There are so many wonderfully costumed features streaming right now, and in such a variety of genres, that I think it would be impossible to narrow it down to a top seven. So I’m going with a different approach. Instead of having a countdown of the seven best costume movies, I will identify the best movie in each of seven categories. Each category is well-established in movie history as being strong in costume design. They are, in no particular order:
– The Ancient World
– European Nobility
– Comic Books and Superheroes
– High Society
– Life on the stage
Today we’re going way back in time, to the ancient world, to the land of Egypt and the reign of Cleopatra.
Starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and Rex Harrison
Men’s costumes designed by Vittorio Nino Novarese
Women’s costumes designed by Renié
Available to stream on Netflix
Cleopatra is perhaps the most famous woman in all of history. She was the last active pharaoh of ancient Egypt, a cunning strategist, a powerful ruler, and a legendary beauty. Her story has been told in the books of ancient historians, in the words of Shakespeare, and finally in 1963 on glorious 70mm color film.
The production of Cleopatra is also quite famous. Its $44 million budget was the highest ever at the time (adjusted for inflation it comes to just under $300 million). Elizabeth Taylor needed 65 costumes, which alone cost nearly $200,000. Her salary was a whopping $7 million ($29 million adjusted for inflation). The movie clocks in at 4 hours, and that’s just the version we have today; the director’s cut runs closer to 5 1/2 hours. In total, over 4 miles of film was used to capture the story. So, was all that worth it?
It’s safe to say that this movie has problems:
1) Some of the performances were laughably uneven. Richard Burton’s Mark Antony is flamboyantly overacted and Taylor’s Cleopatra has a wooden stiffness that killed any possible chemistry. Rex Harrison was great as Julius Caesar, but his solid performance only made Taylor’s and Burton’s more painful by contrast.
2) The script is far too mellow. I realize it comes from a much more conservative era in movie history, but come on! This is the story of the most famous love affair of all time. I don’t expect a movie filled with love scenes but there are other ways to make a movie sexy, and the script completely missed the mark.
3) The story was originally proposed as two movies, running at 3 hours each. Instead, it was released as a single film and cut to bits. This leaves gaps all over the place and the story doesn’t come together the way it should.
Ok, so why am I reviewing a movie that I think is so flawed? Because this is a costume party, and Cleopatra has some of the best costumes ever put on film. Even if you’re not interested by the story, you will be drawn in by the beauty of the wardrobe. Taylor is dazzling, both literally and figuratively. Designer Renié’s use of color, contrasted with the overabundance of gold is breathtaking.
And there’s plenty to see from the men as well. All the glory of the Roman Empire captured in a ceremonial breastplate. All the grandeur of Ancient Egypt displayed on a glorious headdress.
The costuming is so thorough in this movie, even the servants are dressed like royalty. There is an exuberance on display that screams epic. It is magnetic, and completely makes up for the mishandling of the script. Cleopatra is through and through a spectacle. It’s like a 4-hour feast for the eyes.