Todd McCarthy: Why Dino De Laurentiis Was One of a Kind

Dino De Laurentiis circa 1970

THR's chief film critic says the late producer forged his own path in Hollywood, resulting in a legacy of films ranging from seminal to schlocky.

RELATED: THR's Kirk Honeycutt on How De Laurentiis Defied Moviemaking Convention

I didn't know Dino De Laurentiis, but I miss him already. The movies need pirate captains and Dino definitely was one of those, a wheeling, dealing and scheming operator who never exactly acquired first-class taste but made a lot of interesting things happen.

One of the first films Dino produced, in 1948 when he was 30, was Bitter Rice, about lower-class workers in the Po Valley rice fields after the war. The thing about the female rice workers in this movie is that they were mostly young, smoldering and given to wearing shorter shorts than any hot pants seen before or since. The director, Giuseppe De Santis, so well evoked the tough economic conditions of the time that the film was considered an important neo-realist work, although, not having been around then, I can't testify as to how entirely realistic it was for the women to hike up their pants that high to avoid them getting wet in the rice paddies.

But I can testify that Bitter Rice is a total turn-on, one of the most heart-stoppingly sexy films of its era, thanks in no small measure to the way the future Signora De Laurentiis, Silvana Mangano, wore her short-shorts.

Bitter Rice received a "condemned" rating from the Catholic Legion of Decency in the U.S., and I remember some years ago moderating an onstage discussion at Wesleyan University that included Martin Scorsese and John Waters. Surprisingly, the two had never met before, so there was some trepidation as to how they would hit it off.

I introduced them in the green room and, within a minute or two, they were off to the races comparing notes about what it was like to be 1950s Catholic boys who wanted to see all the lurid films the Legion of Decency had declared to be sinful.

One of the films they bonded over was Bitter Rice, and I consider it seminal for this alone.

During the next highly productive decade, and from 1950-57 in partnership with the equally enterprising Carlo Ponti, Dino produced films by Rossellini, de Sica, Rene Clement and the blacklisted Robert Rossen, among many others, while winning a foreign film Oscar for Fellini's La strada. Recruiting Anthony Quinn for La strada and Kirk Douglas to play the title role in the ambitious Ulysses, Dino always had his eye on Hollywood and the world market and suddenly, in 1956, was able to mount a huge production of War and Peace, directed by King Vidor and starring Audrey Hepburn, Henry Fonda and Mel Ferrer; 14 years later, Dino was to present an unfortunate companion piece to the latter in Waterloo, directed by Sergei Bondarchuk, fresh off his own, far more successful adaptation of War and Peace in the Soviet Union.

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It says something about Dino's limitations that, throughout his career, he indiscriminately mixed the high-minded with the schlock; he never, having reached a new plateau, determined to strive only upward. With one hand he would make The Bible and The Stranger of Camus, with the other Barbarella; now Serpico, then Death Wish, The Serpent's Egg with Ingmar Bergman and Lipstick within a year.

His attempts at crowning achievements of very different sorts always seemed to fall short as well. The Bible, originally intended for a dream lineup of multiple directors including Welles, Bresson, Fellini and Huston, was finally left to the latter to handle single-handedly, while Barbarella, an attempt at a different sort of brass ring, ended up as very brassy indeed.

Although not as bad as some would say, his 1976 remake of King Kong could in no way compete with the original (even if it did introduce Jessica Lange to the screen), and his cutting of Ragtime for length reportedly reduced a superb film to an uneven one. And it's worth speculating as to why, having been the first to recognize the screen potential of Hannibal Lecter with Manhunter and later producing Hannibal and Red Dragon, he had no hand in the best of the lot, The Silence of the Lambs.

But there were others, not necessarily official classics but notable in different ways. Barabbas was one of the most compelling Roman/Biblical epics, a film nearly as harsh as its subject and with arguably the most exciting gladiatorial arena scene -- between Quinn and Jack Palance -- of all. During Dino's 1970s Paramount period in New York, Serpico and Three Days of the Condor achieved almost instantaneous iconic status, and The Shootist provided John Wayne with a good swan song.

Then there was Mandingo, a film so over the top in its treatment of slavery and interracial matters that people reject it out of hand for fear of capitulating to its mesmerizing outlandishness. Little seen today, it's a private favorite of many that cannot be discussed in polite, or politically correct, company. Dino produced Conan the Barbarian, the film to that proved that Arnold Schwarzenegger could be a mass-appeal star; Michael Cimino's last good film, The Year of the Dragon, and, most significantly, two mid-1980s films by the rising David Lynch, Dune and Blue Velvet. The relatively failure of the former and the modest success of the latter probably decided the direction of Lynch's career, no doubt for the better.

Every year at Cannes now, I think about guys like Dino, bigger-than-life international operators who used to rule the roost but are now virtually as extinct as dinosaurs. The guys who used to have the yachts, the girls, the cigars, the international co-productions toplined by stars and once-upon-a-time stars, the big spenders who may or may not have any money this year but can't be kept down. Even as they were joked about for their bad taste, profligate ways and crooked deals, they were still always talked about nonetheless: Sam Spiegel, Joseph E. Levine, Sam Arkoff, Lew Grade, the Salkinds, Golan and Globus and, most recently, Harvey Weinstein, even if the high-flying days aren't what they used to be even for him.

They're all just like the producer played by Kirk Douglas in The Bad and the Beautiful, the man who's easy to resent or hate but, when they phone, you want to take their call. But there won't be any more calls from the guy who never lost his funny Italian accent.

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