Caligula (1979)

Caligula is a movie that several wanted to make their own, but only its producer could fully own.

Scriptwriter Gore Vidal had intended to call it Gore Vidal’s Caligula, writing a script that had a strong focus on homosexuality and only one heterosexual scene. That one was between Caligula and his sister Drusilla. He was paid $200,000 for his work and received the credit that the movie was adapted from his script, but he wanted nothing to do with the film.

Tinto Brass ended up being the director, selected after elaborate sets, costumes, jewelry, hairstyles, wigs and makeup were created by production designer Danilo Donati. John Huston and Lina Wertmüller had already turned down the movie, but after Salon Kitty, it was decided that Brass would be a good fit, despite the knowledge that he was difficult to work with. He would only do the film if he could rewrite Vidal’s script, which is hilarious to me, and added plenty of orgies, female nudity and male genitalia pretty much in every scene.

In an interview for Time, Vidal called directors parasites and claimed that screenwriters are the true makers of the film. Brass demanded Vidal not be allowed on set and Vidal filed a lawsuit against the film. The battle between Brass and Vidal is, quite frankly, better than the movie, as Vidal wanted ten percent of all profits, calling the director a megalomanic while Brass would say, “If I ever really get mad at Gore Vidal, I’ll publish his script.”

The real power we alluded to earlier?

This was the only feature film produced by the men’s magazine Penthouse. The magazine’s founder, Bob Guccione, dreamed of making an erotic feature film narrative with high production values and name actors. He’d helped fund Chinatown, The Longest Yard and The Day of the Locust, but now it was time to make the Citizen Kane of adult films.

Vidal wanted the idea of absolute power.

Brass saw Caligula as a born monster.

Guccione wanted to see hardcore coupling on the big screen, something that neither Vidal or Brass wanted.

Well, Bob got what he wanted, locking Brass out of the editing process and shooting his own hardcore inserts — hell, most of the movie — with his Penthouse Pets as extras and using cameraman Giancarlo Lui as the director.

Caligula (Malcolm McDowell) is the next in line for the throne of the Roman emperor, but his uncle Tiberius (Peter O’Toole) is still on the throne, despite being absolutely mad due to advanced venereal disease. He wants to kill the boy, who is protected by Marco (Guido Mannari), who ultimately kills the old man to hasten Caligula’s path to power.

Caligula is proclaimed the new Emperor, then tells all that his sister and lover Drusilla (Teresa Ann Savoy, Salon Kitty) is his equal. To prove that he is his own man, he has Marco killed, which should show the world that maybe this kid is not alright.

His sister, who he cannot marries, picks one of her Isis priestesses — Helen Mirren! — to wed her brother, who soon goes wild, assaulting husbands and wives on their wedding days and coming up with all manner of off the wall tortures and gladiator affairs. After barely surviving a fever and enduring the death of his sister, Caligula fully gives in to the madness inside and destroys everything about Roman society before he is killed, his blood washing down the marble steps as the film closes.

The big disagreement between Brass and Guccione was over each person’s taste in women. Yes, this really happened.

When the film came to America, it battled pornography laws in nearly every place it played. It’s also one of the few movies that Roger Ebert ever walked out of.

Here’s a fact that I love about this movie: According to McDowell, Peter O’Toole’s first words to Sir John Gielgud were, “Hello, Johnny! What is a knight of the realm doing in a porno movie?” When McDowell first saw Gielgud, he asked him if he’d seen the set, to the reply of “Oh, it’s wonderful. I’ve never seen so much cock in my life.” Gielgud later told McDowell that he liked the movie so much, he paid to see it twice.

This movie was legendary in my high school days, as there was only one copy available in our very small Western Pennsylvania town and it was in the dreaded back room of Prime Time Video. Kids who may — or may not — have seen it spoke breathlessly of the wonders and horrors that it contained.

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