The Best of Cleopatra


by Rick Bretz


As Egyptian Queens go, my favorite is Nefertiti, a name meaning “A beautiful woman has come.”

In spite of preferences, there was another queen that gets most of the headlines and movie titles.  She would be Cleopatra.  It’s interesting to note that Cleopatra as a movie role has been taken on by many actresses.  She might be the most attempted historic role attempted by actresses, other than Queen Elizabeth I and the current Queen Elizabeth, since the first frame of celluloid was run through a projector. It’s interesting to compare how actresses interpret one personality in history.

The portrayals that stand out in history are delivered by Theda Bera, Claudette Colbert, Vivien Leigh, Sophia Loren and Elizabeth Taylor.  Other actresses have also attempted Cleopatra such as Monica Belucci but I want to concentrate on the five.

The Face of Cleopatra? Find out.

Cleopatra was of Greek Macedonian heritage but quickly learned the Egyptian language and identified with the Egyptian culture. This effort endeared her to the Egyptian people. She was a shrewd politician who maneuvered her way to be the sole ruler of Egypt. Empress Catherine the Great, who ruled Russia in the 1700s, followed this example by learning the Russian language early on in her education and immersing herself in the Russian culture when she came from Prussia to marry the future Peter III.

The comparison among the five portrayals of Cleopatra is an interesting exercise but for the time they were released they were all noteworthy.

theda bera as cleopatra

Theda Bera-1917

Theda Bera, the silent screen’s first sex symbol, took on the role of Cleopatra in the silent film days in 1917.  This one is a challenge to assess because only a few seconds of her performance exists.  Since she was one of, if not the first, to take on the role of Cleopatra, you have to give her credit.   She set a standard for others to follow.


Claudette Colbert-1934

Claudette Colbert appeared on-screen in “It Happened One Night” and “Cleopatra” in the same year, 1934.  She showed some range that year.  Colbert had to have the look for Cleopatra but also at that time a speaking voice that recorded well for the movies. During the transition from silent film to “talkies” many actresses and actors were left behind due to poor speaking voices or voices that didn’t match their appearances on screen.  She had both, the look and the voice, and her portrayal shows it in the strong personality she shows on film in the Cecil B. DeMille production.  Cecil B. DeMille knew how to stage an epic. Although this film is shot in black and white, the pageantry of it competes with epics of today,  Colbert, however, takes over the screen next to her co-stars and displays a strong national leader from the beginning to the final frame.   In a nod to her hitchhiking scene with Clark Gable for “It Happened One Night”, she essentially did the same thing for Julius Caesar and Mark Antony as they applied their brakes to their horse and carriages to court Cleopatra.



Vivien Leigh-1945

If Vivien Leigh can seduce Rhett Butler, she can certainly do the same with Julius Caesar.  Although she has the look, she is not an actress that you think about when considering for the role of Cleopatra. She seems to play the part more playfully than being a tactful political rival and nation ruler. Leigh’s Cheshire cat smile seems to take away from cunning and ambitiousness.  Leigh does an admirable job as well as the supporting cast, especially Claude Rains as Caesar, but it is not the best of the lot.


Sophia Loren-1954

This Italian film is more famous for Sophia Loren playing Cleopatra and the dual role of the slave girl look-alike who tries, with help, to make her way into the royal palace pretending to be Cleopatra.  It’s more of a comedy than a serious epic but Loren as Cleopatra is intriguing.



cleopatra Elizabeth taylor

Elizabeth Taylor-1963

Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra is perhaps the most well known or notorious of the actresses depending on your point of view.  The film’s cost over runs due to production problems, actor’s salaries and the cost of building the sets ballooned the budget from 2 million to some reports say 44 million, and that’s 1963 money. Contrary to popular opinion, it wasn’t a disaster it eventually made money and garnered 9 Academy Award nominations.  The on-set romance between Taylor and Richard Burton notwithstanding, Taylor’s version of Cleopatra rivals that of Claudette Colbert in its sexual nature and she portrays Cleopatra as a political figure and manipulator.  She captures the film the moment she rolls out of the carpet.  At that time, she was as powerful in Hollywood as Cleopatra was in Egypt and her 1 million plus salary proved it.   Despite the negative publicity it remains an epic to this day.


The rankings:

  1. Elizabeth Taylor (Because it was shot in color and had terrific sets)
  2. Claudette Colbert ( A close second)
  3. Theda Bera (She was the first)
  4. Vivien Leigh (She ‘s Vivien Leigh, worth a look)
  5. Sophia Loren (Only because it was comedy and not an epic)


Crafting the Classic Song


by Rick Bretz

As I write this on a word document, I have always admired people who can string a few memorable words and put them in the correct order.  So with that thought, this is my take on the best songs by great lyricists. As with all of my lists, there are many like it but this one is mine.

Simon and Garfunkel-Sounds of Silence-1964

This is a tour-de-force in songwriting.  Every line of it is unforgettable and it starts with one of the best lines of all time, “Hello darkness my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again.” As the songs reflects, the “words of the prophets are written on the subway walls” but when this was written down it was gold.

The Eagles-Hotel California-1976

Sometimes you just nail it.  This song is got everything great lyrics, perfect guitar rifts and defining the thin line between a dream and a nightmare.


McCartney-Lennon/The Beatles-Eleanor Rigby-1966

Of all the great lines in this song, one for me, still stands out, “All the lonely people, where do they all come from, All the lonely people, where do they all belong.” A simple question but not so easily answered.


Jackson Browne, The Pretender-1976

Jackson Browne has delivered many great songs over the years (That Girl Could Sing) but his triumph is “The Pretender” because it covers many themes.  One of the best parts, “I’ve been aware of the time going by, they say in the end it’s a wink of an eye, and when the morning light comes streamin’ in, we’ll get up and do it again, Amen”


Bob Dylan-A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall-1963

This is so good it has been covered by many artists through the years.  I prefer Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians version. This one starts right out with some terrific lines, “I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains, I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways, I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests.”  I have to admit it was a toss-up between this and “The Jokerman.”


Tracy Chapman-At This Point in my Life-1995

Most people like Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” song from 1988.  I like that one also, but I like this one better because it is reflective.  I have always liked her voice but these words hit you like a Fast Car. Words like, “Although I’ve mostly walked in the shadows, I’m still searching for the light, Won’t you put your faith in me.”


Bruce Springsteen-Thunder Road-1975

The opening song to the “Born to Run” album hooks you right away and reels you in for a listening ride.  This song’s opening lines are just the beginning for Mary to come along for the ride, “The screen door slams, Mary’s dress waves, Like a vision she dances across the porch, As the radio plays, Roy Orbison singing for the lonely, Hey that’s me and I want you only”


Alan Parsons Project-Time-1981

Written by Eric Woolfson along with Alan Parsons, “Time” expresses the true meaning of time passing by and the friends you meet along the way. I think about all of the people I have met in my life and how I would like to see them again.  This song can be sad and inspirational in one listening.  It’s about making the most of your time, “Time, flowing like a river,  Time, beckoning me. Who knows when we shall meet again. If ever, But time, Keeps flowing like a river, To the sea.”


Pink Floyd-Wish You Were Here-1975 and  On The Turning Away-1987

The title track from the album of the same name, “Wish You Were Here” laments their missing friend and how circumstances have over taken them.   “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” may be about Syd Barrett and could just as well be on this list but this song puts their feelings into one phrase.  The best lines are in the opening, “So, so you think you can tell Heaven from Hell, blue skies from pain.  Can you tell a green field from a cold steel rail? A smile from a veil? Do you think you can tell?”

“On the Turning Away” is an insightful song about looking away rather than doing something to make the world and society a better place.

Rickie Lee Jones-Last Chance Texaco-1979

I think everything Rickie Lee Jones does is terrific so I may be writing this with a little bias. From her debut self titled album, this song along with Night Train are my favorites from it, although “Chuckie’s in Love” was the hit.  This song uses personification to put human characteristics on an automobile.  It’s brilliant piece where instrument, voice and words meet to create a great song. “It’s her last chance, Her timing’s all wrong, Her last chance, She can’t idle this long, Her last chance, Turn her over and go, Pullin’ out of the last chance Texaco, The last chance”


Miranda Lambert-The House That Built Me-2009

This one is written by two songwriters but performed by Miranda Lambert and this favorite of mine might have something to do with the way she sings it.

The words can bring back memories, “You leave home, you move on and you do the best you can. I got lost in this old world and forgot who I am. I thought if I could touch this place or feel it. This brokenness inside me might start healing.”


Honorable Mentions:

Ice Cube-It Was a Good Day

Frank Sinatra-It Was a Very Good Year

Steve Forbert-I Blinked Once

Mamas and Papas-California Dreamin

Neil Young-Harvest Moon

Christine McVie-Song Bird

Phil Collins-In The Air Tonight