Cleopatra is having a remake. The Egyptian queen, so memorably immortalised by Liz Taylor in Joseph Mankiewicz’s 1963 film, is coming back to our screens. And this time it’s going to be “dirty, bloody, with lots of sex”.
The new film, directed by Denis Villeneuve, aims to tell the story from Cleopatra’s perspective. “There have been so many narratives of Cleopatra that have all been framed through the eyes of men,” Scarpa told film website Collider. “The entire history of that period is framed through the eyes of men, specifically Roman men. We’re going to approach it through her point of view.”
Their goal is admirable (and long overdue) – but in order to be faithful to Cleopatra, as a strong, badass Egyptian queen, they’re going to need the right actor.
Cleopatra’s beauty is well-known. “She was a woman of surpassing beauty, and at that time, when she was in the prime of her youth, she was most striking,” wrote the Roman statesman Dio Cassius, while Plutarch spoke of “a woman who was haughty and astonishingly proud in the matter of beauty”. The two most powerful men of Rome, Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, both fell in love with her “wit as well as her good looks”, according to historian Appian.
But unlike Taylor’s Cleopatra, the real one had a big nose. The 17th-century philosopher Pascal famously wrote: “Cleopatra’s nose, had it been shorter, the whole face of the world would have been changed.” In coins and busts bearing her image, she has a strong profile. Her nose is hooked and eagle-like, her chin juts out and her forehead is short. Joyce Tyldesley, lecturer and author of Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt, has told the BBC: “People tend to think that her coins are more lifelike and if you look at them, she’s not particularly beautiful, as she has a big nose and chin.”
As always with history, there is debate among experts as to how big her nose was, how dark her skin was (she was Egyptian but was believed to have Macedonian descent), and whether she really was “beautiful”. But even if the nose-deniers are right and she actually had a Kate Middleton ski-jump, Cleopatra wanted people to see her as a woman with a strong, long profile. “She may not have wanted to look delicate and beautiful, she may have wanted to show power above anything else,” suggested Tyldesley on her coin images.
It is telling – and sad – that historians like Tyldesley assume that if Cleopatra did have a big nose, she would not have been beautiful. There are countless research papers asking whether she had a small nose – and was thus the Taylor-esque queen we think of today – or whether she was just a manipulative big-nosed seductress.
Unlike 17th- and 19th-century aesthetics, which decreed that big noses on women were strong and beautiful, society today cannot seem to move away from Hollywood’s white beauty standards. Big noses are seen as unsightly, unattractive, and – judging by the thousands who opt for rhinoplasty each year – something to be removed as soon as possible.
As a larger-nosed lady myself, I am desperate to see a 21st-century Cleopatra onscreen who looks like me. A Cleopatra who doesn’t have a “sweet little snub” or an “adorable button”, but the kind of nose that society has deemed appropriate only for witch costumes on Halloween.
There is a big move now in the media to try and improve diversity, so that the next generation will grow up seeing people onscreen who look like them, be it in terms of their race, disability or body shape. But one thing that it’s near-impossible to spot among celebrities is a big nose. Bar the handful of aquiline A-listers like Anjelica Huston, Lady Gaga, Maya Rudolph and Lea Michele, few have large noses, and many are plagued with rumours of nose jobs. No wonder, when it seems that a petite proboscis is the key requirement to succeeding Hollywood.
It’s something that has to change – and Cleopatra is the perfect opportunity to do it. The film industry has a chance to spread an important message: that big noses can be beautiful. It’s all very well seeing men like Adrien Brody and Owen Wilson as romantic leads on our screens, but the pattern is never reversed. Even Barbra Streisand’s famous Funny Girl is seen as “normal-looking” and not aesthetically worthy of the handsome leading man.
Cleopatra could finally show society that a woman with a big nose can win not just one but two handsome men’s hearts. And judging from everything we know about the queen – who possibly commissioned coin portraits of her side profile to make it look even bigger than it was (something no modern-day woman would ever do) – it’s exactly what she’d want from a film on her life.
• Radhika Sanghani is a freelance journalist and novelist