Bob Balaban has just flown back home to New York City after the world premiere week of Cleo at Houston’s Alley Theatre.
“I just flew into Newark and it’s taking me an hour to cross the George Washington Bridge, there’s some sort of a truck tipped over. So I’ve got time,” Balaban says to Free Press Houston over his cell.
Cleo, written by Lawrence Wright (Pulitzer Prize winner for his book The Looming Tower) and directed by Balaban, is currently on stage in its world premiere at the Alley and is wowing audiences. The play revolves around the affair on the set of the 1963 movie Cleopatra between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.
There are more than a couple of beats in the play that defines the essence of the theatrical experience: One moment has Dick and Liz wrapped in an adulterous embrace in her dressing room bed as the entire set descends below stage level, one of her legs sticking up like the mast of a ship.
At the time of the filming, Taylor was married to Eddie Fisher and Burton was wed to Sybil Williams.
Another poignant moment towards the end of the play has Burton revealing his true feelings for Taylor. It’s a speech marked by a sense of longing and even pathos as you realize they are truly in love and yet married to other people. A split second later, Fisher walks around the corner and tells the audience, “Yeah we got divorced.” The audience vacillates between wetness in their eyes from drama to tears of laughter in a split second.
“The particular moment at the end where Richard and Elizabeth say a very sad goodbye and then Fisher comes in and punctures their balloon, totally came in about three weeks ago,” says Balaban. “Larry and I had discussed it and thought it would be good for Eddie to comment on the action a couple of more times. This is an actual thing that happened to Eddie Fisher.
“We wanted to be careful that the play never took itself too seriously. These people were human beings and not gods and goddesses like they were treated in the film’s publicity,” says Balaban. “We thought it would be great to puncture the serious nature of their relationship with another point of view from one of the damaged parties.”
The press reaction to the affair between Dick and Liz ranged from condemnation by the Pope (the film was being shot in Italy) to angry moralists wanting to deny Taylor entrance back into the United States. Some of the public vitriol is seen and heard in the play.
Taylor had been a star since her childhood in the 1940s, starring in films like National Velvet (1944) and Courage of Lassie (1946). Burton was himself a major star. The film Cleopatra was besieged since filming began in 1961 by delays and over-expenditures. Other characters depicted in Cleo include Fisher, Rex Harrison (Julius Caesar) and director Joseph Mankiewicz, who himself replaced original helmer Rouben Mamoulian.
In reality, Balaban and Wright have been tossing back and forth ideas about Cleo for seven-and-a-half-years, and indeed Wright had originally conceived the basis for the play two decades ago. “We were constantly re-imagining parts and scenes,” says Balaban.
A recent article on Wright in the New York Times mentions that when the play was set to launch last September, Wright had written 78 drafts. By the time of the play’s world premiere earlier this month, Wright had written nine more.
Cleo, set to premiere last year, was put on hold when Hurricane Harvey hit Houston and the Alley Theatre was literally underwater. “The hurricane was horrible but it was another chance to get a stab at development,” says Balaban.
Balaban was shooting a television series, Condor, in Toronto, last September when the cast arrived a few days ahead of Harvey. “I arrived two days after the hurricane struck, I was not even sure if I could get from the airport to the hotel,” recalls Balaban. “The hotel was fine but blocks away it was under water. Hurricanes are erratic, it was like wild fires I have experienced in Los Angeles where three houses on one street are burnt down yet the fourth house doesn’t get touched.”
During the casting it was of the upmost importance to find actors who could capture the spine of the well-known figures portrayed on stage. “It was difficult. They are very specific parts and we wanted people to both be wonderful and also resemble the parts they were playing,” says Balaban.
“It was hair raising, and then one day Elizabeth Taylor walked in. Lisa Birnbaum didn’t seem like Taylor, but then she opened her mouth and her face turned left a little bit and we instantly realized she was pretty amazing in the Elizabeth Taylor department. Much more important than that, she was able to provide the kind of warmth, charm and directness of Taylor,” says Balaban.
It was through another friend of Balaban’s, Jean Stapleton, that he first met Taylor years ago. “They had acted together in a play and were the best of friends. They appeared to be so different from one another and they were. Liz was known as a great beauty and Jean as a great actress. And yet in their differences they were so much alike,” says Balaban.
“We were wandering around in the desert trying to find a Richard Burton because actors with that talent, good looks and 40 years old are pretty well signed up for the next five years in other projects. We were really lucky with Richard Short [Mary Kills People, American Horror Story] — he’s very busy, he has got a series. But he responded to the play, he knew what he had lined up for the next couple of months and he was able to say yes,” says Balaban. “I like the people that Taylor and Burton were and it was important to me that we could find people who could inhabit them and in spite of their flaws make us interested in them.”
The actor who plays Eddie Fisher, Adam Gibbs, is from Houston and has appeared in numerous Alley productions as well as Stages Theatre, Unity Theatre and Houston Grand Opera.
One scene in Cleo has Fisher pulling a pistol on Taylor and Burton, however that is a made up scene. “What happened was, Eddie did carry a gun and he did say things like ‘I can’t kill you because you’re too beautiful.’ The reason he carried a gun was because he was convinced Richard was going to beat him up at some point,” says Balaban.
“Originally, the movie was going to be two movies — it was an eight-hour movie that got cut in half. When Taylor saw it she reportedly went and threw up because all of the delicate connective scenes that were necessary to understand it had been removed.”
Balaban, in addition to directing, has himself been an actor in films going back to the mid-1960s. He has appeared in films as diverse as Midnight Cowboy, Catch-22, 2010, Bob Roberts, and several films from Christopher Guest and Wes Anderson, with his most recent role as the voice of King in Anderson’s Isle of Dogs.
Balaban directed the cult black comedy Parents (1989), which was told from the point of view of a child who thinks his parents (Mary Beth Hurt, Randy Quaid) are cannibals.
Another role had Balaban being directed by Steven Spielberg and starring with François Truffaut in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Balaban has a book he’s written about that film titled Spielberg, Truffaut & Me: An Actor’s Diary, published in 2003.
“Truffaut was very anxious about one of the scenes in the movie. At one point he had to say ‘Einstein was right.’ And he was very worried that he wouldn’t pronounce it correctly,” says Balaban. “He came to me at one point — and he didn’t like to speak English, so he was worried about the scene. He was writing a book about what it was like to be an actor, which is one of the reasons he ended up doing the movie.
“So the day of the scene rolls around and he comes back to the hotel. I asked him how his scene went and he said, ‘It was terrible — they gave my line to another actor. I was really disappointed. Now I know what it’s like to be an actor.’”