Walter Wanger emerged from his four-month prison stint with an eye toward reinvention. Eager to capitalize on his macho new persona and spotlight issues surrounding incarceration, the producer remounted his once-catatonic film career in a decade of comeback projects that culminated in what Love Is a Crime cohost Karina Longworth calls “the most spectacular, most expensive, most talked-about film of the early 1960s: the Elizabeth Taylor–starring Cleopatra.” She and cohost Vanessa Hope—Wanger’s granddaughter—explore that production in this week’s episode of Love Is a Crime.
Wanger would produce four major films in his post-prison years: Riot in Cell Block 11, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, I Want to Live!, and Cleopatra, the final movie he made before his death in 1968. He continued to weather personal setbacks behind the scenes, including a largely loveless final stretch in his marriage to Joan Bennett and a heart attack, after which Wanger was warned against working again.
Evading doctor’s orders, Wanger would return to his femme fatale roots for the tale of an Egyptian named Cleopatra. But despite securing Elizabeth Taylor for the titular role and getting the greenlight at 20th Century Fox, Cleopatra proved “calamitous from the start,” says Longworth. The epic was rushed into production, then took five costly years to complete. Taylor contracted pneumonia, requiring a lengthy recovery period. Director Rouben Mammoulian was replaced by Wanger’s partner Joseph Mankiewicz. And original Mark Antony Stephen Boyd was recast with a Tony-winning Welsh actor named Richard Burton.
By now, Cleopatra is almost synonymous with the scandal involving Taylor and Burton, who were both married to other people when they costarred and fell in love. As explained by Longworth, “Elizabeth Taylor’s affair with Richard Burton on the set of a movie about world-beating, bad-idea love would spark an international public conversation about infidelity that revealed how much had changed in just a decade since Walter’s own marriage and Joan’s affair had made front-page news.”
As noted in Love Is a Crime, when it came time for Fox to address Cleopatra’s ballooning budget, the studio cast Wanger as their fall man. He was released from his contract, stripped of his expense account, and not invited to the film’s premiere. Wanger would turn his betrayal into a boundary-breaking tell-all called My Life With Cleopatra, written with journalist Joe Hyams. It offered Wanger a buzzy platform for his Hollywood swan song and audiences even more incentive to see Cleopatra.
The film would go on to be 1963’s highest grossing movie, although Cleopatra’s take was still less than its final budget. Wanger relocated to New York, where he would fall in love with gossip columnist Aileen Mehle, a woman 24 years his junior. This period was one of revaluation for Wanger, as he reflected on his history of exploiting younger women for the sake of an industry he had left behind.
Listen to the episode above, and be sure to listen next Tuesday, October 12, for Joan’s post-scandal chapter in Hollywood. Subscribe at listen.vanityfair.com/loveisacrime or wherever you get your podcasts.
More Great Stories From Vanity Fair
— Cover Story: Regina King Is in Her Element
— Even on Film, Dear Evan Hansen Can’t Fix the Musical’s Main Problem
— Linda Tripp’s Daughter Wishes Her Mom Was Around to See Impeachment: American Crime Story
— Unlucky Star: The Brief, Bombastic Life of Rudolph Valentino
— Emmys 2021 Winners: See the Full List Here
— LuLaRich’s Derryl on Taking Down LuLaRoe and Boycotting Kelly Clarkson
— What Michaela Coel Did With I May Destroy You Is Bigger Than the Emmys
— Love Is a Crime: Inside One of Hollywood’s Wildest Scandals
— Dune Gets Lost in Space
— From the Archive: The Making of Ghostbusters
— Sign up for the “HWD Daily” newsletter for must-read industry and awards coverage—plus a special weekly edition of “Awards Insider.”