Another link to cinema’s past has left us with the passing of the legendary Italian and eventually American producer at age 91. A truly old school style movie mogul with all the good and bad that went with that, creatively speaking, Dino De Laurentiis was instrumental in launching the worldwide vogue for European cinema, particularly in his partnership with fellow powerhouse producer Carlo Ponti and ultimate Italian auteur Federico Fellini.
During a period I personally consider Fellini’s creative prime, De Laurentiis co-produced two of the director’s most powerful films, the classic tearjerker “La Strada” with Anthony Quinn and the great Giulietta Masina, and “Nights of Cabiria” also with Masina, a great tragicomedy and a huge personal favorite of mine. He also produced two now somewhat obscure adaptations, a version of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” with Audrey Hepburn and “Ulysses.” Fortunately, the latter was not an adaptation of the James Joyce stream-of-consciousness meganovel, but Homer’s “The Odyssey,” and starred Kirk Douglas in the heroic title role.
No snob, De Laurentiis had a gift for commingling arthouse fare, quality middlebrow entertainment, and complete schlock — some of it fun, some it merely schlocky. Geeks cried foul when he eschewed stop-motion for an unworkable animatronic monstrosity and, mostly, Rick Baker in a monkey suit for his silly mega-blockbuster remake attempt, “King Kong,” but that movie was a classic when compared to something like the hugely regrettable killer-whale flick “Orca.”
Though “Flash Gordon,” directed by Mike Hodges (the original “Get Carter” and “Croupier”) with music by Queen, was declared DOA by audiences and most critics, it was praised by the great contrarian Pauline Kael and remains a fairly popular cult film. “The White Buffalo,” a sort of Western Moby Dick starring Charles Bronson, however, has no such cult. The potboiler, “Mandingo,” was dismissed as racially suspect garbage but also has been championed recently by more than one intelligent cinephile.
No stranger to financial problems, he even managed to produce commercial and critical disappointments with the greatest directors of his day. “The Serpent’s Egg” with David Carradine was Sweden’s Ingmar Bergman’s only Hollywood film and no one’s favorite. “Buffalo Bill and the Indians” with Paul Newman is not high on anyone’s list of the best of Robert Altman. Roman Polanski’s “Hurricane” is only remembered because of how it figured in Polanski’s rape case. The young David Lynch’s version of “Dune” has its fans today, but at the time…
On the other hand, De Laurentiis also produced some of the biggest American films of his day from top-flight directors, including Sidney Lumet’s “Serpico,” Sidney Pollack’s “Three Days of the Condor,” and David Cronenberg’s “The Dead Zone.” And then there two critically hated but immensely popular movies. One sold sex and fantasy — that would be “Barbarella” starring the very young Jane Fonda. The other sold violence and urban paranoia, “Death Wish” with Charles Bronson. Both films helped turned their leads into superstars. His involvement was more or less minimal, but De Laurentiis also was executive producer on “Army of Darkness” — I’m sure Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell are both grateful for that.
De Laurentiis last shrewd call was becoming involved with the film version of a little airport thriller called “Red Dragon.” That became the spiffy Michael Mann film, “Manhunter” and featured Brian Cox in a small role as a certain Dr. Hannibal Lecter. When a sequel to that novel became Jonathan Demme’s blockbuster, “The Silence of the Lambs.” several years later, he was well positioned to capitalize on with a Thomas Harris’s sequel adaptation, “Hannibal,” a remake/prequel, “Red Dragon,” and another prequel “Hannibal Rising.”
I can remember hearing directors who worked for him speak of him with a combination of affection, irritation, and awe, but whatever was true of Dino De Laurentiis, he sure could pick ’em.
As always, there is a lot more from David Hudson at MUBI.