Penthouse Retrospective

by Ernest Volkman Originally Published: May, 1980

The Guccione Legacy | 40 Years Ago This Month

Now, how many of their critics can you recall? More often than not, he, the critic, is a failed artist, an incomplete personality, and by some idiotic cultural synergism, he survives by attaGhing himself to the arts. He is no more than a parasite, a remote observer… remote because he is on the outside of art, looking in.

That sounds rather bitter. Is it because of the critical reception that Caligula received, or have you always held that opinion?

Guccione: From the time I left school until the day I started Penthouse, I was a devoted painter. I lived and worked among other artists, and although, by choice, I never exhibited my work, many of my friends did. I was acutely aware of the social and economic impact of the art critics’ reviews on their lives and work. And I grew to detest that fraudulent power. Like theater critics, their importance was magnified out of all proportion to their knowledge, their skills, and their sensitivity to art, and yet they could wipe out an entire career — financially, at least — with a single stroke of the pen. So what did they really know? They knew more about the practical history of art than any artist I ever knew, and they were particularly expert in that precious, pseudo-philosophical idiom by which art critics seem to communicate exclusively with art critics. But they couldn’t paint, and they couldn’t draw, and out of their rage and frustration their venomous credo grew: “If you can’t join ’em… fight ’em.”

In most respects, movie critics are similar, but they lack the power of the other two. The other two have widespread gaps in public comprehension going for them. They deal in illusions and metaphors. The more vapid the work, the more voluminous and incomprehensible the comment. But the movies-no! The medium is too popular, too accessible, too fundamental in its appeal, to rely on the tastes of increasingly higher authorities. Movie critics are insignificant by comparison. I don’t know of one single example of any film that has succeeded or failed as a result of a critic’s opinion.

A number of critics say privately that the real reason you decided not to hold press screenings was that you were afraid of critical reaction. Any truth in that?

Guccione: As I said before, I was prepared for it mentally and emotionally. I knew it was coming, and I knew how it was coming. But the lines outside the Penthouse East continue to swell. Every time the papers tell their readers how odious and decadent the film is, the lines get longer.

In that case, Rex Reed will have sold a lot of tickets. I think his review was the most vicious of all. Is there any bad blood between you?

Guccione: Not that I can think of, unless the principles of staunch heterosexuality that I and my magazines appear to represent offend him. But who is Rex Reed? A noisy little man of no real talent or consequence, an intellectual runt whose gender seems to have gotten in the way .of his judgment. He is like the perennial child: spoiled, grumpy, and rude, precocious in some ways and deficient in others … the child who refuses to respond to potty training and is therefore destined to go through life in a catharsis of oralanal hysteria.

Penthouse: Would you say the problems you had with Gore Vidal arose for similar reasons?

Guccione: Not in a million years. Gore can be bitchy and almost always is. But next to Reed, Gore is a giant, an artist, an intellectual colossus. Gore is the real thing. Gore is precisely what Rex Reed would like to be but cannot. And that’s the nub of Reed’s problem; that’s why so many of his reviews tend to be vicious and emotional rather than analytical and informative. As a critic, he reminds me of one of those tragic people who has to open his mouth in order to move his bowels.

But isn’t Gore, in his own way, as critical of the film as Rex Reed and some of the others? Didn’t he sue to have his name taken off the title?

Guccione: Yes and no! Gore did not sue, because he had no grounds to sue, and, yes, the title was originally Gore Vidal’s Caligula. We agreed to drop his name from the title provided he give up his 10 percent share of the profits. This was over and above the 200-plus thousand we paid him to write the script, and his name was one of the things we were paying for. We continue to carry his credit in the main body of opening credits, however, beeause he is the author of the original screenplay, whether he likes it or not.

Judging by some of the reports we’ve heard, the original idea to make a movie on the life of Caligula was Gore Vidal’s. Is that completely accurate?

Guccione: No. The idea of making a film based on the life of Caligula was brought to Gore Vidal by producer Franco Rossellini, together with a treatment that had been written some time earlier by Franco’s uncle, Roberto Rossellini. The original treatment shown to Vidal was merely a guide, a general idea to get Vidal interested. in the subject. As you know, Vidal has a great interest in history and is a formidable historian in his own right.

Doesn’t he insist that his original script was badly mutilated by you and the director and on those grounds disown it?

“Every time the papers tell their readers how odious and decadent the film is, the line gets longer.”

Guccione: Firstly, I never touched the script, although I spent many hours working with Gore during its original conceptualization and numerous subsequent revisions. The first few drafts were too strong, particularly in terms of violence and homosexuality. It was far too long and called for too many scenes and too many sets. It would have cost $30 or $40 million to shoot the film the way Gore originally wrote it.

Few of us can imagine a life and then build it to a point when the entire world recognizes, if not envies, it. The Bob Guccione Legacy reached that goal.

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