Egyptian Scandals: Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra and the White Grotesque

  • Francesca T. Royster


Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s film Cleopatra (1963) appears at a historical point when the film celebrity emerges from the constraints of studio production and control. As the film’s chief visual referent and marketing focus, Elizabeth Taylor changes what it means to play Cleopatra for all of those who follow and also the ways that the “Cleopatra” code could be attached to a particular star—the blurring of star and role already associated with Cleopatra from Shakespeare’s characterization onward. This blurring of star and role, in the context of the market dynamics of mass media in the mid-twentieth century, provides the necessary conditions for the formation of the celebrity. Taylor’s body, treated as grotesque in the press, becomes the stand-in for Cleopatra’s financial woes and for Twentieth Century Fox’s increasing structural weaknesses. In turn, Taylor’s Cleopatra becomes synonymous with the increasingly outdated excesses of the Hollywood epic, the death of the studio-made “star” and the resurrection of the celebrity. Cleopatra’s iconographic meanings become harnessed with Taylor, the famous-for -being- famous and famous -for -being -overexposed icon, tapping into the glamour and insouciance of Claudette Colbert’s earlier version, but taking glamour further into the realm of excess and indulgence.


Cultural Icon Antitrust Litigation Celebrity Culture Topless Dancer Celebrity Image 
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© Francesca T. Royster 2003

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  • Francesca T. Royster

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