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The Writer Who Disowned the Movie

Gore Vidal

In my opinion, Gore Vidal is simply the best. I’ve been a fan of his essays since I was 14, and later became a fan of his books, movies, plays, and teleplays as well. His Caligula script, especially its later drafts, is nothing less than brilliant. Unfortunately, Gore Vidal was — there’s no other word for it — swindled.

There was a financial complication with the production, and it looked as though the movie would never be made. Then, by a strange series of bizarre coincidences, Vidal brought in his buddy Bob Guccione to create a work-around for that snag and get the show on the road at last. It was not long before they were no longer buddies. With the Penthouse bureaucrats installed, rumors began to fly. The director heard untrue but convincing rumors about Vidal’s attempts at sabotage. Vidal heard untrue but convincing rumors that the director was rewriting the script. Actors were carefully fed rumors to convince them to take one side or the other. That’s not even to mention the faked evidence that caused a flurry of emotions. Soon Vidal was convinced that the director, suffering an overdose of ego, decided, entirely on his own, to convert Gore Vidal’s Caligula into an illegal hardcore sex film. There was no truth to that at all, but yet that’s what all the available evidence appeared to prove. Finally, unable further to endure the relentless onslaught of humiliations, Vidal resigned prior to filming. Here are some press quotes that, uncharacteristically, have the ring of truth, and I suppose that Vidal really did say all these things verbatim.

Mary Murphy, “Caligula — His Kind of Scene?,”
The Los Angeles Times, Wednesday, 3 December 1975, p. F18:

“The story of Caligula is an analysis of how power corrupts. I had written an essay about him 20 years ago and have always been fascinated. I finally felt the timing was right for a film. The film will deal mainly with Caligula, third of the 12 Caesars, but will touch on his predecssor and grandfather, Tiberius. It should be the first realistic study of the Roman Empire ever on film.”

Philip Oakes, “Gore Vidal Tells Philip Oakes about the Age of Caligula: Tidings of Bad Cheer,”
The Sunday Times, 14 December 1975, p. 32:

“We show him as a nice, happy boy. Perfectly normal. Not especially intelligent — though intelligent enough to know that some day he is bound to be murdered — and meanwhile having a good time with all the world to play with. The ideal casting would be Mickey Rooney, thirty years back. Andy Hardy in a toga.”
“Power is being concentrated and once you get this concentration of power — either in one man or a group — then you are bound to get your Caligulas. I don’t see how we can avoid this period of autocracy. In the United States it will be done in the name of the environment, in the name of all the good things.”

“Blood, Gore & a Whole Lot More,”
Photoplay [US], March 1976, p. 46:

“Caligula is everybody. He treated people as things. We are on the new dawn of an age of Caligula — think of the Pentagon, the CIA, the current national rulers. They, too, have the absolute power to treat other people as things. And just look what happened to the Roman Empire....”

“Gore Vidal: Laughing Cassandra,”
Time 107 no. 9, Monday, 1 March 1976, pp. 59–64:

[ASKED WHY HE INCLUDED HIS NAME IN THE TITLE:] “I decided to strike a blow for the writer, and against the idea that the director is the sole auteur of a film. Some are — Fellini, Bergman. But most directors are parasites, peculiarly dependent on the talents of writers whose names they very rarely reveal to the press.”

Caroline Moorehead, “The Writer Who Might Have Been President of the United States,”
The (London) Times, Friday, 12 March 1976, p. 12:

[ON THE TITLE, AGAIN:] “I chose that in a moment of thoughtful megalomania, not so much in homage to myself as out of concern for the writer’s status.”
“I’ve always wanted to make one good movie, mine, reflective of me, with the director serving the text.”
“It’s not going to be fancy. Italian movie makers have a Sistine Chapel complex: they fill everything in with pretty pictures. I want to show how it was when they all wore dirty togas, and put chalk on to cover the marks, so that in a high wind the air in the Senate was filled with dust.”

Monique Van Vooren, “Vidal,”
Andy Warhol’s Interview, April 1976:

What was your reason for calling CALIGULA — GORE VIDAL’S CALIGULA?
A number of reasons aside from perfectly normal megalomania. For one thing, I didn’t want anybody to think it was Albert Camus’ CALIGULA. He seems now to be somewhat forgotten but you never can tell, he might have a revival. The dreaded Lina Wertmüller has threatened to do her CALIGULA when she discovered that we would not take her as the director for my CALIGULA, so there’s the chance that she might do one. So I thought it better to put my name in the title; something I learned from Fellini. When he began to make SATYRICON four other Italian directors announced that they were making SATYRICON, too. So he put his name in the title, which was something they couldn’t do or hadn’t thought to do. Can’t you see ROSSI’S FELLINI’S SATYRICON?
But the fact that you wrote the script for CALIGULA you were obviously well-versed in that period of history since you have already done JULIAN. Did you have to do more research for CALIGULA?
No there are only two texts. There’s Tacitus and Suetonius and once you’ve absorbed them you’ve got everything anybody knows about the character.
Where do you think the film is going to be made — entirely in Italy?
No, I think location stuff will be in Romania, Yugoslavia. We’re going to need a lot of people and it’s very expensive in Italy now, the crowds....

Gregg Kilday, “Once over Lightly from Gore Vidal,”
The Los Angeles Times Calendar, Sunday, 18 April 1976, pp. 27, 29:

“Of course, mine is going to be pro-tyrant. That’s the way you get things done. I want to do Caligula as a fun-loving, happy all-American boy, who’s just having a wonderful time killing people, raping and looting. No monster thinks he’s a monster, so to do a sympathetic treatment of him would then be twice as chilling as doing the usual green-faced monster.”

Jerry Bauer, “Playmen intervista: Gore Vidal,”
Playmen 10 no. 10, (interview conducted probably early July 1976) October 1976, pp. 21–26:

PLAYMEN — Is your real world also the world of the various forms of sexual behavior that you demonstrated in Myra Breckinridge and Caligula?
VIDAL — Myra and Myron are satires, and sex serves only to highlight the vanity. It seems that some have understood this and others have not. It’s not essential; the books can entertain all the same. I think the readers have noticed that; in fact in America Myra has surpassed the sales of all my other books... In Caligula there are several very lively sex scenes, even scenes of group sex. You mustn’t forget that Tiberius, Caligula’s [grand]father, had a harem of boys and girls in Capri. Caligula was not far behind. There is a ménage-à-trois scene in which Caligula is in bed with his wife and a boy. But even here it all serves to make a point about boredom.
PLAYMEN — How’s that...?
VIDAL — My Caligula is a story of power. It’s a character study of a normal boy, rather dull, who has had the world to play with and who breaks his toys. It’s the theme of the boredom of absolute power, of riches, and how Caligula remained trapped in it. People are still trapped. Look at the recent case of Parioli, young and wealthy, who killed Rosaria Lopez.... And Julian was also a story about power, but that emperor was a religious fanatic and that’s what he looked toward rather than sex. All life is about power. The typical love story is not a story of giving and sharing. It’s the story of an individual who acquires power over another, using the other person’s body or personality.
PLAYMEN — Why did you choose Tinto Brass to be the director?
VIDAL — At first we wanted an American director who would make the film acceptable to English-speaking audiences as well as to foreign audiences. But no American director can deal with a period earlier than 1890 in a convincing way. I remember the latest Ben-Hur. Among English directors I think Nicolas Roeg could do nicely, the one who did Don’t Look Now, but he was busy. Lina Wertmüller wanted to do Caligula, but, in my opinion, she was the wrong choice. Then I saw the integral version of Salon Kitty, the latest film by Tinto Brass. He had his faults but his style and feeling for that period were good. So we chose him....

Time 108 no 9, Monday, 30 August 1976, pp. 50–51:

“It’s called Gore Vidal’s Caligula and not just Caligula, since that gives me some control. Control entails responsibility, and sometimes I just don’t know what’s going on.”
[ON HIS UPCOMING APPEARANCE ON MARY HARTMAN, MARY HARTMAN:] “To understand Mary Hartman is to understand America. If Tiberius had watched the show, he would still be alive today.”

Gregg Kilday, “Film Clips: The Roman Circus of ‘Caligula’,”
The Los Angeles Times, Saturday, 11 September 1976, sec. 2 p. 7:

“When I first saw the sets they looked like the lobby of the Fontainbleu Hotel. Here we have this rather good Shakespearean cast rather drearily playing in this Fontainbleu set. The shocking part of it, which is worth noting, is that the actors were signed on the strength of the script and my name. But now it’s been turned into a porno film. I would accept a good porno film. But we’re not talking about Penthouse pornography, we’re talking about basement pornography.”

“Lo scrittore racconta la sua versione dei fatti «Caligola di Vidal» visto da Vidal,” [The Writer Tells His Version of the Facts about Vidal’s Caligula]
Paese Sera, Sunday, October 3, 1976:

...the moment the film started shooting it became clear that Gore Vidal’s Caligula would be made without Vidal. And when I asked Rossellini to show me the first rushes, he refused because “You wouldn’t like them anyway.” But if even I don’t like the film, who is supposed to like it? The director, for his part, was busy making a whole series of grotesque sexual scenes which will never appear on the screen unless, as the experts say, “in the midnight shows at Copenhagen.” Maria Schneider refused to act in some gratuitously pornographic scenes and left the film. Peter O’Toole in London announced recently that “a historic subject, serious and brilliant” had been thrown away by the director and that the film was well on its way to becoming a cinematic catastrophe. Probably, Gore Vidal’s Caligula will be for the 70’s what Myra Breckinridge was for the 60’s".

Costanzo Costantini, “Tinto tonto e finto” [Tinto Phony and Stupid],
Il Messaggero, Sunday, 7 November 1976, p. 3:

“The film is being shot in Rome, but it seems to be shot in a Miami Beach hotel....”
“History is fully respected: Tiberius comes to you killed in a kind of nineteenth-century Turkish canopy....”
“The sex is handled with extreme finesse: some black nudes make love for you like in a Copenhagen live show....”
“The film is not ugly, nor is it pornographic; it’s simply ridiculous....”
“And it couldn’t be otherwise. The person directing it is neither a good director or a bad director; he is simply a ridiculous director....”
“Let’s not talk about dialogue. Italian directors shoot silent movies, then, at the end, they add some noises that they call dialogue....”
“I exempt only Fellini, because Fellini’s characters don’t need to talk, and if they can’t resist the desire to say something, the director always has ready some verses from ‘Liberated Jerusalem’ to put in their mouths....”
Salon Kitty is one of the worst films I have ever seen, and this treatment of Caligula will be completely ridiculous.”
How did you see Caligula?
“Not as a monster, but more like a child in the clutches of something greater than himself. Like a child who finds himself with the world in his hands and who doesn’t know that he can do something with it, or what to do with it. Caligula abandoned himself to his destructive impulses just like a child does with toys that are too big for him. I analysed Caligula from his own point of view; I put myself, like they say, in his shoes, I forced myself to see the world through his eyes, something that’s never been done before. I did this also with the aim of showing that no man is a monster by himself, but that much depends on circumstance.”
Tinto Brass didn’t understand how you saw Caligula?
“Tinto Brass changed everything, he destroyed my screenplay. He said to me that he didn’t feel at all intimidated in directing a film called Gore Vidal’s Caligula, and so I took heart. It had already happened in the past that a script of mine was entrusted to a bad director without the resulting film being a disaster. It happened with The Best Man, the comedy that traced ahead of time a portrait of the Nixon of Watergate, and the film was successful in spite of the mediocre director. I hoped that the same thing would happen with Tinto Brass. Instead the director devastated my text to make Tinto Brass’s Caligula. There’s nothing for me to do but delete my name from the film.”
“If you go to the Cloaca Massima, it’s not pleasant people that you run into. With this film, they’re dragging me up to my neck in the Cloaca Massima.”

Peter Dragadze “Un famoso scrittore contro Tinto Brass: ‘Faccia lo sporcaccione ma non ci metta la mia firma’” [“A Famous Writer versus Tinto Brass: ‘Go Ahead and Be a Dirty Old Man, but Don’t Put My Name on It’”],
Gente, Monday, 8 November 1976, pp. 60, 62, 64:

“Think about it: They want to release this film using my name. The title, according to them should be Gore Vidal’s Caligula. I don’t find the matter at all amusing. ‘Gore Vidal’s Caligula?’ I don’t want anything to do with that horrendous film which is exploiting my name. I’m starting legal action to have my name removed from the title. I’m furious about the liberties that they’ve taken manipulating my work and I want no part of a film that could very well be charged wth obscenity. They have trampled me. My original screenplay was meant to be a rigorously historical film, not this porno-cartoon that they’ve made of it. Sex doesn’t bother me but I can’t stand filth. And in this film there is filth of every nature, abundantly described by dependable witnesses such as Adriana Asti and Peter O’Toole.”
“What do I think of Tinto Brass? First, I would like to clarify that personally I have nothing against him. It’s just that he was the wrong director for this film and I told the producers the first time I met Brass. It was evident from the beginning but I hoped that in the interests of the film Brass would be controlled. This didn’t happen; almost as if no one cared.”
“And so what are we left with? A film that costs millions of dollars and can be shown only on the pornographic circuit. Now I understand why they didn’t let me on the set during shooting. In my opinion, Brass gets those boys and girls to perform all those sex acts for his personal pleasure. I don’t want to be there when the Legion of Decency invades the set. Under his direction the Caligula that I intended will never happen. Rather we’ll get a second-rate tale about the ancient Romans, along the lines of Salon Kitty.”
“As far as Caligula is concerned, I’m protesting because they are filming something I didn’t write, in a style that is not mine, and with obscenity that I’m not responsible for. In other words, I refuse to risk prison for somebody else’s porno-mania.”
“In the beginning, when I presented the screenplay of Gore Vidal’s Caligula, I set out to put a value on the work of the screenwriter as opposed to the notion of the director being considered the only ‘author’ of a film. There are directors of this type: Fellini and Bergman, for example. But most of them are parasites who make a living by speculation on the talents of the screenwriter, whose names are rarely known to the public. Therefore, if the film made by Tinto Brass is no longer the one created by me, why should I let them go on using my name?

Sari Gilbert, “Vidal’s Caligula: Rancor in Rome,”
The Washington Post, Monday, 29 November 1976, pp. B1, B3:

“I first got worried when he wanted to put in some sexy scenes that contrasted sharply with my knowledge of Roman customs. Now I think he purposely set out to get my name off the script, but at this point that’s exactly what I want. In fact, if they take my name off it I won’t say another bad word about the movie.”

“Will the Real Caligula Stand Up?,”
Time 109 no. 1, Monday, 3 January 1977, pp. 64–65:

“It is not just another bad movie. It is a joke movie.”

“Judgment of Vidal,
The Advocate no 211, Wednesday, 9 March 1977, pp. 24–27:

...Speaking of morals, what’s the situation with your Caligula film? Have you succeeded in getting your name removed from it?
I am suing to that end. This is not just another bad movie, it’s another bad joke movie, like Myra Breckinridge. I believe they are using a good part of my script, but to what effect? The film is full of improvisation of a particularly loathsome kind — women blowing horses, that kind of thing. I can’t believe that there’s much of an audience for this, unless horses are now going to the movies.
Tinto Brass, the director seems to be unknown both in and out of Italy.
He would have remained so, had it not been for Guccione and myself. But Guccione was never there, and this man Brass had set out to become an auteur du cinema, at whatever cost to my script. It’s a mess, and it could have been such a good movie. Peter O’Toole, John Gielgud, a wonderful cast, came along all set for a Shakespearian mood, and found they were being asked to appear in a comic-strip porno film with sets that look like the lobby of the Fountainebleau Hotel in Miami. Every scene has someone playing with his/her c__t or c__k, but even when one’s making a porno film, one should have some sense of what one’s about: Brass has no notion of pacing. It’s pretty childish.

Enough? Enough of that unpleasantness? Good! Let’s move on to something nice. Let’s move on to real Gore Vidal, the artist, the thinker, the social critic, and the gracious human being. Here are remnants of his short-lived web site.

8 August 2011
20 June 2011
15 October 2011
3 December 2011
3 January 2012
11 January 2011
12 January 2012
2 April 2012
25 April 2012
2 May 2012
10 September 2012

Here’s another interesting site. I don’t know who is posting it, but I like it:
Monday, 29 March 1976, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Ángeles, broadcast on ABC
Continuation of above. Same ceremony. Same day. Same place. Same year.

The End of the End. Items from his estate are now being auctioned off. and I’m always saddened when a collection is broken up. It should be held together, at any cost. Almost nobody agrees.

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