No one believed that I didn’t have to go to bed with anyone to get the coveted role as one of Elizabeth Taylor’s twelve handmaidens in the lavish film Cleopatra. I’d sent a head-shot to the production, but not expecting to hear from them. When a call came on behalf of Stuart Lyons, the casting consultant, asking me to come to the studio, I was happily surprised.
The next morning I took the rickety tram from Termini, Rome’s main train station, to Cinecittà. The ‘Factory of Dreams.’
I gave my name to one of the guards at the entrance, he looked down his list, then, nodding his head, opened the gate for me. Pulsating with expectations I made my way down the pine lined street to the casting office. A man sitting behind a desk hurriedly took my name, matched me to my photograph and sent me to the far end of the room. I lined up, feeling like a cow in the market place, along with some three hundred young women. There I was briefly looked over by officious staff member and dismissed with many thanks.
It hardly looked hopeful and I forgot about it. But I was asked back and this time there were a mere two hundred beauties sporting smiles which flashed ‘please pick me’. When I saw the crowd I made to leave, but someone in the production told me to please stay. I was looked over again. Then came a call for another interview, to which I said “No thank you. And anyway I’m shooting a commercial for Cinzano tomorrow.” The caller insisted and offered to send a car to pick me up from where I was filming. Soon after this encounter I was handed a fat contract without ever knowing who was so interested in having me in the film.
On the first day of shooting a chauffeur picked me up at the crack of dawn. I’m one who doesn’t do mornings, but didn’t mind at all as I looked out of the Mercedes’ window and watched the scarlet sun-rise over Castel St. Angelo. Rome seemed on fire. As was I with eagerness and trepidation of what the day would bring.
A lengthy preparation ley ahead before we were ready to go on the set. Escorted by an assistant to an assistant to an assistant to a huge hangar where budding dressmakers, hunch seamstresses, busy dressers milled about, buzzing around the iron clothes rails where hundred, no, thousands of costumes, hung. Silks of more colours than a rainbow ever imagined possible.
Sharp-eyed costume designers examined the chosen outfits, sent an assistant to find shoes or sandals that would match the regalia which they then carefully slipped over the actresses head.
In a cubicle, detached from the throng, at the back of the room, I was robed in a low-cut, pink and emerald silk gown that had slits from my ankles to my waist. I felt like a pastel cloud. The Neapolitan dressmaker sewed a few quick stitches at my waist to insure a perfect fit. A pretty young girl with a head of wild dark curls swiftly tied a red sash around me. An assistant knelt and put sandals on me.
Next, to a brightly lit room where I was seated in front of a polished mirror framed with golf ball lamps. The make-up artist dipped his brushes in an array of creams, powders and foundations. He smeared layers of pancake on my face, niftily brushed blush on my cheeks, puffed up my lips with bright lipstick, outlined my eye-brows with a dark pencil, glued silver sparkles on my lids and drew exaggerated black lines with Kohl around my eyes. It was rumoured that Elizabeth had insisted on the exaggerated black eye make-up that she had seen on the prostitutes that roamed nightly on the Via Veneto.
Finally one of the hairdressers secured a black wig on me to further make me look Egyptian. In the end, after hours of work, all the handmaidens looked the same and not unlike Elizabeth Taylor. Clearly the casting team could have hired the first twelve girls they saw, but that’s not how myths are created. There was no doubt that this film was a myth, the whole of Rome was talking about it.
When the scene was ready to be shot we were ushered into the studio where we excitedly waited for Elizabeth.
Hustle and bustle accompanied the air of expectation as someone on the set announced her eminent arrival. Everyone stood to attention. She breezed in surrounded by a train of people.
I could feel my heart beating, so filled was I with emotion to actually be in the proximity of this great Star — and yes, her eyes really were violet. I had to make a huge effort not to cry because tears would have wrecked my make-up.
Animatedly she chatted to the great director, Mankiewicz, the lighting people and others that were there to ensure the success of this scene. From a distance she smiled a greeting at us, but didn’t speak to us. We were not her concern; basically we were splendid extras with no dialogue, clustered around, by someone familiar with the ropes, in the background.
The handmaidens were allotted dressing rooms in the wing of one of the studios. We made friendships and antipathies, gossiped, threw parties, gave interviews to reporters of popular magazines, and we never took our attention off Elizabeth and Richard.
The mythical couple were at all times theatrically kissing and embracing furiously or fighting with ardour while downing vodka. Whispering words of love one moment, then screaming insults at each other. “Fuck off,” being one of Elizabeth’s favourite expressions. ”Fuck off,” being one of Richard’s favourite terminologies.
The way he and Elizabeth drank it was a wonder they would make it to the set the next day. But they always did, albeit late.
Some people seemed to think that Richard was the dominant partner in the relationship, but I remember one incident at the piano bar of the Trattoria dell’Orso, an elegant restaurant and meeting club where many actors of the party-loving Cleopatra cast and members of the moneyed Roman bonvivants liked to rendezvous. Richard wanted to drink at the bar but Elizabeth said: “We will sit at the table.”
“But I prefer to drink standing up at the bar,” a sulky Richard insisted.
“We will sit at the table.” Elizabeth repeated firmly.
Muttering under his breath Richard complained but complied.
The set teemed with visiting celebrities. Eddie Fisher, who had left Debbie Reynolds to marry Elizabeth, was obviously nervous about what was going on between her and Richard. His visit made Richard sulk and flirt with one of the many beauties eagerly waiting for a smile from him. Elizabeth’s eyes shot daggers at him. I noticed that Mike Nichols had false eyebrows pasted onto his pale face. The paparazzi were keener than ever.
From the beginning the paparazzi were frenziedly competing for tell-tell stories and photographs of the Taylor/Burton affair. They tried to bribe me with huge amounts of cash to take photographs on the sly with a minute camera hidden in my powder compact. But I didn’t take them up on that.
One day we filmed a scene in which I poured warm water from a terracotta urn on Richard while he soaked, amongst faux water lilies, in a faux Roman tub.
“This is better than being down in a coal mine,” he repeated mantra-style, with his mellifluous Welsh lilt, while we were rehearsing the scene. Better than a coal mine? I’d never have guessed.
Richard, whose large, fascinating face was pockmarked and whose intense brown eyes never blinked, liked to speak about the coal mining village he had been brought up in. One of thirteen children, orphaned by a mother who finally gave up, he was brought up by his sisters and heavily handled by a coal mining father, who went off on drinking and gambling sprees for weeks and of whom Richard would say: “He was a twelve-pint-a-day-man.”
After shooting the scene we took our lunch break on the sprawling, flower framed terrace of the Cinecittà restaurant.
I noticed Elizabeth sitting at a near-by table. She was wearing a white slack suit and was sipping a martini, clearly impatiently waiting for Richard who had stopped to flirt with her English stand-in. Finally she got up strode resolutely over to them and said in controlled, firm voice: “Richard, there’s a vodka tonic waiting for you at our table. And it’s been waiting for some time now! As I have!” She then icily addressed her stand-in: “Be careful if you intend keeping your job.”
The young actress turned as red as the tomato sauce on our pasta as Richard followed his lover to their table where not only his drink was waiting, but also a mound of Beluga caviar with blinis on the side. Better than the coal mines, I thought to myself.
Cleopatra was reputed to have been the world’s richest woman. Elizabeth Taylor was reputed to have been paid one million dollars for her role. This wasn’t enough to make her the world’s richest woman, but at least the highest paid actress in the world.