The 2014 Sony hack was a huge mess for the entertainment industry, exposing all kinds of personal information that largely made an endless list of celebrities look bad. Fortunately however, for all involved there was simply so much in the leak that a lot of the would-be controversies actually fizzled out pretty quickly (which isn’t to say it wasn’t still very damaging on a personal level for many celebrities).
But one story you may remember is that a series of back-and-forth emails between producer Scott Rudin and Angelina Jolie in which the director described the actress as “out of her mind” regarding the possibility of a biopic about the ancient Egyptian queen Cleopatra. There are all kinds of nasty little details but the basic idea is pretty simple: those involved couldn’t agree on details regarding the script and direction. Frankly, Jolie didn’t seem entirely at fault, but one way or another the project wound up getting scrapped, or at least tabled for a while.
Fast-forward to 2016, however, and Cleopatra appears to be back on board, at least according to this article about the project’s progress. It seems a new screenwriter (David Scarpa) has been brought on board, perhaps with the potential to bridge the creative gap between Jolie and Rudin. Nothing seems imminent, but it’s still a Sony project, Jolie is presumably still in line to head up the cast, and one way or another it sounds like the movie is going to happen.
My question is: do we really need it to?
Let’s start with the subject matter. Cleopatra is perhaps one of the 100 or so most famous names in history; perhaps in the top-10 regarding the ancient world. But for most of us, that’s about all she is: a name, and perhaps a vague image. Think about Cleopatra in fiction or modern entertainment culture and you’re pretty much going to come up empty. This site’s mobile casino games include a “Cleopatra II” title jam-packed with ancient Egyptian imagery, and that’s about the most prominent (if not the only) example of the ancient queen in modern entertainment. More or less a traditional slot reel, the game invites players to “take a trip down the Nile” uncovering icons displaying Cleopatra’s face and Egyptian monuments. It’s a fun little slot game, but hardly a foundation for public interest in Cleopatra fiction.
Now let’s consider film. This 1963 biopic represents the last time Cleopatra was brought to life on the big screen, and though it was a pretty serious effort, the fact that there hasn’t been any kind of follow-up or remake in over 50 years may be telling. Then again, it’s not as if the film flopped. Elizabeth Taylor was the perfect choice for Cleopatra in the early-’60s, and for the most part critics and viewers have always liked the movie. Furthermore, perhaps it’s good that Hollywood is now looking at a Cleopatra biopic that couldn’t truly be called a remake so much as an entirely new project. I think we’ve all had enough of sequels and remakes of late. Nevertheless, no one’s touched this character in 50 years and in a strange way that makes Cleopatra feel more dated than does the fact that she lived almost 2,100 years ago.
Finally, it’s worth thinking about how ancient Egypt has been portrayed in recent films ‚Äî which is to say, more or less, offensively. In the space of about two years (leading up to early 2016), Exodus: Gods & Kings and Gods Of Egypt both presented unabashedly fictionalized takes on the ancient civilization; the settings were glittering with gold and gems, the sense of adventure felt more like sci-fi than history, and the casts were both whitewashed to the point of severe backlash. Frankly, Hollywood has a bit of an ancient Egypt problem, and while the hope is that eventually a film comes around to change that, recent history doesn’t inspire much confidence.
Now, perhaps all of this merely serves to lower expectations. Jolie is a talented and well-liked actress, and like it or not she’s about as good a fit for most people’s image of Cleopatra as you could possibly imagine. Furthermore, she’s socially conscious (which could help regarding my last point about Hollywood and ancient Egypt) and both she and Rudin, despite their disagreements, seem determined to get this right more than anything else.
But right now the circumstances don’t really add up. Cleopatra is a name more than a recognized character to most of us, the film is already surrounded by controversy, and if it comes out soon it will likely be labeled, fairly or unfairly, as just another ridiculous Egyptian epic. It may be that this project would be better left alone.