Friday 15 December 2017

Dino De Laurentiis

Italian film mogul with big ambitions who helped his country's film industry earn the name 'Hollywood on the Tiber'

Dino De Laurentiis, who died on November 11 aged 91, was an Italian film mogul who modelled himself on Samuel Goldwyn and helped to earn his country's film industry the nickname "Hollywood on the Tiber".

As an independent producer working outside the major studios, he craved both fame and fortune. He sought the respect that would come from backing critically admired directors, but he also had a streak of the showman and yearned to make blockbusters like Cecil B DeMille did.

To a degree, he succeeded in both aims.

The early masters of neo-realism -- Vittorio De Sica, Roberto Rossellini, Luchino Visconti and Federico Fellini -- all made films for him. Two by Fellini, La Strada (1954) and Le Notti di Cabiria (1956), won Oscars as best foreign film. Later, De Laurentiis produced two of Ingmar Bergman's pictures, Face to Face (1976) and The Serpent's Egg (1977).

He also stuck loyally by gifted American directors when they were out of favour or off form.

De Laurentiis would always follow a hunch, but not all his hunches paid off.

The young David Lynch, with minimal professional experience behind him, delivered a costly and disappointing version of the sci-fi classic Dune in 1984. Yet De Laurentiis gave him a second chance and was rewarded with Blue Velvet (1986), which was Oscar-nominated and widely acclaimed as one of the most original American films of the decade.

As a creative producer, De Laurentiis was seldom given the credit he deserved, partly because his flamboyant personality and epic ambitions generally caught the headlines. While part of him got on with the serious business of making durable movies, another had the instincts of a circus ringmaster.

Though he claimed his favourite reading was Tolstoy and Homer, when he came to make films of their work he went straight for the star-studded spectacular, casting Kirk Douglas in Ulysses (1954) and Henry Fonda, Audrey Hepburn and Mel Ferrer in War and Peace (1956). Big, long and expensive, they earned him a reputation only for extravagance.

He turned to outer space in Barbarella (1968), Flash Gordon (1980) and Dune (1984); restaged the great battle in Waterloo (1970) and the Crucifixion in Barabbas (1961); and thought to film the Bible as a 15-hour movie, with each book handled by a different director. In the end, even he had to recognise that the project was unviable, so he downsized it, focusing exclusively on Genesis and hiring John Huston to direct it all -- now called simply The Bible . . . in the Beginning (1966).

It was for such follies that De Laurentiis came to be remembered -- plus his ambition to be an old-style Hollywood studio boss.

He made some of his biggest pictures at Cinecitta (Cinema City), the giant Roman studios set up by Mussolini in 1936, but longed to build a state-of-the-art facility of his own. When he did so, at a cost of $30m (€21.8m), he immodestly called it 'Dinocitta'. Running a studio, however, overstretched his talents. He was more an impresario than a tycoon, and was forced eventually to sell Dinocitta to the Italian government.

Subsequently, he ran another studio complex, at Wilmington, North Carolina, but this did not flourish either, and in 1988 was driven into so-called Chapter 11 bankruptcy -- an American legal term affording a company protection from its creditors.

De Laurentiis was nothing if not resilient. Within two years of filing for bankruptcy and being sued for divorce by his estranged wife, the actress Silvana Mangano, he resurfaced with a new company and made further films, including the controversial Body of Evidence (1993), a soft-core sex thriller with Madonna.

He was born Agostino De Laurentiis on August 8, 1919, the son of a pasta maker, in Torre Annunziata on the Bay of Naples. His father expected him to join the family business, and as a teenager Dino travelled around Italy selling spaghetti. But he wanted to be an actor and, at the age of 17, enrolled at film school in Rome. His father disapproved and cut off his allowance.

While attending film school he discovered that he liked production more than acting, so he concentrated on technical classes. Graduating at 20, he moved to Turin, then the centre of Italian film production.

Official biographies say that after he was drafted into the army, he deserted and hid on the island of Capri, awaiting liberation by the Allies. That is where, allegedly, he read and re-read The Odyssey and War and Peace and formed a determination one day to film them.

He resumed production in 1946 with Le Miserie del Signor Travet and plunged into the new realist trend that was superseding the artificial comedies of the fascist era. In this vein he produced Il Bandito (1946) by Alberto Lattuada; Molti Sogni per le Strade (1948) with Anna Magnani; and Bitter Rice (1948) by Giuseppe De Santis, a story of migrant workers in the rice fields of the Po Valley. Steamy and melodramatic, this last achieved worldwide attention thanks to the prominent charms of its leading lady, Silvana Mangano, whom De Laurentiis married during production.

In the early Fifties, De Laurentiis went into partnership with Carlo Ponti, soon to become Sophia Loren's husband. Between them, they made some 80 films in six years. The partnership with Ponti was dissolved in 1957 and, until the late Sixties, De Laurentiis was unable to find a consistent form.

De Laurentiis made an error of judgment in 1959 by pulling out of Fellini's La Dolce Vita. As a parent, he could not stomach the scene in which two children are murdered by their father. The director would not remove it, so De Laurentiis and Fellini parted company and an opportunity was lost to back one of the most successful Italian films ever made. Not until 1968, with Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet, did De Laurentiis enjoy another international hit.

The indifferent performance of his Italian productions in the late Sixties persuaded him to sell up and relocate to America, acquiring Embassy Pictures. He floated his company on Wall Street in 1985 as De Laurentiis Entertainment Group. At first he enjoyed popular success with the Charles Bronson one-man vigilante pictures The Stone Killer (1973) and Death Wish (1974).

But he burned his fingers with a string of expensive flops, such as Dune, which swallowed $50m (€36.4m), and two 'turkeys' of 1986 -- the $21m (€15.3m) King Kong Lives and Tai Pan, which cost $25m (€18.2m).

These left De Laurentiis's company with a mountain of debt. In 1988 he stepped down as chairman and the company went bust shortly afterwards. But he carried on filming.

In the new millennium De Laurentiis was associated with Hannibal (2001), Red Dragon (2002), Hannibal Rising and The Last Legion (both 2007).

In 2005, with Cinecitta, he established CLA Studios on a 370-acre site in Morocco.

He married Silvana Mangano in 1949. They separated in 1983, and she began divorce proceedings in 1988, a year before her death.

They had a son (who was killed in a plane crash) and three daughters of whom one, Raffaella, became a producer in her own right.

Sunday Independent

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