In the summer of 1972 a hard-core porn film, Deep Throat, which had been made for less than $50,000, grossed more than $1 million in its first seven weeks in the US box-office. It became a porn film that was a hit with the middle-classes, people queued around the block to see it, it was discussed in polite society and talked about by serious film critics.
Those in the know said that it had been such a runaway success because of its relatively high production values, a passable script (including such unheard-of-in-porn features as character development) and a genuine desire to transcend its fuck-flick roots. This, in turn, birthed a strange idea; that it was possible to make a ‘respectable’ porno. That with the right talent and the right budget a porno could attract A-list celebrities, who would normally be seen in more mainstream fare, and create a “real” film, which just happened to explicitly show people having sex.
Attempts to bring this dream to fruition mainly died. The budget was never raised, or was never high enough to attract mainstream celebrities (if, indeed, they could be attracted), or the demands of the agents of those celebs saw the film being watered down into no more than a titillating, but mundane, feature (Brian De Palma’s Body Double being a prime example).
Perhaps the film that came closer than any other was 1979’s Caligula.
Bob Guccione, the founder of Penthouse magazine, put $17.5 million into bringing his vision to the world. The screenplay was written by Gore Vidal, the cast was headed by Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, Peter O’Toole, Sir John Gielgud and Maria Schneider (who left the film, uncomfortable with the nudity and sexual content of her role), and famous Italian soft-core porn auteur, Tinto Brass, directed.
Brass disliked Vidal’s script, it included too little sex, and what in what sex scenes there were homosexual encounters vastly outnumbered heterosexual ones. He made so many changes that eventually Vidal demanded that his name be removed from the screenwriting credit. Brass also clashed with Guccione, refusing to film the hard-core scenes that had been the film’s raison d’être.
Eventually, once Brass had shot enough film to “make the original of Ben Hurr fifty times over” he was removed from the project, before the editing stage. Guccione’s team edited the film together, shot additional hard-core scenes, using the Penthouse Pets that Guccione had hired as extras, and added them to the film’s already lengthy running time. Brass disowned the film. Gielgud condemned it as pornography.
For UK viewers at least the problems didn’t end there. The British Board of Film Classification objected to the film’s sadism, its graphic rape scenes, the incest, and pretty much everything, really. Though the film was submitted to them without the hard-core material they still cut nearly ½ of it before allowing it to be screened in this country.
What was left was less a towering porno epic – The rising and falling of the Roman Empire – and more a staccato mess that would make Mind the oranges, Marlon! look like Kubrick’s work.
Who, then, is to blame for the huge and expensive mess that Caligula became?
Perhaps if Bob Guccione had really been interested in making a great film then things might have been different, but he made his play for the lowest-common denominator. He was, ultimately, just a grubby little pornographer who left others to get screwed while he made profit.
Or maybe Brass is to blame. He had the day-to-day control, after all. He tried to strike a balance between Guccione’s demand that the porn be as hard as possible and Vidal’s intelligent treatment of the subjects of powers and control, and fell too much towards Guccione’s side (but, ultimately, not enough to please him, or prevent Brass’ ultimate removal from the film).
Maybe even Vidal could have done more, maybe recognised that his vision wasn’t what people wanted. If he’d had a clear voice, and less inclination to wash his hands of the project, then perhaps he could have carved a true epic that would be remembered today outside of its cult-following.
It’s probably irrelevant now, what we’ve been left with is an attempt to recapture a rose-tinted vision of long-gone opulence, that managed no more than getting a lot of people fucked.