There are lots of stars in Cannes this year but I don’t think any of them are shining brighter at the festival than one who is no longer with us. Elizabeth Taylor may have died over two years ago at the age of 79 but she lives on, not only on the big and small screens where her many films still play, but also for all the amazing charitable work she did in her lifetime, particularly her fight against AIDS. Tomorrow night amFAR will certainly be remembering her at the 20th anniversary of Cinema Against AIDS, the signature event set during the Cannes Festival she helped start. And Tuesday night 20th Century Fox World Premiered its meticulous 2K digital restoration (it took nine months to complete) of the 1963 film, Cleopatra, infamous for the torrid off-screen love affair between its stars Taylor and Richard Burton.
On the occasion of its 50th anniversary the studio pulled out all the stops with a black tie premiere of the four-hour movie (that ironically almost bankrupted the studio), followed by a lavish party sponsored by Bulgari, the jeweler who supplied Taylor with so many of the baubles she was famous for collecting. In fact, as you entered the party on the J.W. Marriott rooftop it was hard to avoid them displayed in special glass cabinets. Included was the platinum and emerald necklace her co-star Burton gave her for their engagement in 1962. Host (and Bulgari spokesperson) Jessica Chastain actually wore it to introduce the film before taking it off and giving it back to Bulgari. She is the only person to have worn it other than Liz on her wedding day (or one of her wedding days). Also Fox brought in several original Cleopatra costumes. Fox Chairman Jim Gianopulos was there to help intro the film and told me later that the financial toll the film took on the studio has been overblown. “It turned a profit after three years,” he says although the movie’s cost was astronomical and ran off the rails. I asked Fox President of Post-Production Ted Gagliano about the story that director Joseph Mankiewicz actually had a six-hour cut and that two never-before seen hours of the film are somewhere in the Fox vaults. He says he has heard this as well but thinks it’s another in the long line of Cleopatra myths since they searched high and low and found nothing. One of the guests at the premiere, director and film nerd Alexander Payne told me after seeing the film again he wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn there was an even longer cut. “But who really needs to see a six-hour version?” he asked. Both Payne and his guest Laura Dern (whose father Bruce Dern stars in Payne’s Cannes entry, Nebraska, which premieres here Thursday) said they loved seeing the film in all its restored glory.
Very powerful – and loud – fireworks set off by the Chinese delegation while the film was playing spoiled the mood inside and made such an impact some nervous audience members thought a bomb had gone off. “It turned out it was just Liz and Dick setting off more fireworks, just like they did in 1962 on the set,” cracked Ann Gianopulos.
Taylor’s legacy is large and will also certainly be remembered as part of the 20th anniversary celebration of amFAR’s annual Cinema Against AIDS Thursday at Hotel Du Cap which will include appearances from several Cannes jury members including Nicole Kidman and Christoph Waltz along with Leonardo Di Caprio, among other notables, to auction off extravagant items. A fashion show and performances from the likes of Duran Duran and Oscar show sensation Shirley Bassey will also be part of the action. Harvey Weinstein who is hosting with Kenneth Cole and has been involved for all 20 years says they made $10 million last year and hope to top it this year. “But let me give full credit to the people who deserve it most – Dr Mathilde Krim, Elizabeth Taylor and Sharon Stone who were the first hosts of the event. Dr. Krim started it with Elizabeth at Moulin De Mougins, a nice little restaurant, for 100 people. You couldn’t even see anybody when they spoke and the auction grew out of that. No one had any idea we’d be making $10 million in one evening,” he said. Certainly the memory of Taylor and those early days will not be forgotten as her impact on Cannes continues to be just as strong this year as it ever was.