Our Founder’s Erotic Film “Caligula” gets Rediscovered
Depending on the predisposition of the source, history remembers Bob Guccione either as an ostentatious creative spirit or a ruthlessly clever businessman — the reality probably lies somewhere in the middle. What’s certain is that the Penthouse magazine founder loved a challenge, loved exceeding expectations, and lived to push the envelope, weighing in via his publication on charged social and cultural issues, and highlighting the centrality of sex in human life.
A visual artist who painted, drew, and developed his own aesthetic as a photographer, Guccione inevitably turned his eye to Hollywood and moviemaking. His efforts began in the early 1970s, when the Penthouse company helped bankroll the horror film A Name for Evil and the counterculture drama The Dope Lawyer, while also partnering with Paramount Pictures to assist in financing The Longest Yard, The Day of the Locust, and Chinatown.
Meanwhile, producer Franco Rossellini and author Gore Vidal had begun collaborating on a film about the notorious Roman emperor Caligula, envisioned as a scathing commentary on power and corruption. Their quest for financing led them to Guccione, who saw in the political, brutal, and sexually charged subject matter an opportunity to make a truly revolutionary film.
Under his supervision, Guccione believed that Caligula could deliver a progressive cultural statement to a larger audience than was possible with a men’s magazine. His vision was bold and ambitious, and he was willing to invest heavily to pull off such a momentous undertaking.
“I promised to make a new kind of motion picture, one so innovative in its magnitude that it would fundamentally change the viewing habits of the theatergoing public,” Guccione said in promotional audio accompanying the movie’s release. He added, “If experiencing something that no one has ever felt before is as important to you as it is to me, I recommend that you see and experience Caligula.”
With a massive budget and starring four of England’s most respected actors (Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, Peter O’Toole, and Sir John Gielgud), Caligula was Guccione’s attempt to fuse the scope and star power of a grand Hollywood historical drama with the excitement and audacity of pornographic film and the innovative sensibility of European art cinema.
Evaluated purely from a conceptual standpoint, the film can be said to faithfully
combine these elements. The creative result is less easily defended. Following an issue-plagued production, both Vidal and its Italian director, Tinto Brass, sued to remove their names from the film, and star Malcolm McDowell was publicly recommending that viewers skip the movie altogether. Audiences ignored his advice, and all the scandal only served to sell more tickets.
Released in America in February of 1980, Caligula was a box-office hit, but the reviews were universally brutal. Unfazed, Guccione delighted in the fact that, according to his calculations, by September, Caligula had earned a dazzling profit of $89 million from domestic and international sales.