Cleopatra’s Most Notable Portrayals
Cleopatra may live in legend, but legend doesn’t last very long without people talking about it. Fortunately for her, she has been talked about since her death with few breaks. Cleopatra, simply put, is and remains an incredibly popular subject for entertainment. Various plays were made that maintained her legend for people across the world and seemed to culminate in Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” that in turn became the cultural standard for much of the West. Plays, especially Shakespeare’s plays, remain popular to this day and have inspired countless people over the years. Is it any wonder that filmmakers eventually began to draw on her legend? Cleopatra’s cinematic appearances are where her legend truly became cemented in the modern consciousness with various memorable portrayals making her into as much myth as she was reality. Let’s take a quick look at some of these portrayals so that we get a “Who’s Who” of actresses that have played Cleopatra.
Today we practically worship movie stars, but there was a time before movie stars were that well-known. Lawrence has the distinction of becoming a movie star when it first began to mean something. Her star was still rising when she was cast as Cleopatra for Vitagraph Company’s “Antony and Cleopatra”. The film was a comparatively simple filming of a version of Shakespeare’s play and remains, in truth, one of the overall footnotes to Lawrence’s large career. After all, when you end up doing nearly 300 movies some of them are necessarily less important than others. Interestingly enough, she wasn’t the first to play Cleopatra, but is one of the earliest notable actresses to portray the Egyptian pharaoh. Within the year after the film, Lawrence’s status as a silent film star would become cemented when she began to work for Biograph Studios and the rest, as they say, is history.
Interestingly, it was less than a decade before another powerful silent film actress would set a standard for a portrayal of Cleopatra. Theda Bara’s distinctive looks combined with the work of the wardrobe department created a powerful Cleopatra with a piercing, powerful gaze that captured the imagination of audiences. A particular thing that makes this interpretation notable is that Theda Bara was one of the first women in film to become a sex symbol in her own right. This made her playing the beautiful and powerful pharaoh a particularly good match. Bara’s role was for the film “Cleopatra” that was built off of multiple sources to create a more complete picture of the woman’s real and fictional life. The film does still take it’s ending more from Shakespeare’s play than anything else. As powerful a Cleopatra as Bara made, the women who truly made the role would play her 46 years later.
People remember Elizabeth Taylor to this day. Her myriad of roles imprinted the actress on generations of people as she made her way across the screen in various roles. Unlike her predecessors, Taylor at least would get to spend most of her career speaking and a lot of it in full color. Her beauty and commanding performances made her stand out among her peers as well as ensuring a similar status in Hollywood to that of Theda Bara. Taylor also experienced the full extent of stardom with all of its ups and downs. Her Cleopatra is the image that became cemented in most people’s imaginations. The film “Cleopatra” was based on a book that, similar to Bara’s role, attempted to give a broader picture of Cleopatra’s life…if somewhat embellished. The film is legendary for being one of the most expensive films ever made. It paid off though. Taylor’s various costume changes, beautiful sets, and an eye for detail made the film itself immortal in its own right.
These are only three depictions of Cleopatra. There have been many actresses to play the role and there will certainly be more in the future. Lawrence, Bara, and Taylor each brought something to the role and gradually built up the legend of Cleopatra through various powerful images. It is fitting that so many of the women were, like Cleopatra, regarded as beauties of their day with more power than expected. Perhaps something about the role calls out to suitable actresses. In that way, Cleopatra may never truly die.