Reliving Penthouse Classic Cinema
It was the boldest move in cinema history: presenting the most celebrated and respected actors of the day in a film that could only be described as pornographic. Bob Guccione, founder of this magazine, set his sights on decimating the boundaries between art, sex, and cinema and succeeded to such a potent degree that even 40 years later, no theatrical event has come close to matching the scope and scandal of Caligula.
Writer Gore Vidal was one of the most distinguished literary minds of his time; his daring 1964 novel Julian famously compared the decadence of modern society to fourth-century Rome, making him a logical choice for producer Franco Rossellini to bring on board to script Caligula. Vidal, rooted in the reputable culture surrounding a best-selling author, described his script as “an analysis of how power corrupts,” and envisioned Caligula as a historically accurate, visually traditional, and wholly serious film documenting the actions of the most debauched and sadistic ruler in history.
Guccione, while complimenting Vidal as an “intellectual colossus” and “formidable historian,” wanted to push the boundaries of cinema, and after agreeing to join the production as financier and producer, hired critically acclaimed auteur of avant-garde cinema Tinto Brass as director. Aligned with Guccione, Brass imagined the film as a bombastic satire on the corrupting influence of power, retooling the script to emphasize the complicity of the senate and bringing on board Academy Award-winning set designer Danilo Donati to construct grand, expansive sets suggesting the excess and flamboyance of the Roman Empire.
At various points, Mick Jagger and Jack Nicholson were rumored to be in the running for the titular role. But the dubious honor of portraying one of the most nefarious men in history ultimately went to Malcolm McDowell, a young English actor riding high in Hollywood from his landmark role as the amoral lead in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. Teresa Ann Savoy, who had starred in Tinto Brass’s previous film, Salon Kitty, portrayed Caligula’s sister. The cast also included John Steiner as the cunning and ambitious advisor Longinus, and three British acting icons: Helen Mirren as Caligula’s promiscuous wife, Caesonia; Sir John Gielgud as Nerva, the wise and impertinent imperial counselor; and Peter O’Toole as syphilitic Emperor Tiberius.
From sets to costuming, no expense was spared in the extravagant production, but the differences between Caligula and a traditional epic film were immediately noticeable. In addition to the presence of a curated collection of exotic Penthouse Pets on-screen, McDowell remembered: “I’d look over and there would be two dwarves and an amputee dancing around some girls splayed out on a giant dildo.” When the very respectable Sir Gielgud arrived on set, O’Toole prodded, “Hello, Johnny! What’s a knight of the realm doing in a porno film?”
Helen Mirren recalled naked bodies everywhere, expressing that the experience of making Caligula “was like showing up for a nudist camp every day. You felt embarrassed if you had your clothes on in that movie.” She cheekily added, “It was like being sent down to Dante’s Inferno.”
With production underway, the budget quickly ballooned to twice that of Star Wars, and Guccione later complained that enough footage was shot to “make the original version of Ben-Hur about 50 times over.” Filming was rife with conflict: Vidal and Brass butted heads constantly, leading to the director banning Vidal from the set; and a spiteful Donati got a jab in by building the major set piece of Caligula’s pleasure ship at such an enormous scale that it filled the entire production studio, ensuring that the massive creation was nearly unfilmable and limiting the furious director considerably.
The mighty triumvirate of Vidal, Brass, and Guccione was a marketing dream come true: three titans in their respective fields, united for a creation unlike anything seen before on the cultural landscape–certainly unique in film history. Caligula, however, would end with two of the three creators forcibly distancing themselves from the finished film.
As soon as filming was completed, Brass was unceremoniously fired, and it was revealed that Guccione had been shooting hard-core pornographic scenes on the multimillion-dollar sets at night with the intention of overseeing completion of the movie himself. The end result was a curiously edited version of the film — heavy on spectacle, light on continuity. Brass was understandably devastated, and sued to have his name removed as director of a film so far afield from his vision.