in her consciousness. Touched by death, she grasps the stakes of this game.

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Now, I have chosen to devote my attention to Vivien Leigh today, but I cannot praise Claude Rains’s performance enough. Rains may be the first man since antiquity to successfully exude authority while wearing a metallic mini-skirt, possibly because he performs all those Roman gestures with a nod of rumpled humor.

More importantly, the audience can feel the pit of loneliness in the heart of this conqueror. The miracle of his voice, like a well-tuned orchestra, rescues so many of Caesar’s philosophy lectures from oblivion. Rains captures the mixture of affection, mentorship, and wariness in Caesar’s relationship with Cleopatra, infusing his performance with the barest hint of attraction for his protégée.

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In one of the most splendid scenes of the film, Caesar, Cleopatra, Rufio, and Apollodorus sit around a dinner table in the rosy sunset glow of the palace rooftop. The camera tracks back from an inscrutable idol to reveal the four revelers, lounging around after the meal. The moment that follows is the closest to romantic intimacy that the eponymous pair will come, and it aches with yearning.

Certainly, Shaw’s florid prose evokes this throb of desire, as Caesar dreams of discovering a new land with Cleopatra. However, the coziness of the two-shot between Caesar and Cleopatra, reclining in waning light, translates the might-have-been into an image of palpable closeness. By default, the audience wants a couple. The chemistry between Rains and Leigh deepens this longing. But it’s not to be.

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Caesar and Cleopatra’s opulence devoured a budget that could’ve paid a king’s ransom: 1.3 million in total. In fact, it was the costliest British studio production up to that time. When the film flopped at the box office, Gabriel Pascal’s career as a director fell on its sword. I admire this film for presenting a total antithesis to every other movie about the Queen of the Nile. Devoid of gratuitous sex and violence (actually, make that all sex and almost all violence), the cerebral tenor of the movie begs to be appreciated like a fine wine.

Ultimately, though, a drawing room comedy can be rolled over one’s palate and not cost a million pounds. Pomp and intellect are ill-yoked partners. As Cecil B. DeMille knew, temples and pyramids upstage fragile thoughts, which is why an epic needs only a central clash and a few morsels of elemental ideology.

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Much as I mourn for the failure of this experiment in the intellectual epic, I do find the film too long, padded here and there by unnecessary bits of business and well-written, but ultimately uncinematic speeches. No matter how much Technicolor eye candy Jack Cardiff and company lavish on the audience members, the film tests their patience.

I become easily exasperated with Caesar’s romantic wisdom. His collection of tolerant aphorisms wears thin on me. Not that I don’t agree with his open-minded doctrine of pragmatic clemency, but he shows this philosophy enough by his actions without having to articulate it over and over and over. A leaner screenplay might have saved this adaptation from its sanctimonious belches.

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Here again, the blood is on Shaw’s hands, given the playwright’s refusal to allow his source material to be significantly cut or modified. You’d think the Oscar he won for Pygmalion (1938) would’ve opened his eyes to the specific demands of the cinema and demonstrated how a successful adaptation can negotiate these challenges.

Despite the quixotic shortcomings (or longcomings) of the film, I recommend it for the sumptuous visuals and spot-on lead performances. Watch it and rejoice in the Queen’s transcendent brattiness. Like Cleopatra, Vivien Leigh was born to rule.

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Hamlet (1948): Spacing Out

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It’s not hard to understand why Laurence Olivier selected this abbreviated passage of Hamlet as the opening statement, the thesis, if you will, of his adaptation. After all, these few lines contain the most eloquent description of the tragic flaw that anyone ever wrote; well, duh, it’s practically Shakespeare analyzing Shakespeare.

If anything, the quotation slaps us across the face with its significance. We might even feel inclined to groan at its 9th-grade-English-class heavy-handedness, spliced right into the exposition of the film. But we would be wrong to do so, because it contains the central image of Olivier’s brazenly stripped-down vision of the literary masterpiece.

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The last time I watched this movie, a line from the epigraph tickled my brain: “Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason.” Because, what is “reason” if not a buffer, a barrier? Something that restricts our mind like a corset of scruples and holds it prisoner like a castle keep? Reason consists of a series of bulwarks that we erect between ourselves and madness in all of its forms, whether excessive melancholy, anger, desire… or insight.

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The nature of reason can aptly express itself in architectural terms, particularly medieval ones. We live inside our heads, besieged by armies of competing facts and moral codes. We probably lift the portcullis of our perceptions and prejudices to admit new ideas much less frequently than we think we do.

Okay, so I’ve over-extended my metaphor, but it’s all in the service of Olivier’s direction. His Hamlet seizes on that guiding conceit, the fortress of reason, and spins it into a space where Desmond Dickinson’s camera seems to ruminate like Hamlet’s troubled mind, forever roving and wandering.

The opening of Olivier’s Hamlet freezes time. No one moves, like they couldn’t even if they wanted to. Four men stand on the ramparts of a castle, bearing the Prince’s corpse. We begin at the end of the story. This isn’t exactly a spoiler, since we all know Hamlet ain’t getting out of this alive, but the funereal shot infuses the film with a distinct and surreal sense of dread from the start.

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But what fascinates me about this opening shot is how time seems to have stopped as the camera glides through air, arcing out of the fog towards the prince’s body. The camera shows us that while time might have stopped for the people of this tale, the dimension of space remains open—and the camera dances in it.

The contrast between still, inert humans and a living, moving perspective divorced from them, well, it spooks me. It’s the visual equivalent of the alarming question that begins Shakespeare’s play, “Who’s there?”

Who—or what—is swooping down to look at the funerary procession while mortals can’t budge?

The next shot flips me out even more. On that forbidding castle fort, those figures in mourning just dissolve into thin air, leaving the battlements empty of people. This transition reminds us of how easily we all eventually dematerialize: “Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander, till he find it stopping a bung-hole?”

The dissolve also reveals that the film conceives space as a psychological entity. This simplified, archetypal Elsinore, which initially appeared to have been lifted from a book of Charles Lamb’s tales or a Horace Walpole novel, actually exists in a place between Hamlet’s imagination and reality. The castle, though real, occasionally bleeds into the fortress of Hamlet’s askew reason.

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Nowhere is this link more clear than in Olivier’s staging of the play’s most famous monologue. Immediately after Hamlet rejects Ophelia for betraying him, the camera wooshes out of the room, up a staircase, and goes on one of its fugues, travelling up flight after flight of stairs—or actually, the same flight of stairs, cut together again and again.

Finally, the camera flies up to the sea, seen from the top of the castle, and then a track-back brings Hamlet’s head into sight from the bottom the frame. For my money, those M.C. Escher-ish repeated staircases convey the structure of rumination, of those repetitive thoughts that we can’t quite break away from. Hamlet’s mind is a lively, circular one, forever walking up and down the gloomy staircases of the Big Questions: why do we live? What is the good in staying alive? Is it worth it? Why? Why? Why?

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That sudden emergence of Hamlet’s head in the frame always surprises me a little. After a dissociative fit where we lose almost all sense of proportion on those abstracted staircases, we’ve returned to a man as the point of reference. The staggering switches in scope make the audience more aware of what I see as Hamlet’s flaw.

And Hamlet’s “problem,” in my humble opinion, is that the universe as a whole speaks to him.

He realizes his insignificance in the grand scheme of things; he cannot act because he questions the usefulness of any action at all. Hamlet combines self-absorption with self-effacement. He swims in the frightening space of the cosmos and wriggles in the prison of his own duties and life.

That crane shot, careening through the void, then returning to the melancholy prince suggests this push-pull, this paradoxical feeling that Hamlet is at once too much inside himself and too far away from himself.

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I love how Elsinore’s spaces reflect emotional nuances that a stage never could. For instance, the first crane shot down to focus on Hamlet cements our identification with him, with the thinker, the man left alone in the debris of pompous court ceremonies.

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Or consider how the long corridors of arches create a pathetic reciprocal gaze between Ophelia and Hamlet. The hallway inscribes and entombs their confused desire in stone.

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Likewise, I treasure Olivier’s pirouette in the performance hall of Elsinore, shown in a long shot, as he exults, “The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King!”

In On Acting, Olivier described Hamlet as the sort of person who needs to enter into someone else’s skin to get anything done: “it’s a sporadic collection of self-dramatizations in which he always tries to play the hero and, in truth, feels ill-cast in the part.”

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Here, Hamlet’s ecstasy in a performance space exposes how much he yearns to escape his limitations—and in the cavernous great room, the euphoria of that small gesticulating figure rings false. The desperate spurt of joy that Hamlet feels on an empty stage space, play-acting only for himself, paints a sad portrait of this man who considers himself unfit for everything others expect from him.

Unlike Laertes and Fortinbras who never seriously doubt their capabilities, Hamlet mercilessly beats up on his character flaws. If anything, his flaw is that he’s too aware of his flaws.

In 1988, two psychologists, Taylor and Brown, found out something that Shakespeare’s Hamlet had been telling us for a long time. Namely, that people suffering from mild depression are far more in touch with the realities of life, death, and risk. By contrast, normal, healthy individuals tend think that they’re better, smarter, and safer than the “average person.”

Hamlet lacks the survival prejudices that would have allowed him to filter out all the reasons not to act, not to stay alive. He sees the world with depressive clarity: “nothing’s either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

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So, indeed, reason consists of “pales and forts.” Reason usually provides a structure that protects us from ourselves. We live inside it, like happy guests in a castle, until something goes wrong, something that lets us understand that we are not immune to ugliness and pain.

Like Hamlet pulling back the arras to see that he has killed the wrong man, a person who finally sees the world as it is howls at the brutal disillusionment. And then all that reason turns from a bulwark to a prison. After a trauma, reason and logic start to encircle us with worries and perspectives that unhinge the unity of mind that one needs to do anything.

As Hamlet walks among the arches and pediments of Elsinore, he moves freely, but the walls close in upon him, pillars fragment the screen and crowd him. Unlike Ophelia, who in her craziness finds a state of mind akin to freedom and who drowns outside the castle walls, Hamlet struggles within them. The castle echoes back his angst—as does the Ghost, whose voice is actually a slowed-down recording of Olivier.

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Only imminent death, as Olivier notes, added the final ingredient to Hamlet’s character that enabled him to act. His own self-destruction fueled a newly personal need for retribution; he could kill the king only because he himself was dying.

After Hamlet dies, the camera pans to the region of darkness behind the chair where his head rests, as if in mourning for the blackout of his exquisite consciousness.

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In death, Hamlet still lies inside the ramparts of reason; the film ends where it began, but with a crucial shift. As the same four men seen at the beginning of the film carry the prince to the top of the castle, the camera snakes past the vestiges of the things that once preoccupied Hamlet: his place in court, the incestuous marriage bed, and a Christian altar. The men bear his body up the stairs to the top of the castle, where he meditated on his own mortality, and the camera swings back.

We experience a solemn elevation and a swelling fondness for the “sweet prince,” whose real kingdom was a state of mind. Not only did he accomplish his goal, he possessed that noblest and rarest of qualities: unflinching insight.

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The innovative spaces of Olivier’s Hamlet tap into the unique capacities of cinematic language. They transcend the glibness of symbolism, of “this equals that” imagery. Instead, the way the camera creeps around the architecture of Elsinore enables us to penetrate into what the intellectual Hamlet actually feels. The amorphous, psychological film-spaces blazed the trail for art films like Blow-Up (I’m thinking especially of that final enigmatic dissolve), Last Year at Marienbad, and The Shining, to name just a few.

But, most of all, the film’s benighted rooms and fortifications enable us to witness the birth of modern man, banging his head against the illusions implicit in normalcy and order.

The dread of mortality and failure may paralyze Hamlet. Yet, his greatness, his heroism, the reason why we weep for him resides in the very flaw that forestalls him: his sensitivity, his intensified sentience. The flexibility of the camera’s movements transmits the remarkable agility of his mind and the diversity of opinions that contend in his spirit. He would probably have been a terrible king, but he was a sublime human being.

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