How Dino De Laurentiis Defied Moviemaking Convention
THR's Kirk Honeycutt explains how the late producer became an auteur -- a label usually reserved for directors.
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.
There are certainly strong producers today; Jerry Bruckheimer and Scott Rudin come to mind. But you can more or less associate a kind of movie with each. Bruckheimer will nearly always look for action and spectacle, while Rudin's instincts are literary. De Laurentiis shares both those instincts ... and many more.
You have to look at De Laurentiis' background and nationality to understand what drove him to produce the kind of films he did. He was born in Torre Annunziata, Italy, in 1919 to parents who ran a pasta factory.
"If you lived in a provincial town like Torre Annunziata, where there was nothing to do in the evening but go to the movies with your friends, the cinema was a world of fantasy. I had always been in love with it," he said in interviews for the 2004 book Dino: The Life and Times of Dino De Laurentiis.
The Italian tradition of small-town entertainment stretches back to commedia dell'arte, an outdoors theater of the 16th century that used exaggerated "types" and improvised performances. Commedia troupes traveled through the countryside to perform their sketches in temporary venues. Their subjects included love, lust, jealousy and adultery.
So his birthplace and national heritage made De Laurentiis prone to broad entertainments, to a world of fantasy, whether that fantasy belonged to Tolstoy or to Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, whose King Kong De Laurentiis would remake.
He liked epics and spectacles that played to an audience in Torre Annunziata. It just so happened there exists a world market for such spectacles. He raised money all over the world to make event films for a global audience that could respond to the spectacle, just as villagers responded to a commedia troupe.
His ability at promotion and publicity was that of a master showman, a bit of Cecil B. DeMille mixed with P.T. Barnum and maybe even Billy Sunday. Any other producer proclaiming King Kong as "the greatest love story of all time" would have done so with tongue-in-cheek. De Laurentiis no doubt believed it.