Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra also drew grief (guess why)


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This is hardly the first time in recent memory when the ability of Jews to play non-Jewish roles has come into question. It’s also not the first time that a Jewish movie star playing the Egyptian ruler has caused controversy.

The most famous Cleopatra film was released in 1963 and starred Elizabeth Taylor. The film was hugely expensive for the time — Taylor was reportedly the first actress to get paid $1 million for a role — and hugely successful.

Taylor had converted to Judaism a few years earlier, before her marriage to singer Eddie Fisher, and had become outspokenly supportive of Israel. At the time, Egypt saw Israel as its enemy and banned any kind of relations with Jews and Israelis. So when the film first came out, Egypt banned it.

In 1959, Taylor made her Zionist support public in a big way, buying $100,000 of Israel bonds. Her purchase made waves in the Arab world, and the United Arab Republic — then a unified state consisting of Egypt and Syria — “officially banned all motion pictures” featuring Taylor.

Filming for “Cleopatra” took place in 1962, mostly in Rome, but the crew planned to film some shots in Egypt, for authenticity’s sake. But Taylor was banned from even entering the country, so the crew didn’t travel to Egypt.

“Cleopatra” ended up doing just fine — it was released in 1963, became the most financially successful movie of the year and won four Academy Awards in 1964. Furthermore, Egyptian officials enjoyed it so much that they removed Taylor from the travel blacklist. As JTA reported: “The officials decided the film was good publicity for Egypt which is mentioned 122 times in the movie.”

Taylor’s pro-Israel activism continued for decades.