Tuesday 21 November 2017

Producer who loved La Dolce Vita

In January 2005, when the film trade paper 'Screen International' launched a ten-part series entitled 'The Pioneers', it chose to begin it with a profile of the Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis.

It was an apt choice. Not only had he worked with such diverse directors as Federico Fellini and Michael Winner and set up film studios in Italy and the US, but he had also pioneered independent movie-making outside the big Hollywood studios.

His films were not the apologetic, low-budget dramas often associated with the term "independent cinema", but box-office hits, such as Death Wish (1974) and Hannibal (2001), and big international productions, including the 1966 film of The Bible and the ill-fated 1976 remake of King Kong.

De Laurentiis also made some very bad movies and was behind some disasters. In their book The Golden Turkey Awards, the critics Harry and Michael Medved dubbed him "Dino Di Horrendous". But he started out in cinema facilitating the visions of such great Italian directors as Federico Fellini and Roberto Rossellini, who led the neo-realist movement after the war.

Some observers suggested he turned his back on art in the single-minded pursuit of profit in the US. Even after decades in the US he still sounded like a newly arrived immigrant, struggling with grammar and syntax. But he made himself understood and was one of cinema's great wheelerdealers. When David Lynch asked De Laurentiis for 'final cut' on Blue Velvet, the producer replied: "No problem, just cut your salary in half, and cut the budget in half, and away you go." A surreal examination of the underbelly of Smalltown, America, Blue Velvet won Lynch an Oscar nomination and revived his career.

Agostino De Laurentiis was born in Torre Annunziata, just south of Naples, in 1919. He was the third of a pasta manufacturer's seven children. He had early hopes of becoming an actor and produced his first film at 21. His career was disrupted by the Second World War -- he enlisted and found himself organising shows for the troops. But he soon picked up where he had left off. The earthy drama Bitter Rice (1949) attracted international attention, and he married its star Silvana Mangano.

In 1950 he formed a production company with Carlo Ponti and he went on to produce Rossellini's Europa 51 and Fellini's films La Strada and Nights of Cabiria, which both won Oscars for best foreign-language film. He was the original producer on Fellini's La Dolce Vita as well. Even though he thought the screenplay incoherent, he was prepared to put up the money if Paul Newman would play the lead role. Fellini insisted on Marcello Mastroianni, and a furious row ended with the departure of De Laurentiis and Mangano, who had been due to appear in the film.

He began attracting Hollywood stars to shoot in big, international productions, often with a historic European setting. Kirk Douglas played the title role in Ulysses and Audrey Hepburn and Henry Fonda starred in a version of War and Peace in 1956. He built his own studios just outside Rome and named them Dinocitta, after himself. The Bible, directed by John Huston and starring George C.Scott, Ava Gardner and Peter O'Toole; the Jane Fonda sci-fi comedy Barbarella in 1968 and Waterloo, with Rod Steiger as Napoleon, were all based there.

Changes in fashion and in financial regulations forced him to sell his studios and he relocated to the US, where he made the thrillers The Stone Killer in 1973 and Death Wish with director Michael Winner.

Around the same time De Laurentiis also produced Serpico, an acclaimed real-life drama in which Al Pacino plays a cop who blows the whistle on police corruption.

His daughter Rafaella followed him into film production. She was one of four children that De Laurentiis had with Mangano, who died of cancer in 1989. The following year he married Martha Schumacher, who was 35 years his junior and became his production partner. They had two daughters.

De Laurentiis and Schumacher bought the rights to Thomas Harris's novel Red Dragon and filmed it as Manhunter in 1986. The film was not a hit, and although it subsequently acquired a healthy following, De Laurentiis continued to dismiss it. Even though they retained the screen rights to the character, the De Laurentiises apparently did not even bother to read the follow-up book, The Silence of the Lambs, and allowed the director Jonathan Demme and Orion Pictures to use the character for nothing.

In 2001 he was awarded the prestigious Irving G.Thalberg Award by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. At the Venice film festival in 2003 he received a Golden Lion for lifetime achievement.

His website may have been subtitled "The site of the world's greatest movie producer", but in many ways De Laurentiis was strikingly unpretentious. Looking back on what critics regard as the golden age of Italian cinema, he dismissed neo-realism as a media invention. Ultimately he was a pragmatist who saw film as a set of opportunities, and he was a showman, entertaining the public.

Irish Independent

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