“Serve the state... though the people in it are wicked beasts.”
"When we all met together for the first time," recalled Helen Mirren, by then Dame Helen Mirren, "Bob Guccione gave us lunch, and he stood up and said: ‘This is going to be the greatest film because we’ve got the best actors, and the best director, and the best writer’… and kept going on and on. And the director, Tinto Brass, sitting next to me whispered: ‘The best people, to make the worst movie!’
Penthouse magazine chief Bob Guccione's entry into film production was described by Variety as “the biggest investment ever in porno” - originally a 210 minute epic, eventually minus the names of scenarist Gore Vidal and Italian director Tinto Brass.
Other names were also missing... Guccione had first talked with John Huston, then Lina Wertmüller. She wanted Jack Nicholson in the titular role.
“From the outset,” Brass told me in Paris, “there was a lot of interest in Peter Firth for the title role after his work in Equus."
Brass always preferred Malcolm McDowell
“he recommended a very good dentist to me in London!”
McDowell signed on on because of Vidal - “witty, funny, acerbic, treacherous. Just the sort of person I love.” Firth and MacDowall had co-starred in Aces High, 1975, whenthe younger, blondeFirth looked much like McDowall’s Caligua.
Charlotte Rampling turned down Helen Mirren's role and until a new DVD release in 2007, Helen refused to discuss what she once called “an irresistible mixture of art and genitalia.” Then, Maria Schneider, still smarting from Last Tango In Paris, 1972, quit as the emperor's incestuous sister Drusilla, during a fight about a scene after the funeral of Tiberius.
“Filming had barely started,” Brass explained. “I wanted Caligua and Drusilla to be very sweet together, even sexual. They did have a sexual relationship, after all. So, Malcolm had to fondle her breasts and Maria didn't want that. She has some personal problems that I only learned about afterwards. She said: ‘After a funeral, one should be very sad.' Exactly, I said, that's why you are consoling him. ‘But it's not the right time.' [It was. Caligula was saying: I can do anything I like].
“Then, there was this fight and I said:
There's the door!”
Vidal had written Drusilla for his close friend, Claire Bloom, despite her being a dozen years older than McDowell. After some brief thoughts about Hollywood's Katharine Ross, Brass lobbied hard for true Brit Therese Ann Savoy - he had made her an Italian star in Salon Kitty , 1976. She gleefully took over in what Maria lambasted as a grotesque, pornographic picture. “For an amount of money, they're getting people to prostitute themselves. I was ready and willing to act - not to take my clothes off and do whatever they wanted.”
Her other allegation - that she and McDowell, among others were asked to perform real sex - was firmly denied by McDowell (who was absent from such inserts) and by Brass (who never shot any of the final version's fellatio and cunnilingus featuring Penthouse Pets Valerie Rae Clark, Jane Hargrave, Lori Wagner and Anneka Di Lorenzo), and by Guccione (who did).
Gore Vidal disowned the film not due to
the added porno but because
Brass and McDowell changed his viewpoint.
Tinto removed his name after being blocked from editing his movie, ie not inserting the six minutes of hardcore sex action.
Minnesota's 1975 Penthouse Pet of fhe Year, Anneka (ex-Marjorie Lee Thoreson) later won $4.06 in damages when suing Guccione for ruining her movie career (what movie career?) with Caligua - although she went on to headline, on the same sets, Messalina! Messalina! (aka Caligula II, but released first, in 1977) and appear in director Brian De Palma's Hollywood thriller, Dressed To Kill, 1980. Oh, that molv ie career.
He co-star, Valerie Rae Clark, never complained about sexual harassment, never sued over a lost career - or ever imagined, as Angela apparently did, that their joint fellating of the impressively endowed porno player, hiding under the appropriate monicker of Lucky Fellow, would lead to global movie stardom, an Oscar and world peace.
“I don't mind a bit of porno,” commented McDowell. “Biggest crime on earth in entertainment is... boredom.” Yet in 2004, he said: “Needless to say, we were all pretty appalled by the final product. In retrospect, I shouldn't have done it. I think it did damage me.” Not as much as his 80s addiction to booze and LA's blizzard of coke.
“For moral reasons,” Orson Welles refused “a most generous offer” to join the cast - as Nerva. And Sir John Gielgud decided “This is pure pornography,” when refusing the role of Tiberius. Gore Vidal wrote him “a terribly rude letter, saying how impertinent it was of me to refuse it and that if I knew what Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee said about me, I wouldn't be so grand. Terrible vituperation.” So he “shamefacedly” accepted the smaller role of Nerva, committing suicide his tepid tub. “It took three days to shoot and every two hours some terrible hags dragged me out, rubbed me down and put me back into the water again. Most extraordinary proceedings!”
McDowell adored O’Toole. “He never took anything, especially that film, too seriously. In fact, his very first words to John Gielgud on the set were: Hello, Johnny! What’s a knight of the realm doing in a porno movie!? We all had a good laugh about that. We couldn't believe our eyes: the set was covered with people engaging in every sexual perversion in the book. We were totally bemused.
“Peter would start off his speech: Rome was but a city... then pause, look around, and say to me:Are they doing the Irish jig over there? I’d look over and there would be two dwarves and an amputee dancing around some girls splayed out on a giant dildo. This went on quite a few times.”
“We had a lovely, lovely time,” said O’Toole. “The maestro ‘Brasso’ said: Choose your own costume. So I wound up myself in gold bandages.
Peter O'Toole: “Don't think I've given
a funnier performance in my life.”
“What attracted us all to it was a script by Gore Vidal,” said McDowell. “What happened was, when Bob Guccione, the Penthouse magazine founder who produced the film, shot all this hardcore footage two years after the film had been completed and then spliced it in. I mean, it was absurd, because the footage didn’t even match much of the time. There would be a shot of me smiling, looking at what as supposed to be my horse or something, and then suddenly they’d cut to two lesbians making out! It was just awful! Vidal had his name removed from the film, but of course none of the cast could do that, because there we were, up on the screen. But on the positive side, I got to work with Peter O’Toole, John Gielgud, and Helen Mirren again. But needless to say, we were all pretty appalled by the final product.”
“Malcolm shouldn’t be ashamed of it,” said Helen Mirren. “He’s wonderful in it! I’m certainly not ashamed of Caligula. In fact, I’ve always been very proud of it. Within its form, there’s a really great movie about Rome in there. The fact is, Gore took his name off it, but we made Gore’s movie. We really did stick to the script, and he wrote a really full-on, ‘out there’ movie. Tinto and I became great friends and we still are. He’s very devil-may-care, and there’s a wonderful excessiveness about him that appeals to me. Caligula may have been excessive, but it was never boring. I saw some of it recently again. Plus, it’s two different movies: there’s the version we shot, then there’s a great deal of hardcore sex footage that Guccione put in later [and which she never saw]. It didn’t need it, because what we had was quite enough! ”
“I am proud of the work I did,” McDowell told Eric Danville, of The Girls of Penthouse magazine, in November 2007. “There’s no question about that. But there’s all the raunchy stuff-the blatant, modern-day porn that Bob introduced into the film after we'd finished shooting. That to me was an absolutely outrageous betrayal and quite unprecedented. Frankly, it showed that Bob had no class whatsoever! “When Gore told me [the producer] was Bob Guccione, I asked, ‘Isn’t he a pornographer?’ Gore said, ‘Malcolm, just think of him as one of the Warner brothers. He just signs the checks!’ Well, of course that wasn’t true... ”
Dame Helen has the last words. “It was a trip. Like being on a little non-stop acid trip. It was so fantastical and weird and it was an absolutely extraordinary experience. It's a wild ride but it’s got certainly an energy and a character of itself... I don't think it [damaged my career], I felt very secure and happy because I was still thinking of myself as a theatre actress anyway, I thought it was just a little bit of extra spice.”