"Did you ever think of marrying a comedian?" asked Johnny Carson of Elizabeth Taylor back in 1992.
"They were most of them comedians!" said La Liz without a moment of hesitation.
I THOUGHT of this again when I found that the delectable Shelley Wanger of the publishing world had sent me a book that her famous father, Walter Wanger, wrote about the experiences he had in producing "Cleopatra." This is a project he oversaw for six years and two productions, one in England and one in Rome. It was a labor of love that was sabotaged at every pit stop -- finances, Hollywood egotism, the star almost dying and the star embroiled in the greatest show biz scandal of all time.
To read this little soft-cover book from Vintage of Random House again, about the run-up to one of the most famous and infamous films ever made, was to be absorbed and delighted all over again by Mr. Wanger's "diary," with the help of reporter Joe Hyams. One is struck by Wanger's calm, collected, intellectual vigor, his defense of Elizabeth the star, his defense of the talented Joe Mankiewicz as the final director and his annoyance, irritation and disapproval of the then 20th Century Fox executive division. Particularly Spyros Skouras, the head man at Fox who screamed at Wanger, while Elizabeth lay dying in London, "We would have been making money on this already if it wasn't for her! (Neatly forgetting that $4 million dollars had been spent on the film before Elizabeth set foot on the soundstage.)
Skouras had wanted either Joanne Woodward (can you imagine?) or Susan Hayward (the snarling Brooklyn spitfire.) Wanger's other villains were the world paparazzi, who bedeviled the production in Italy, especially after the romance between Elizabeth and Richard broke.
I finished this in just two days of absolutely ravishing reading. I had forgotten so much of this story, which has been told so often and seldom does anyone get anything right about the phenomenon that became "Cleopatra" the movie. By the way, it did not "bomb." It was the highest-grossing film of 1963. The public flocked to it, but it could never re-coup its astronomic cost. Years later, "Cleo" inched into the black after its sale to television.
P.S. This serious, elegantly written book is not to be confused with "The Cleopatra Papers" by Jack Brodsky and Nathan Weiss, who were the major on-set press reps. Their book of mutual almost daily correspondence is a riot, and far less dignified than Wanger's measured tone. ("Elizabeth went absolutely bonkers today. Burton took her to his dressing room and apparently told her it was all over between them. Imagine, a guy turning her down!") They could be read back-to-back, if possible.
"Cleopatra" is now available in a pristine Blu-ray restoration.
LOTS OF people braved the plus-90-degree weather to cram into the Ziegfeld Theatre in Manhattan the other night. They were there for the premiere of the new Channing Tatum/Jamie Foxx action flick, "White House Down," directed by Roland Emmerich ("Independence Day," "The Day After Tomorrow," etc.)\
All the stars attended -- Channing, Jamie, Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Woods and Richard Jenkins. They all looked very lovely. Especially brand-new daddy, Mr. Tatum, who knows how to fill out a designer suit.
I'd like to say this Columbia Pictures effort is high on originality, but in fact, while watching it, I kept mixing it up with "Olympus Has Fallen," released earlier this year with a similar theme -- terrorists take over White House, disillusioned hero, child in jeopardy, lots of explosions and the creepy/thrilling/awful experience of watching Washington, D.C., under attack.
JAMIE FOXX plays the president of the United States, but he doesn't have the comforting and commanding gravitas of, say, Morgan Freeman. Well, who does? Channing is the man who saves the day. He is a good actor, but when he doesn't seem motivated by the script, he can be rather phlegmatic and stolid. It doesn't seem he was terribly motivated here, as opposed to Gerard Butler in "Olympus," who jumped right into the barrel of cheese with gusto.
But what the heck. It's mindless, well-crafted summer entertainment and one should not expect more. Interestingly, the New York City audience was in a super-patriotic mood. Every sweeping shot of the capital, especially as the good guys were winning, brought vociferous cheers.
Best line and biggest laugh came from Foxx, who ordered his Secret Service to "get this trash off my lawn!" indicating the defeated terrorists.
There was a party afterward at The Frick Collection, sponsored by Bulova. It was still steaming hot, but most people, including Ang Lee, Peter Sarsgaard, Gabourey Sidibe, Ingrid Sischy and the new "It" boy, Patrick Schwarzenegger -- traveled up to 70th Street for the festivities.
WE WANT to include here a hail and farewell and good wishes for our longtime friend, the actress Holland Taylor, who will conclude her incredible outing as the late, great one-time governor of Texas, Ann Richards. The play "Ann," written by Holland, concludes its run at the Vivian Beaumont in Lincoln Center this coming Sunday.
This offering about the sometimes outrageous, but certainly liberal forward thinker Ann, who died of throat cancer in 2006, was a welcome addition to the governor's lore. She made New York City her home for almost the entire last five years of her life, arriving here right after 9/11. Ann loved the city's drama and Broadway theater most of all.
Holland is ending her New York run as a Tony nominee and an ever beloved actor from TV's "Two and a Half Men" and other celebrated shows. We hope she will find herself living here in New York again very soon!
(E-mail Liz Smith at MES3838@aol.com.)