How Dino De Laurentiis Defied Moviemaking Convention
Early reaction to the news about Oscar-winning producer Dino De Laurentiis, who died Thursday in Beverly Hills at age 91, showed a confused reaction to his actual legacy. Since he produced nearly 500 films, that was only natural.
But what perplexed obituary writers and essayists was not only the range of films but also the range of collaborators and of productions, good, bad and ugly.
His filmography includes many key titles from the Italian neo-realist movement of the 1950s, among them Bitter Rice, La strada and Night of Cabiria. Then, as one of the first producers to understand the global nature of filmmaking, he expanded into European films that hired famous American directors -- such as King Vidor and actors such as Henry Fonda and Audrey Hepburn for War and Peace -- and finally into American films themselves.
Thus, if nothing else, De Laurentiis produced films by an astonishing range of directorial personalities as no producer before or, it can be safely predicted, ever will. The list begins with Fellini, Bergman, Rossellini, De Sica and Visconti, then moves to Huston, Vidor, Lumet, Altman, Pollack, Friedkin and Cronenberg, to name but a few.
Then there's this: De Laurentiis just as cheerfully produced films directed by impersonal though reliable directors such as John Guillerman, Steve Carver, J. Lee Thompson and Michael Anderson. Nor did he have any qualms about a production slate that balanced arty risks with exploitation and middle-of-the-road entertainments, some quite idiotic such as Orca or The White Buffalo.
What explains this dichotomy? If we pay attention to the auteur theory, first promulgated by French film critics in the Cahiers du Cinema and then exported to this country by its most famous proponent, critic Andrew Sarris, the director is the most forceful personality in filmmaking. So the study of directors, as opposed to writers, actors or, yes, producers, is the most useful way to rank films and analyze film history, according to this theory.
This goes out the window with De Laurentiis. His films belonged as much to him as the famous auteurs he produced. He worked with the strongest directors -- and the most compliant. And he was always a force to be reckoned with on a set.
He fired Robert Altman off his Ragtime project and clashed with many other strong directors. Fellini reportedly once proclaimed that La strada was made "in spite of De Laurentiis!"
When a friend of mine, the late Daryl Duke, made Tai-Pan for De Laurentiis in China in 1986, he wisely had his wife learn Italian so she could understand and relay to him what was being said on the set by Dino and his producer-daughter Raffaella, which they didn't want Duke to understand.