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Beautiful ruins

I love to read until my eyes get bleary. It’s another middle-age advantage. You look up from hours of reading and find the world looks like a Monet painting. And thanks to a nasty cold that walloped me, that’s all I could do yesterday: read. I’m behind schedule on everything, so that makes yesterday’s book the subject of today’s post. If this one seems a little wackier than most, please chalk it up to the Nyquil.

When you’re sick or just world-weary, there’s nothing better than being transported to other worlds, where people talk about interesting things, cruelty and injustice are something you can turn a page on, and things work out––or at least have meaning when they don’t. You walk away with a new catalogue of words that might save you or someone else in a moment of despair.


One of my favorite photos from my 2007 trip to Italy. This one was taken in Montepulciano.

Yesterday, I went to Italy, Hollywood and time-traveled back to the early 1960s, when 20th Century Fox nearly lost the farm over a film called Cleopatra. Beautiful Ruins is a work of fiction, but its plot offers vintage enthusiasts a significant bonus: the backstory behind the 1963 film and the tempestuous relationship between Cleopatra’s stars, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

Dressing Cleopatra
Prior to the 1960s, publicists deftly handled the scrapes and indiscretions of movie stars. They were experts at subterfuge, diversion and tamping things down to keep stars in the best light. But a nearly bankrupt 20th Century Fox turned that practice on its ear when it decided to go contrarian by leveraging the scandal of Taylor and Burton’s adulterous relationship. Call it the beginning of the public’s appetite for smut. The tabloids went crazy, creating plenty of free buzz for the movie.

Even with those extraordinary measures, Cleopatra only broke even despite its box office success. Why? Because Cleopatra was (and still is) one of the most expensive films ever made. Taylor’s agreement paid her $1 million for the film, but that swelled to nearly $7 million due to clauses in her contract that kicked her more money if the project lingered–which it did to excess.

Her wardrobe alone had 65 costume changes, amounting to roughly $1.5 million in today’s dollars. Understandably, Cleopatra had a significant style influence during the early 1960s. Vintage favorites from the era include one-shouldered gowns, snake bracelets, geometric haircuts and, of course, the amazing cat-eye makeup which comes in and out of vogue over the decades.

Best Lines in Beautiful Ruins
The making of Cleopatra is just a side road in Jess Walter’s book, where Burton and Taylor are minor characters. The real theme is the randomness of life and the perfection of a single moment of true love. If you’re the type of reader who only responds to wholesome literature, clean language and noble characters, take a pass on Beautiful Ruins. Look past their opposites and you’re in for a beautiful story that may load your arsenal for tough times.

  • Someone may treat you like an imbecile, for instance, and you’ll think of what Alvis Bender said to his wife: “_____ doesn’t get to tell you who you are.” It’s your story that matters––not the one someone else makes up about you. Remember that the next time someone tries to suck you into their version of you.
  • You can be guided through a difficult choice by the advice Pasquale’s mother gives: “The smaller the space between what you desire and what is right, the happier you’ll be.” I am amazed at the number of times I’ve felt kicked in the teeth––not happy when I did the right thing. Am I doing something wrong?
  • Studying one character’s attitude toward her own mortality, you could realize it’s okay to feel sad for an old flame who is fighting cancer. “What person who has enjoyed life could possibly think one is enough? Who could live even a day and not feel the sweet ache of regret?” Life may be full of possibilities, but our choices are still limited by time and circumstances.

The holidays are a good time to hit the reset button and get back to things you most enjoy. For me, that’s been old movies and gripping novels, like Beautiful Ruins. How are you recharging your batteries?

Life is short. Wear the good stuff.