Quick Answer: Despite being one of the highest-grossing films of 1963 and earning a Best Picture nomination, Cleopatra cost an outrageous $44 million ($320 million in today’s money) and nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox. Director Joseph Mankiewicz worked himself to exhaustion and took injections to cope with the lack of sleep. When a needle hit his sciatic nerve, it permanently disfigured him.
Joseph Mankiewicz, the legendary director of Guys and Dolls (1955), Julius Caesar (1953) and All About Eve (1950), lived with a physical disfigurement for the last thirty years of his life. The cause of his injury wasn’t illness or an unfortunate accident; he was a casualty of a disastrous movie that destroyed his life, almost sank a studio and cost Hollywood millions.
When 20th Century Fox studio head Maurice “Buddy” Adler was seeking a story to turn into a grand cinematic spectacle, he was sold on Cleopatra (1963) by aging producer Walter Wanger who campaigned for Elizabeth Taylor to play the title role. The actress demanded $1 million, the highest salary any actor had ever negotiated for at the time, on top of an already high budget.
Elizabeth Taylor in Celopatra (1963)
At first, Taylor’s presence was the only thing that anchored the movie. Despite the sunken production costs, the re-writes and writer replacements during two years of pre-production, the creative team had still not produced a filmable script, and England’s Pinewood Studios did not have the technical capacity required for the film’s production.
As shooting commenced in September of 1960, Taylor’s presence was also going wrong. The English weather and humidity caused the star to fall ill with a cold, costing the studio $2 million in delays until a physician finally diagnosed Taylor with an abscessed tooth. She later had a bout of pneumonia that necessitated a life-saving tracheotomy. Meanwhile, the production’s first director, Rouben Mamoulian, struggled with the unfinished script and unstable weather conditions. By the time he resigned, the studio had sunk $7 million and only had 10 usable minutes of footage.
After Mamoulian’s departure, Elizabeth Taylor named Joseph Mankiewicz (for whom she acted in 1959's Suddenly Last Summer) as the only available director she’d be willing to work with. Mankiewicz knew that epics weren’t his forte, but Twentieth Century Fox had already put too much money into Elizabeth Taylor and the production to scrap the film altogether, so they made him an offer he couldn’t refuse (upwards of $1.2 million dollars), and even bought his production company outright.
Mankiewicz decided to scrap the two previous years’ work and relocate the production from England to Rome. For several months, he worked himself to exhaustion, writing new pages of the script at night and shooting them the next day — the lack of polish resulting from the time crunch cost the studio millions more. The director took injections to cope with the lack of sleep, and, when a needle hit his sciatic nerve, it permanently disfigured him.
Another complication occurred on set when Taylor, who was then married to Eddie Fisher, had an affair with co-star Richard Burton — a romance that the tabloids covered with unprecedented scrutiny, sparking international curiosity and condemnation. Even the Vatican denounced the adulterous affair.
The film’s many disastrous delays left little time for post-production before the scheduled release date. The final cut clocked in at over six hours, which Mankiewicz repeatedly refused to trim before eventually relenting. The studio floated the idea of splitting the work into two films. However, because of the immense tabloid interest in the on-set romance between Taylor and Richard Burton, they wisely decided that releasing a Part II at a later time was risky, as the Burton/Taylor romance might not still be intact at a later release date.
Despite being one of the highest grossing films of the year and winning a Best Picture nomination, the film ultimately cost an outrageous $44 million ($320 million in today’s money) and put 20th Century Fox in the red for two years. Additionally, production was halted on all other Fox films during the period that Cleopatra was made, further hampering the studio’s earnings.
Guardian reporter John Patterson has noted that Cleopatra was the only film made before 1998 that ranked in the top 50 most expensive films ever made, writing that the movie had “the kind of outlay that might have helped NASA put a man on the moon by 1966.”
After Cleopatra, Mankiewicz’s professional reputation floundered, and he could only find work in TV for years. He found redemption in the 1972 Lawrence Olivier-Michael Caine vehicle Sleuth, which combined the witty dialogue and suspenseful plotting at which Mankiewicz excelled pre-Cleopatra and earned him another Best Director nomination. This success led to more job offers, but, according to his son Tom, the great director was ready to walk away from the industry. He had finally achieved his most important goal – he had overcome Cleopatra, the disaster that nearly destroyed Mankiewicz and Twentieth Century Fox.