“Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety.”
– William Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra, 2.2
Not sure if this is what Shakespeare had in mind in his description of the ‘Queen of the Nile’ but with rumours now confirmed that Angelina will play Cleopatra in a forthcoming production, the legendary Queen of Egypt, the original Femme Fatale Number 1 renowned for her “infinite variety” takes on yet another form on the big screen. Variety is, however, open to debate.
The most famous of these depictions is probably that of late Elizabeth Taylor’s:
Strangely, Hollywood actresses had got in on the act years before Liz but not made as memorable a Cleopatra as fabulous Ms. Taylor. There is no denying that Vivien Leigh looks gorgeous as Cleopatra though:
It has also been suggested by historians that Cleopatra was not a conventional beauty. Historical rumour also has it that she ordered her depictions to be portrayed prettier than she actually was. It seems the “serpent of the Nile” – in Shakespeare’s words – banked more on her feminine charms, sex appeal and coquettish trickery to seduce not one but two Roman emperors and turned the Herculean Roman that is Anthony into “a strumpet’s fool.”
Another issue surrounding Angelina Jolie’s casting is the mystery of Cleopatra’s racial identity. Her paternal grandmother was of African ancestry and her father, Ptolemy XII Auletes, was a direct descendant of Ptolemy I Soter who married the Persian princess Artakama. It has been suggested that Cleopatra’s mother is either Cleopatra V Tryphaena or Berenice III. If she was Berenice’s daughter, that would mean she had more Egyptian blood in her. If however, she was Cleo V’s daughter, that would suggest more Grecian blood in her. Till this day, historians have not confirmed who Cleopatra’s mother is, leaving Cleopatra’s heritage open to debate.
A more recent theory is that, as a queen of diverse and often undisclosed racial heritage and with her loyalties firmly lying with Egypt rather than Greece, Cleopatra may indeed be more of an African queen. Late historian J.A. Rogers profiled her in his classic work The World’s Great Men of Colour Volume 1 whilst BBC, studying the remains of the queen’s sister Princess Arsinoe, found in Ephesus, Turkey, indicate that her mother had an ‘African’ skeleton. Either way, it is hard to imagine Cleopatra would have a passing semblance to the fair complexioned beauties of Hollywood which seem to be the norm in casting.
The last actress to play Cleopatra in a film was model/actress Leonor Varela in the ABC-TV two-part mini series co-starring actors Timothy Dalton, Billy Zane, and Rupert Graves. Leonor boasts a multiracial background – Spanish, Greek, Syrian, French, Italian, and Algerian-Amazigh – and perhaps a lot closer in racial heritage to Cleopatra than her Hollywood predecessors. Well, at least she shares the Greek DNA!
Possibly, ever the visionary Michael Jackson was on to something when he cast the Ethiopian supermodel Iman as Cleopatra in his “Remember the Time” video.
And let’s not forget Tina Turner back in the 90s channeling Cleo:
Most recently another eastern delight famous for her feminine charms and sex appeal has portrayed the Queen of Egypt (Kim Kardashian, yes, we’re talking about you!):
So here’s a question: Why can we not have – for want of a better word – a more ‘ethnic’ Cleopatra?
Don’t get me wrong, I do appreciate that beauty and talent are diverse, I do appreciate that there will be those who will play the ‘reverse racism’ card if black media were to bring up the conspicuous lack of ‘colour’ in Cleopatra depictions thus far, but have we perhaps not practised enough willing suspension of disbelief in accepting lily white actresses portraying an Egyptian queen of Greek/Persian/African heritage who would look anything but lily white?
There was much controversy not long ago when Angelina Jolie was cast as Mariane Pearl, the multiracial (Dutch, Jewish, African, Chinese, and Cuban) widow of Daniel Pearl, the journalist who was slain in Pakistan, in the film A Mighty Heart. Apart from Having Angelina as the focal point once again, this casting once again raises eyebrows and makes us wonder: Are there really not good enough black or multiracial actresses in Hollywood to depict Cleopatra?
Is it not about time we picture a black or multiracial actress when we think of Cleopatra?
Is it not about time to consider Thandie Newton, Zoe Saldana, Rosario Dawson as Cleopatra?
Or perhaps it’s about time that the African American heavyweights of American entertainment such as Jay-Z & Beyonce, Jada Pinkett-Smith and Will Smith to join forces (much like they did with Fela! the Musical) and create an alternative Cleopatra which sees the Queen of Egypt come to life beyond her thus far ‘finite’ variety.
What do you think? Who would your ideal Cleopatra be?
Okay, so far so serious, so while I await your answers, here’s a little something to lighten the mood – Whoopi Goldberg as an incontinent Cleopatra: