The making of ‘Caligula’ (1979)


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Legendary movie critic Roger Ebert went along to see and review Caligula and did something he admitted he rarely ever did. He walked out of the theatre part-way through the showing. It was during the Brothel-Boat-orgy sequence, which he described as ‘sickening, utterly worthless, shameless trash.’ He went on to add, ‘If it is not the worst film I have ever seen, that makes it all the more shameful. People with talent allowed themselves to participate in this travesty.’ Needless to say, he gave it zero stars, then completed his critique by quoting another viewer who described it as, ‘…the worst piece of shit I have ever seen.’

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Bob Guccione

It was the only feature film ever produced by Penthouse Magazine. The magazine’s founder, Bob Guccione, planned to produce a pornographic movie with feature film narrative and high production values. His idea was to feature top class actors in the main roles, but to use Penthouse Pets as extras in un-simulated sex scenes, filmed secretly in post-production by himself and a cameraman. He paid Gore Vidal $200,000 to write the script and a man named Tinto Brass to direct. Vidal later disavowed the film after Brass extensively altered his screenplay. Guccione and Brass also fell out when the latter refused to film the un-simulated sex scenes the producer insisted upon. Guccione had them filmed anyway and they became part of his movie.

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Gore Vidal                                  Tinto Brass

Vidal, who was himself homosexual, came up with a screenplay that contained several homosexual sex scenes and only one heterosexual one. Guccione demanded rewrites, not out of any sense of propriety of course, but because gay sex scenes would not draw the audiences straight ones would. Brass’s rehashing of Vidal’s screenplay saw the inclusion of a lot more female nudity, several orgies and some decorative phalluses. Even so, it was Brass’s altering of Vidal’s political focus that caused the writer to disown the revised script. His disillusionment had nothing to do with any repugnance at sexual content.

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Malcolm McDowell & Helen Mirren                     John Gielgud

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Peter O’Toole                               Teresa Ann Savoy           

Unaware of the pornographic plans, several top notch actors signed on. These included Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, John Gielgud and Peter O’Toole. Young Maria Schneider, who had starred in the abominable Last Tango in Paris back in 1973, was signed to play Caligula’s sister Drusilla. But she didn’t last long. She angered Brass by sewing up the open tunics he expected her to wear. The nakedness and sex scenes bothered her as well and she was quickly replaced by Teresa Ann Savoy, an actress Brass had worked with before. McDowell still congratulates himself on talking Katharine Ross out of accepting the role of Drusilla.

The revised script called for Caligula (McDowell) to rape the wife of Proculus (not a problem), and then to sodomize Proculus. Malcolm blatantly refused to take part in the sodomizing, so Brass suggested that some off-screen ‘fisting’ would have to make do. It appears in the uncut version. McDowell, for the most part, got along well with the director. O’Toole did not. Gielgud and Mirren merely went about their work as usual. Later, the un-shockable Helen described the picture as, ‘an irresistible mix of art and genitals’.

McDowell recalled O’Toole greeting Sir John Gielgud with the words, ‘Hello, Johnny! What is a knight of the realm doing in a porno movie!?’ He also recalled Sir John commenting on seeing the set for the first time. ‘Oh, it’s wonderful’, beamed the very gay knight. ‘I’ve never seen so much cock in my life!’ When Malcolm asked Brass why the Roman soldiers invading Britain were not clad in armor, he received a three-word reply: ‘Cocks and arse.’ According to McDowell, Sir John enjoyed the film so much that he paid to see it twice!

A few weeks after filming had concluded, Guccione and Giancarlo Lui returned to Rome to shoot the hardcore porno scenes during the wee small hours. They brought with them a selection of Penthouse Pets. When they had finished the scenes were edited into the film. When Brass learned of this he disowned the picture. In order to get the principal players to do voice re-recording sessions, Guccione agreed, if they would co-operate, to edit out the hardcore scenes from the end print. And he did so. Then, once the re-recording was completed, he re-inserted them into the final cut. McDowell said, after seeing the released print, ‘I felt like a woman after she’s been raped.’ He later went on UK TV, advising viewers not to go see it.

According to some cast lists, writer Sidney Sheldon has an uncredited bit part playing a transvestite. In the orgy scenes (and elsewhere) quite a few of the naked ladies sport visible tan-lines in an age when topless sunbathing and bikinis were still a long way off in the future. A huge map of Europe and the Mediterranean we see hanging on a wall is far too precise (and modern) for such ancient times.

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Anneka Vasta

The saddest story to emerge from the making of this shabby movie concerns a young lady named Anneka Di Lorenzo aka Anneka Vasta. Born Marjorie Thoreson in 1952 in St. Paul, Minnesota, this stunningly attractive brunette was named ‘Penthouse Pet of the Year’ in October 1975 and soon afterwards embarked upon an international USO tour for the US Department of Defense, visiting war veteran hospitals along the way. The future looked rosy until she accepted Guccione’s offer to play Messalina in Caligula.

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Lori & Anneka – other shots are


Photos of her steamy lesbian love scene with fellow Penthouse Pet Lori Wagner were published in the June 1980 edition of the magazine, causing great damage to Anneka’s budding acting career. She sued Guccione and was awarded $4 million in damages which was later overturned. In 1991 the pictures were released again by the magazine. Twenty years later Anneka’s naked body was discovered by joggers on a beach near Camp Pendleton in California. Her back and neck had been broken while she was alive, yet she supposedly died from drowning. Her car was found nearby. Police have still been unable to determine what exactly happened. She was 58.

Guccione did not want Caligula to receive an MPAA rating, so he simply refused to submit it. Instead, he gave it his own ‘rating’ – ‘Mature Audiences’ – and instructed theatre owners not to admit patrons under the age of 18. He greedily insisted the regular ticket price of $3 be increased to a whopping $7.50. The picture went on to gross US $23 million and was a success in France, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands and Japan. After grossing $20 million in its first week it was banned due to public petitions in the USA. A 105 – minute R-rated version, minus the hardcore sex, was released in 1981.


  1. That orgy scene on the boat was the best. I remember old people would just make a weird sighing type groan when the porn started. They would get up like zombies and just walk out.

  2. When Caligula was shown in New Jersey back then, I was curious about Roman history but I walked out of the theater a little after it started. I noticed the theater manager looked a little sheepish as he watched me leave. I dared to watch the movie now, years later, for an intellectual summation and came away with the observation that it was just gratuitous sexual violence without an intelligent plot. Not fit for decent society, although Caligula was historically a pervert of the highest order, so were many others in that day–and many today.

    • Nice to hear from you, Wes. Personally, I have nothing against pornography provided it does not feature children or violence, but the big problem with ‘Caligula’ was that the actors involved were duped into thinking it was a mainstream picture. The really hard core stuff was included in the dead of night after the bona fide acting had finished. I don’t know how much their appearance in such a production impacted on their careers, but I imagine a lot of patrons probably embraced lesser opinions of some esteemed players as individuals after watching the film.

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