After Israeli actress Gal Gadot announced this weekend that she would play the legendary Egyptian queen in a blockbuster movie, it didn’t take long for the calls of cultural appropriation to start on social media.
One tweet in particular, which said Gadot is “stealing” the role from Arab actresses, started a robust debate. Some users pointed out that Cleopatra wasn’t Egyptian — as a Ptolemaic ruler, she was descended from a Macedonian father, and historians don’t know the ethnicity of her mother.
This is hardly the first time in recent memory when the ability of Jews to play non-Jewish roles has come into question. It’s also not the first time that a Jewish movie star playing the Egyptian ruler has caused controversy.
The most famous Cleopatra film was released in 1963 and starred Elizabeth Taylor. The film was hugely expensive for the time — Taylor was reportedly the first actress to get paid $1 million for a role — and hugely successful, even though it was plagued by rumors of Taylor’s affair with co-star Richard Burton and all kinds of other on-set drama.
Taylor had converted to Judaism a few years earlier, before her marriage to singer Eddie Fisher, and had become outspokenly supportive of Israel. At the time, Egypt saw Israel as its enemy and banned any kind of relations with Jews and Israelis. So when the film first came out, Egypt banned it.
But the ordeal, which has a happy ending of sorts, actually started before the film was released, as the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s archives show. Here’s a quick timeline of Taylor’s Jewish Cleopatra story.
• In 1959, Taylor made her Zionist support public in a big way, buying $100,000 of Israel Bonds at a fundraiser dinner in Los Angeles with her new husband Fisher (who bought $10,000 himself). She had already finished her conversion with a big ceremony at Hollywood’s Temple Israel and spoken to the press about her love of Judaism. She was not converting for her husband, she made clear — she claimed she had admired the religion “for a long time.”
• Taylor’s big Israel Bonds purchase made waves in the Arab world, and not long after, JTA reported that the U.S. State Department had received some startling news: The United Arab Republic — what was then a unified state consisting of Egypt and Syria — “officially banned all motion pictures” featuring Taylor.
• Filming for “Cleopatra” took place in 1962, mostly in Rome, but the crew planned to film some shots in Egypt, for authenticity’s sake. But Taylor was banned from even entering the country, so the crew didn’t travel to Egypt. Still, JTA noted at the time: “Officially, Miss Taylor’s movies have been on the Egyptian blacklist for a long time. However, some of her films are shown occasionally in Egypt, and receive enthusiastic support from Egyptian audiences.”
• “Cleopatra” ended up doing just fine — it was released in 1963, became the most financially successful movie of the year and won four Academy Awards in 1964. Furthermore, Egyptian officials enjoyed it so much that they removed Taylor from the travel blacklist. As JTA reported: “The officials decided the film was good publicity for Egypt which is mentioned 122 times in the movie.”
If you’re curious, Taylor’s pro-Israel activism continued for decades, and JTA covered it:
She and Burton, who became one of her several husbands, helped raise close to a million dollars for Israel at a 1967 fundraiser; later in 1967, she canceled a trip to a film festival in Moscow in “opposition to the Soviet diplomatic offensive against Israel”; Taylor and Burton made headlines by visiting Israel in 1975; Taylor joined in a telegram defending Israel that was sent by 60 prominent women, including Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem, to the head of the U.N. in 1975; in 1983, Taylor attempted a “one-woman peace effort,” as JTA wrote at the time, visiting both Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in Jerusalem and Lebanon President Amin Gemayel in Beirut as the countries tried to strike a peace treaty after the previous year’s war.