There are two big Hollywood films that, much as I have tried, I simply have never been able to watch in their entirety. Of course, there is nothing unusual in not managing to make it through a film, but these are works that I’ve been attempting literally for as long as I can remember to get to the end of.
When I was a child, my most reliably happy time of the week was Friday night. I would luxuriate in my parents, sister and I splitting a family block of Cadbury Snack and taking in a movie on television. Of course, between the ages of about five and twelve years, being allowed to stay up late was as exciting as if someone had called me out of the blue and requested that I host the Oscars. In the interests of staying up, I made it through Dr Dolittle, I made it through Star! and Hello, Dolly!, I made it through Till the Clouds Roll By, I made it through Funny Girl and I even made it through Funny Lady. However, Joseph L Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra (1963) defeated me every time.
Now, this is a film that already attracts much hostility and derision, to which I am reluctant to add, especially because what really gets me down is that I want to like Cleopatra, as it has elements that would normally make it a winner. The years just Before Christ somehow blend with the era of Beatlemania to stunning visual effect, and, most of all, it has the magnificent behind-the-scenes drama of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton controversially falling in love on the set and then bunking off from work all the time. (Incidentally, I am going to refer to Elizabeth Taylor as ‘Elizabeth’, not ‘Liz’, throughout, because I’m positive that I’ve read she doesn’t like being called ‘Liz’. Similarly, I remember my Year Eight English teacher sternly lecturing my classmates and me that Princess Diana didn’t like to be called ‘Di’, although how she came by this information, I have no idea.)
To my mind, Cleopatra’s biggest problem, aside from its insanely long running time of four hours, is, and it gives me no pleasure to say this, that Richard and Elizabeth demonstrate very little on-screen chemistry, a situation that probably would not have been helped by the fact that he was drunk all the time. It was only later when, I suppose, Richard and Elizabeth didn’t have to worry about concealing from their respective spouses their feelings for each other that they could really go to town.
So, their restraint in 1963 means that the mightily expensive epic is just not enjoyable in the way that two of their other mad projects, The Sandpiper (1965) and Boom! (1968), are. In Cleopatra, Elizabeth declares ‘My breasts are full of life and love,’ and they are demonstrably so two years later in The Sandpiper, in which she practically bursts out of her shirt while playing a free-spirited bohemian who gets Richard Burton’s Episcopalian priest to loosen up. Boom!, on the other hand, is a first-class burst of Tennessee Williams loopiness. Elizabeth chews the scenery as the extravagantly wealthy Flora ‘Sissy’ Goforth, Richard Burton chews it still more as a penniless poet who may or may not be the Angel of Death, and Noel Coward is in the cast as ‘The Witch of Capri’.
The other big Hollywood film that I’ve never been able to make it through, despite repeated attempts, is West Side Story. And this is way worse than the Cleopatra situation, because Story is a motion picture that not only seems to have everything going for it but is one to which most people will give the time of day. I look at the film’s ingredients and just don’t understand how the final result can be so tedious; you’ve got Leonard Bernstein, you’ve got Stephen Sondheim, you’ve got singing and dancing and violence. It’s not like, say, Battleship Potempkin, which you know going in will be almost unfeasibly boring. I have on every attempted viewing of West Side Story quite enjoyed the finger-clicking when-you’re-a-Jet-you-stay-a-Jet opening and been roused from my gathering torpor by Rita Moreno’s swashbuckling rendition of ‘America’, but otherwise it is just two and a half hours of sluggishness, as far as I’m concerned.
The thing is, too, that I’ve tried to make it through Cleopatra and West Side Story in a great variety of situations, including those in which they were virtually my only source of entertainment. Back in the late nineteen eighties, I was living in a share house while desultorily studying. My lack of keenness on getting a job meant that I was extremely poor; I received eighty dollars a week from the government and my rent was fifty dollars. As well, I was intensely, seemingly irrevocably, single. This meant that my only diversions were books from the ill-stocked university library and whatever was on television. Nevertheless, not once during my desperate tenure in the share house did I make it through either Cleopatra or West Side Story.
And, as I say, it’s not as if these are films with absolutely nothing going for them. Apart from anything, they contain, I understand, some terrific lines of dialogue. For example, in Cleopatra, aside from the breasts line above, you can hear Elizabeth declare, ‘The Romans tell fabulous tales of my baths and handmaidens … and my morals!’ West Side Story, on the other hand, offers ‘Help! I’m drowning in tamale!’, not to mention the employment of ‘Daddy-o’ and ‘Ginger-peachy!’.
I haven’t completely given up hope of one day hearing these words for myself. People say that the older you get, the less sleep you require and, yes, I remember that when my grandmother was in her nineties, she seemed never to sleep at all. This makes me worry about how many hours I am going to have to fill during a period in my life when, I imagine, all I will be doing is making and drinking cups of tea, and breaking Arnott’s Scotch Finger biscuits into two parts. The great thing is, though, that maybe this will be the point at which I at last give Cleopatra and West Side Story the time and attention that I know they deserve.