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