Thursday, June 17, 2010


Back in 1979, an extraordinarily bizarre and impressive gathering of people got together to make an extraordinarily bizarre and impressive movie about one screwed-up Roman Emperor.  

I'm talking about Caligula, a movie written by Gore Vidal, produced by Franco Rossellini, and starring heavy-hitting names like Peter O'Toole, Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren and Sir John Gielgud.  What's so weird about that?  Nothing, except for all the hardcore pornography.

That's DAME porn star, thank you very much

It didn't start out that way, but it's definitely how it ended up.  Initially, Vidal and Rossellini wanted to make a simple little historical flick about Caligula, a Roman emperor who started his reign as a moderate and well-loved ruler, but later became a sadistic and vengeful tyrant (most historians think syphilis drove him crazy).  

Lovely idea for a film, but nobody wanted to pay for it.  Eventually, they called Bob Guccione, founder and publisher of Penthouse magazine.  Bob was all about the idea, and considering he had about a kajillion dollars on account of being a porn mogul and all, he certainly had the money they were looking for.  His two conditions for backing the picture were that it be neither little nor simple, and that he be allowed to add a bunch of his Penthouse "Pets" into the mix, along with some explicit sexual content that could promote his magazine.

not this kind of penthouse pet

Vidal and Rossellini, being modern, open-minded guys, agreed.  Guccione tried to get bigwig directors like John Houston to direct it, but they weren't into it, so he got a relatively green Italian director onboard and away they went.  Oh, boy...did they go.  To put it simply, production was a mess.  There was drama and infighting and reshoots and public disparagement and lawsuits...Gore Vidal ended up giving up most of this royalty rights to have his name removed from the production!

These problems show in the film, I'm sad to say.  The continuity is wonky and the story disjointed, and though the explicit sex works in some places (Caligula was known for his sexual appetites), it's utterly nonsensical in others.  I mean, porn is usually pretty nonsensical, sure, but it's REALLY out of place when intercut with some of the finest Shakespearean actors the world has ever known.

"But soft!  What light through yonder orgy breaks?"

You know what, though?  Watch it anyway.  It's totally worth seeing while not actually being any good - kind of like Showgirls, only with better acting.  Indeed, some of the acting is absolutely superb, and Malcolm McDowell is every bit as creepy in this as he is in A Clockwork Orange.  The costuming is amazing, the sets are impressive (there's an enormous decapitation machine that must be seen to be believed), and it's definitely not like any movie you've ever seen.

Oh, and there's boobs.  Lots of them.  So, there's always that. 

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