The World According To Guccione: Historical Fiction
By Dixon Steele
Sunday night I was settled into my living room easy chair, a snifter of 12-year-old Scotch at hand, processing the exhausting season finale of Game Of Thrones. In the dark, no company save for the glow of my TV display, now showing Veep. Which program, given the intensity of the medieval-fantasy sex, violence, and betrayal I’d just witnessed, felt a little tame. I took a nip of my drink, and that nip almost stuck in my throat when I heard a gruff and familiar voice announce, “Okay, I’ll admit it: I’m impressed.”
I dimly discerned a figure the director’s chair diagonally across from where I was sitting, and I gasped. I’ll tell you the truth: In my position as sub-sub archivist at The Guccione Collection I’d sometimes felt his presence over my shoulder, or heard that gruff voice deliver some rueful, offhand remark (“They told me the fusion was cold, not that it was dead” made me jump and ask “Who said that?” during one long afternoon looking over documentation concerning the man’s alternative energy investments). But “The Big G” had never before manifested himself like this. And in my home, no less. Had I been drinking Scotch or absinthe? Was I too far gone to know the difference?
“Like I said, I’m impressed.”
The spirit seemed to desire discourse, so I answered.
“With Game of Thrones, or with my living room?”
“Game of Thrones, wise ass. I imagine you, of all people, ought to understand the ways in which my own work set a precedent for it.”
I looked across the room with narrowed eyes. Cloaked in shadow as the figure was, I could glean some of what you might call identifying characteristics: silk shirt, gold neckwear.
“You’re saying Game of Thrones has some affinity with your notorious film Caligula?”
“Some?” He seemed annoyed. He doesn’t—can’t—sign the checks at the Collection, but it seemed it might be a good idea to stay on his good side. “Sure,” I said. “I can see that.”
“An historical epic on a grand scale—a scale to rival mainstream pictures such as Cleopatra and The Rise And Fall of the Roman Empire and Quo Vadis?—featuring unprecedented, realistic depictions of sex and violence? I’d say that Caligula made Game of Thrones possible.”
I thought to play devil’s advocate, or something. “Game of Thrones is pretty intricately plotted, that’s for sure. You can’t really say the same about Caligula. Future emperor meets girl, girl turns out to be his sister…”
The Big G chortled. “So you’re saying incest doesn’t figure heavily in Game of Thrones? What show were you watching?”
He had a point. “It’s prominent in its original literary source, A Song of Ice And Fire.”
“Hmmm. Maybe George R.R. Martin would have given you less trouble than your Caligula writer Gore Vidal,” I playfully offered.
“If only I’d known about George at that time. We just missed each other!”
“You knew George R.R. Martin?”
“Knew him? I published him, In Omni. The only Martin story to win both a Hugo and a Nebula award. ‘Sandkings.’” He was clearly proud, and I was, I admit, a little surprised. “But that was in 1979, well after the die on Caligula was cast.”
“The movie wasn’t even your idea, was it?”
“It originated with another great Italian artist—Roberto Rossellini. By the late ‘60s he was convinced that cinema as we knew it , as he knew it, was dead, and was making these historical mini-series for Italian television…”
“Pretty well-regarded stuff, from what I understand.”
The Big G shrugged. “A little dry for my tastes. Once Roberto died in the late ‘70s, there was a cousin of his—you know, in Italy, the movie industry is kind of a family business…”
“Shouldn’t come as a surprise. You want anything to drink, by the way?” I lifted my glass toward the specter.
“No, it’d be wasted on me. But thanks. So, a cousin of his roped in Gore Vidal, who was living in Rome, to look into one of Roberto’s unrealized projects, a Caligula mini-series. And Gore came to me when they couldn’t get financing.”
“So Vidal came to you. That’s interesting. I take it you fellows didn’t have much of a relationship after all the recriminations went down.”
“First-time movie producers always make mistakes. I don’t think I was able to keep a sufficient rein on the talent.”
“That’s putting it mildly.”
“First Vidal against the director, the director against Vidal, then me against the director, then everybody against me. And that’s the short version.”
“According to Wikipedia, Caligula’s one of only three movies that Roger Ebert walked out on.”
“Yeah, can you believe that?” The Big G practically snorted. “You know, I had a little chat with Roger about that just recently—he moved into my neighborhood, you know. ‘You walk out on my movie, and then you give that Biblical sci-fi slab of tripe with Nic Cage trying to play an astro physicist four stars?’ He didn’t really have an answer.”
“Do you think shooting and inserting the scenes of hardcore sex was a mistake? Up until that point you still had star Malcolm McDowell in your corner.”
“This is what they nowadays call branding, son. If the creator of Penthouse magazine is going to create a cinematic epic, it stands to reason that said epic feature content that you’d associate with Penthouse. That said, I may have miscalculated.”
“Well, Game of Thrones isn’t hardcore.”
“But it is relentless. And don’t tell me TV isn’t getting closer and closer to that all the time! What’s that other HBO show, the one with the portly young lady…? They had an episode where they practically had what they used to call…”
“A money shot?”
“Yes!” He was slightly indignant.
I saw the specter’s head swivel.
“Where? Excuse me?”
“No, Girls. The name of the show. With the money shot.”
“Times have changed. You put those envelope-pushing sex scenes in Caligula, and got condemned as a pornographer for it.”
The Big G pondered this for a bit. “It’s a shame. We had some interesting projects we wanted to follow this one.”
“Do you mean Messalina, Messalina, with Anneka Di Lorenzo in the title role? We have the press book for that in the archive!”
“Not quite. That movie got made…it was a knockoff! Franco Rossellini hired my girls and used my sets and made a subpar softcore sendup. No, I had grander schemes. A biopic of Catherine The Great, for instance…”
I had some questions about that, but the image before me began to shimmer and fade. “One more thing…did you know that George R.R. Martin has a cat named Caligula?…” was the last thing I heard from that gruff voice. I shook my head, drained my drink, got up, and got another. No point in stopping now. When I got back to my chair, there was a Best of Omni anthology on it, where before there was nothing; the magazine was open to the page where “Sandkings,” a novella by George R.R. Martin, future author of A Song of Ice And Fire —the basis for Game of Thrones—began. Have a read yourself, by clicking here.
“Dixon Steele” is the pen name of a sub-sub-archivist at The Guccione Collection. Like so many self-defined writers, he resides in Brooklyn.