One of the most infamous rulers in history was Gaius Caesar Agustus Germanicus, commonly known as Caligula (a translation of his nick name, Little Boots). He enacted amnesty, lowered taxes, and restored the nobility that his predecessor had abolished at the start of his rule. A few months into his position, he also experienced an unidentified fever of some kind, and when he came out of his bedroom, he appeared to be insane. He started demanding to be treated like a deity, got married to his own sister, and started spending money on odd extravagances. He built one of the largest ships ever built and conducted expensive mock maritime battles for his own entertainment (it was certainly not practical). He destroyed the nobility and started a brothel in the capital when the money ran out. He started torturing victims for amusement. The rumour that he appointed a horse to the senate is untrue. In the end, Caligula was killed in AD 41. He wasn’t even 30. Claudius succeeded him in power. The iconic 1976 British miniseries “I, Claudius,” which the author highly recommends, covers a significant portion of this tale.
The 1979 biopic “Caligula,” which was credited to Bob Guccione and Giancarlo Lui as its directors, covered the life of Caligula in much more graphic detail. However, renowned exploitation director Tinto Brass oversaw the production and significantly revised the script to include more orgies, more nudity, and more phallic imagery. To Gore Vidal’s dismay, the script he wrote for “Caligula” was rewritten so drastically that no scriptwriter was given credit. “Based on a screenplay by Gore Vidal” is the only on-screen credit.
One of the more overtly repulsive movies in movie history is “Caligula.” This is meant as praise. Belied by the presence of actors like Malcolm McDowell, Peter O’Toole, John Gielgud, and Teresa Ann Savoy in what is ostensibly a high-end historical drama. The most costly sexploitation movie ever produced is “Caligula.” Before Brass entered and sexed up the place, the writing was handled by the purportedly sophisticated writers Lina Wertmüller and Vidal. “Caligula” was initially planned to be a major Hollywood production in the style of “Citizen Kane,” according to producer Guccione, who also founded Penthouse magazine. The key distinction was that “Kane” did not have any scenes of brachioproctic insertion, queer fellatio, or unsimulated sex (look it up… or don’t).
In a 2015 interview with People, Mirren, who portrayed Caligula’s wife Caesonia, reflected on her experiences working on such a… naked… show. She discusses how being requested to do naked scenes was difficult for her as an actress, how pleased she is that this is no longer the case, and how filming “Caligula” was the exception to the norm.
Mirren acknowledged in the People interview that she despises the feeling of stripping off in a crowded space: “I’ve always detested it. Always. Being the lone naked person on a movie set is not fun.” She added, though, that being around so many other naked people made her feel more comfortable. Now that everyone was naked, it seemed unusual to wear clothes to work: “Everyone was naked in that,” she remarked. “It was like daily attendance at a nudist camp. If you were wearing clothing throughout that movie, you felt ashamed.”
It’s funny how Mirren describes “Caligula” as “an delightful mix of art and genitals.” Mirren is cited (by the New York Times) as always being purposefully enthusiastic about this extremely weird and trashy movie in William Hawes’ 2008 book “Caligula and the Fight for Artistic Freedom: The Making, Marketing, and Impact of the Bob Guccione Film.”
“I’ve never opened my mouth to denigrate ‘Caligula.’ I was pretty young when I made that not physically so much as experienced in film. And you know what? It was a great experience. It was like being sent down to Dante’s ‘Inferno’ in many ways.”
It was the era
Although Mirren normally disliked nudity, in an interview with Vanity Fair, she seems to have come to terms with how prevalent it was in the beginning of her career. She remembers the first time she was requested to portray a naked character:
“Does it really matter? I was doing nude scenes [from] the first moment I started doing movies … It was the era … It seemed to be nothing to get your knickers in a twist over.”
Upon its debut, “Caligula” received harsh criticism.
As “sickening, absolutely worthless, despicable trash,” Roger Ebert gave the movie 0 stars, declaring that it “is not excellent art, it is not good cinema, and it is not good porn.” He is correct, in a way. It takes a strong constitution to get through “Caligula,” a rambling, 156-minute farce. There isn’t quite enough sex, frequent nudity, and bodily fluids to keep one fascinated. One can only respect it for the filmmakers’ unwavering dedication to creating one of the most unwatchable sex movies ever captured on film. It attempts to hit Pasolini but fails. In a sea of nipples, its themes of absolute power corrupting absolute power are obscured.