There’s always been a certain affinity I’ve felt for the film producer Dino De Laurentiis. It’s shallow perhaps, but sharing a birthday on August 8 and an Italian heritage has always kept De Laurentiis close to my cinematic heart. The celebrated film producer died at his home in Beverly Hills on November 10, 2010 at 10pm.
Agostino (Dino) De Laurentiis was with his family when he died, which includes celebrity chef Giada De Laurentiis, Italian film producer Aurelio De Laurentiis, producers Martha De Laurentiis and Raffaella De Laurentiis. The young Dino De Laurentiis made his way into the Italian film industry at 20 years old. In 1940 De Laurentiis produced his first film, “L’ultimo Combattimento” and has gone on to produce over 160 movies.
Before being deeply affected by De Laurentiis’s films in studying Italian Cinema, the producer had already carved a deep cinematic notch in my consciousness. As a Kid I was fully enthralled by his campy, yet epic Mike Hodges’s film “Flash Gordon”. There’s no doubt De Laurentiis would have laughed at my puny 5 year old interpretation of his “Conan the Barbarian” production from director John Milius; noted as Schwarzenegger’s breakthrough film role.
His production and distribution group, De Laurentiis Entertainment, also released the original animated “The Transformers: The Movie” on my birthday in 1986. In retrospect, “Transformers: The Movie”, was a precursor to today’s trend of casting celebrity voices in animation. It was an epic production that brought together the voices of Leonard Nimoy, Casey Kasem, Robert Stack, Eric Idle, Judd Nelson, and Peter Cullen as well as being the last time we heard the voices of Orson Welles and Scatman Crother’s on the screen. De Laurentiis also produced John Wayne’s last screen role in “The Shootist” (1976).
De Laurentiis also kept me up all night after seeing his horror films, “Silver Bullet”, “Dead Zone”, “Maximum Overdrive”, “Cat’s Eye” and “Firestarter”, all based on Stephen King novels. There was also his production of the “Halloween” sequels and “Amityville” sequels. After moving from Italy to Hollywood, De Laurentiis produced all these aforementioned films, and while they were box office money makers, with an occasional flop, he also produced critically acclaimed films.
De Laurentiis produced Sidney Lumet’s 1973 classic “Serpico” starring Al Pacino, which has landed on several AFI (American Film Institute) lists. In 1975 De Laurentiis brought Lumet’s “Three Days of the Condor” to the screen as well as “Mandingo”, a big budget exploitation film that critic Robin Wood called “the greatest film about race ever made in Hollywood.” By producing the original “Death Wish”, De Laurentiis put Charles Bronson into the cultural lexicon of tough guys, a film which also marked the screen debut of Jeff Goldblum and Denzel Washington.
De Laurentiis managed to lure the Swedish master director, Ingmar Bergman into making his only Hollywood film, “The Serpent’s Egg”, starring David Carradine in 1977. The producer had a tumultuous relationship with director David Lynch, after he recruited him for the production of “Dune”. This sci-fi dud was one of several films with an inflated De Laurentiis budget that bombed out in the end.
To this day, David Lynch still won’t talk about the film’s production in interviews, but he did get a critically acclaimed film out the deal. De Laurentiis agreed to let Lynch make his own film with complete creative control if he directed “Dune”. Ironically, “Dune” was a dud and De Laurentiis detached his name as producer from the agreed upon next film from Lynch. Though the De Laurentiis Entertainment Group was still contractually obligated to release the film and “Blue Velvet” garnered Lynch an Oscar nomination.
Still, De Laurentiis had a knack for bringing talented directors into his productions, including Lynch, but also Milos Forman for the 1981 film “Ragtime” and Michael Mann for the original Red Dragon adaptation, “Manhunter” of Thomas Harris’s Hannibal novels. De Laurentiis also attached director David Cronenberg for his production of “The Dead Zone” and helped put Sam Raimi’s classic “The Evil Dead” on the big screen. The De Laurentiis Company was the studio behind the Wachowski Brothers’s directorial debut, “Bound”. De Laurentiis produced Jonathan Mostow’s only critical and commercial successes so far, “Breakdown” with Kurt Russell and the highly acclaimed “U-571”.
This versatile film producer made his mark on the 1970s and 1980s in Hollywood, but it doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of his days in Italian Cinema. Indispensable film scholar, David Thomson said “De Laurentiis has striven to be the most international of Italian film producers.” His move to Hollywood marked an adaptive quality rare among film producers, especially those in Europe.
Young and ambitious, De Laurentiis was producing films in Italy as the Italian Neorealist filmmakers were announcing their art to the world. In 1949 De Laurentiis joined the movement by producing Giuseppe De Santis’s film “Bitter Rice” starring the beautiful Silvana Mangano, who was his wife until her death in 1989. “Bitter Rice” garnered an Academy Award for Best Story, now known as the Best Original Screenplay Award.
De Laurentiis teamed up with another up and coming producer, Carlo Ponti, and produced two of Italian Master Federico Fellini’s film, “La Strada” and “Nights of Cabiria”. Perhaps De Laurentiis learned how to deal with difficult directors from the best as Fellini is noted as saying “La Strada was made in spite of Ponti and De Laurentiis.”
De Laurentiis and Ponti were also at the forefront of one of the greatest love affairs in cinema. They produced a film of another Italian master, Roberto Rossellini, who was having an affair with his leading lady from Sweden, Ingrid Bergman. Together they produced one of the first collaborations between Rossellini and Bergman; “Europa ’51”.
De Laurentiis went on to produce Italy’s great directors including Vittorio De Sica’s “The Gold of Naples” and in 1967 he produced Luchino Visconti’s adaptation of Camus’s “The Stranger” starring Marcello Mastroianni. Producing with Ponti, he brought epics to life such as the 1955 Mario Camerini adventure “Ulysses” starring Kirk Douglas, Anthony Quinn and his wife, Silvana Mangano. Along with The Stranger and Ulysses, De Laurentiis had tremendous ambitions in adapting literary classics, such as producing King Vidor’s “War and Peace” in 1956 and getting John Huston to direct “The Bible: In the Beginning” in 1966.
The Bible, Homer’s Ulysses, Albert Camus’s The Stranger, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, EL Doctorow’s Ragtime and Jean-Claude Forest’s Barbarella. Only in the Filmography of Dino De Laurentiis would you see this last addition to a list of literary classics. Though “Barbarella”, the sci-fi cult classic starring Jane Fonda, came in 1968 when De Laurentiis also produced another comic adaptation, Mario Bava’s “Danger: Diabolik”.
With such an expansive and influential career from Italian cinema to Hollywood, spanning 70 years of filmmaking, this petty attempt at capturing a legacy could be much more. Books could be written extensively about Dino De Laurentiis, and the producer himself has authored Dino: The Life and Film of Dino De Laurentiis. As testament from his grandchildren, he was a loving family man, but also a film producer of Epic proportions with the budget to match. From his days in Italy, as David Thomson wrote, “De Laurentiis advanced on America in the hope of being the last authentic tycoon.” He is beyond tycoon; De Laurentiis is a legend who has touched every element of cinema. From gruesome horror to the goofiest exploitation; into the golden classics and some of the greatest films of all time.