'Cleopatra,' 'Last Emperor' see new life in Cannes

05:00 AM, May 20, 2013

Richard Vuu plays the young Pu Yi in "The Last Emperor," which has been restored and converted to 3-D. Columbia Pictures/


Written By by Bryan Alexander, USA TODAY

CANNES, France —The film festival here is not all about showcasing new works.

Two classics are taking on different looks at the 66th annual gathering: a fully restored version of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s 1963 love story Cleopatra as well as a 3-D version of Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1987 epic The Last Emperor.

Cleopatra represents a two-year quest by 20th Century Fox to bring Taylor’s classic portrayal of the Egyptian queen back to her full 70 mm majesty in time for its 50th anniversary (the film will be released on Blu-Ray for the first time on May 28).

Even Taylor’s glamorous image had faded in time.

She wasn’t in her full glory. She was a slightly dimmer version of the gorgeous Elizabeth Taylor we all idolize,” said Schawn Belston, director of film preservation at Fox, who oversaw the project. “There are problems that happen with the ravages of time — color fading, scratches. It was an old movie.”

The legend of the making of Cleopatra has not faded, however. It took 2½ years, two directors and two casts to complete filming in England, Italy, Egypt and Spain. And even with conservative estimates of a $44 million budget (more than $300 million today when adjusted for inflation), it is still one of the most expensive movies ever produced. And because of its costs and its comparatively modest success at the box office, it is considered a flop.

Perhaps even more famously, the film served as the beginning of one of Hollywood’s great love affairs, between Burton (Mark Antony) and his onscreen love Taylor.

The film’s restoration was remarkably drama-free Belston said, though he declined to list the final cost.

We were much more responsible,” he said. “But it’s expensive since it’s a long film.”

The restored cut comes in at four hours, eight minutes, which required technicians to pore over each large frame with color correction and other restoration techniques. Belston says the work pays off in spectacular scenes that required thousands of extras to shoot and also in intimate moments with Taylor.

Her eyes are now as gorgeous as they ever were,” said Belston.

The festival’s gala screening on Tuesday will feature Kate Burton (one of Richard’s two daughters with Sybil Williams) and Chris Wilding (one of Taylor’s two sons with Michael Wilding), and will be hosted by actress Jessica Chastain. At the gala after-party, Chastain plans to model jewelry that Burton gave to Taylor during the dramatic filming, including a Bulgari emerald and a platinum engagement ring.

Over the weekend, the festival featured the unusual sight of 73-year-old Bertolucci (Last Tango in Paris) putting on 3-D glasses to watch one of his greatest works, The Last Emperor, which has been converted into that format for the first time.

The biopic follows the life of Pu Yi, who became the final Chinese emperor as a small boy. Bertolucci and producer Jeremy Thomas were the first filmmakers allowed by the Chinese government to shoot in Bejing’s Forbidden City. The movie went on to win nine Academy Awards, including best picture and director.

Bertolucci beamed as he watched the 2-hour, 45-minute film from a motorized chair and said he was impressed with the final results. He said he was hands-off in the conversion process and had only seen small portions of the film in 3-D before the screening.

To see the whole thing together was fantastic,” Bertolucci said afterward. “It made me feel like I was inside the story. The 3-D is very discreet. And you quickly forget the glasses.”

He said he wasn’t concerned that converting the film to 3-D would alter its stature.

People think everything has to be fixed in the past,” said Bertolucci. “I do not. I am not one of these purists. I would like to do all of my movies in 3-D. I am very satisfied.”