OSCAR MONTH: BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY 1934 – CLEOPATRA
“I’m no longer a queen. I’m a woman.”
These are a supplicant’s words, but Cleopatra is no supplicant. She tells Mark Antony he is a “god come to life,” but Antony is only a man, a mortal, a drunk. Rome is just out of his reach, but Cleopatra understands there are some things that can be taken in the masculine way, through force, and there are some things that must be gently plied, with platitudes, with spectacle, with sex.
Some things can’t be taken at all.
Cecil B. DeMille’s Cleopatra boils the epic story of Roman and Egyptian politics down to its foundation, cramming the essence of two dense Shakespeare plays into a two-hour movie. From the film’s first striking frame, a nude woman offering up incense, it’s very clear what it is about the titular queen that interests DeMille, though it has little to do with exploitation. Claudette Colbert, appearing in three of 1934’s Best Picture nominees (including It Happened One Night, the film that took home the prize and won Colbert her only Best Actress trophy) was fast becoming one of the biggest names in Hollywood, and her portrayal of the Egyptian queen crackles with a furious, multifaceted sexual energy that not even the iconic Elizabeth Taylor could touch. Colbert’s Cleopatra is as charming as she is manipulative, as seductive as she is powerful, and she is very powerful.
Cinematographer Victor Milner burns Colbert’s passion into every shot, allowing her presence to linger long after she’s off camera, not only in the reaction shots of her co-stars, and the grandeur of DeMille’s set pieces, but in the minds of the film’s audience, who like Caesar and Antony, find themselves beguiled by such a sexually rapacious display. The Roman senate chastises its leaders for loving Cleopatra, but there is no love here. There is only the intricate web of gender dynamics, and the Roman fear of Cleopatra’s sex and the womanhood it represents.
DeMille and Milner transform Cleopatra’s suggestive shoulder shrugs and pleading glances into a language of machination, as she glides from the floor to the bed to an eagle adorned lectica parading through the Roman streets. Still, it isn’t until Cleopatra’s convoluted seduction of Mark Antony (a forgettable Henry Wilcoxon), which, her having refused to meet Antony on Roman land, takes place aboard her ship, that the nuance of the queen’s character truly shines. Antony, barreling in with two Great Danes, is met not by fierce male guards, but by placating women, who obscure his powerful body with fans and incense. The next shot is a wide one, Cleopatra’s throne, a silk-lined sofa reminiscent of a Victorian fainting couch, under an opulent burst of arched feathers, soft, open, vaginal. Antony has witnessed the strength of femininity, and after a night of spectacular dance, lusty advances, and the Antonian Achilles’ heel of flowing vino, it is he who becomes the queen’s supplicant.
The scene is Victor Milner’s centerpiece and each feat of visual extravagance is more stunning than the last. Female dancers in slinky cat costumes terrify Antony’s Danes, while the great Roman ruler stuffs his face and laughs. The flaming hoops through which the dancers jump offer more vaginal imagery, and Cleopatra’s show of “clam” catching, netted women holding jewel filled clams pulled up from the river, promise the sort of conquest on which Antony prides himself. However, Cleopatra’s game is a meticulous long con, and Antony can conquer Egypt no more than the land can conquer water.
The final shot of the scene is a wondrously sensual slow zoom back through the interior of the ship as Cleopatra’s wooing of Antony tends toward its natural consummation on her, now hidden, sofa. Dancers, musicians, and incense holders pay tribute to their queen, as flower petals flitter playfully to the floor, and Victor Milner’s camera captures a microcosm of Egyptian power in the complex layering of DeMille’s choreographed production. The zoom culminates among the ship’s dozens of galley slaves, their oars cranking in unison in epic waves of masculine propulsion, but they are her men, and they will do what she bids. They all will.