Notes from ningyo editions studio and gallery

Lobby Card #10: Caligula

david curcio

Lobby Card: Caligula (woodcut and drypoint on paper with embroidered border)

Caligula is one of the great train wrecks of film history, but much more expensive than an actual train wreck.  Based on a screenplay by Gore Vidal, directed by Italian soft-porn director and ass-fetishist Tinto Brass and starring Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, John Gielgud and a scabby, syphilitic Peter O’Toole as Caligula’s predecessor Tiberius… what could possibly go wrong?  Read more In short, Penthouse mogul Bob Guccione took the helm as producer,  turning the affair into an overly-lavish medium-core porn fest, resulting in a film that zigs and zags from serious acting and drama, to nauseating violence and penetration devoid of all that is erotic or titillating.

ningyoprints, david curcio

Malcolm McDowell as Caligula.

Guccione spared no expenses: at the time of shooting (1979) this was the biggest budget film to date, resulting in a bizarre spectacle that left audiences disgusted, baffled, or both. Maybe one or two viewers were actually turned on. With abject incredulity can one listen to Guccione’s bloated commentary track (why yes I did purchase the deluxe three-disc edition) wherein he tells us that “by now everyone in America – well, everyone in the Western world – knows about the production of this film” – or something to that extent (I’m paraphrasing as I cannot sit through the commentary again, but he does say “everyone in the Western world.”)  Obviously he was wrong, they don’t know, so I will fill you in a little.
Gore Vidal wrote a screenplay (based on Seutonius’ The Twelve Caesars of AD 121, the most complete account of the Roman Emporers we have, Tiberius and Caligula included) about absolute power corrupting absolutely. With Vidal’s name on the bill, McDowell, Mirren and O’Toole signed right on, as did Gielgud.  Brass was brought on as director and Guccione bullied his way into the role of producer.  Whereas Brass wanted a healthy dose of tits and an endless parade of saucy bums, Guccione surreptitiously inserted the above mentioned hard-core scenes into the final product, replete with spewing cocks, spread asses, facials, fisting, and a charming bit where McDowell rubs semen on his scalp, asking if it is god for growing hair.

Bob Guccione, scumbag.

Bob Guccione, scumbag and fucker-up of Caligula, a potentially decent film.

The cast clearly had some idea as to what was going on – in varying degrees.  McDowell was drunk for much of the shooting.  O’Toole, strictly forbidden alcohol by his doctors, hated the director and relentlessly gave him shit (though he seemed to have fun as the syphilitic Tibirius).  Gielgud apparently had no idea what was happening (his role was small and brief) and Mirren, tits on display more often than not, seems to have had  a jolly time.  McDowell caresses every sumptuous ass on the set while the rotting O’Toole frolicks in a pool with his nubile young “fishies.”  Nice work if you can get it. Still, no one knew quite how appallingly hardcore a spectacle it was to become.

ningyo editons, david curcio         david curcio

I rented the video in high school and was more struck by the violence than the sex.  A centurion’s penis is tied tight with a bootlace to cut off his urinary tract as he is force-fed a giant horn of wine, then stabbed in the gut. Another is strung up, mutilated and has his penis fed to dogs. A wedding is desecrated when Caligula deflowers the bride, then moves on to the groom,  jamming a lard covered fist (still wearing his enormous Emperor’s ring) into his ass. The sex is boring and repetitive while giving the impression that all dicks are a minimum of nine inches long (limp), causing me great distress at age seventeen.

Disowned by almost all involved, the credits alone are telling: phrases like “Based on a screenplay by…” and “Directed by Tinto Brass with additional direction by…” abound.  In an interview in which Gielgud was asked about Caligula, he supposedly maintained an icy silence and glare of contempt as only he was capable of. I have been unable to find said interview, and on the audio commentary, McDowell recounts running into a drunken Sir John in New York and hearing him say he saw the film and loved it, “just loved it!.” Probably the booze talking.

John Gielgud as Nerva.  Hard to tell if he's enjoying himself.

John Gielgud as Nerva. It’s hard to tell if he’s enjoying himself.

While based on respectable (if not reliable) source material (Robert Grave’s I Claudius of 1924 seems a bit truer to history, and his Caligula, both in the book and as portrayed by John Heard in the BBC series, seems more believably unhinged), any and all veracity and accuracy ultimately took the back seat to the repugnant violence and hard-core sex (the latter having been spliced in later by naughty Mr. Guccione).  At least the performers are having fun, and perhaps in the end that is what makes it all worth watching.


*(preview for the R-rated version, which was about an hour shorter than the X.)

Filed under: Lobby Card Series, , ,

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