Tributes to Dino De Laurentiis, the Italian cinema impresario who passed away in his Beverly Hills home yesterday at the age of 91, will invariably note that there aren't film producers like him anymore. It could be more apt, bearing a twist the man himself would have appreciated, to ask whether there ever was another film producer like him?
In 2001 De Laurentiis was given the Irving G Thalberg Memorial Award at the Academy Awards, a periodic acknowledgment given to, “creative producers, whose bodies of work reflect a consistently high quality of motion picture production.” De Laurentiis had earnt the distinguished honour, but his career stretched far wider than the award's specifications. To put it another way, in 1985 – when many of his contemporaries had retired to their memoirs and mansions – De Laurentiis served as producer on a slate of diverse titles that included David Lynch's Blue Velvet, Richard Fleischer's Red Sonja, Bruce Beresford's Crimes of the Heart and Michael Cimino's Year of the Dragon.
Born Agostino De Laurentiis in the Neapolitan city of Torre Annunziata on 8 August, 1919, the producer grew up in a mercantile family. He was supposed to join the trade, selling pasta, but he ran away from home at age 17 to study acting in Rome. His family's feel for business stayed with him, with De Laurentiis introducing, for reasons both innovative and crafty, various financial innovations during his lengthy career. He was, for example, an innovator in commissioning a production and then selling in the various foreign rights in advance, effectively covering the cost of his own budget and turning a profit irrespective of the feature's subsequent box-office fortunes.
Despite World War II, he produced his first feature, L'Amore Canta, at the age of 22 in Turin, and after a brief spell as an Italian army conscript – he reportedly deserted and waited until Allied forces arrived – he became a key force in the vibrant Italian post-war cinema boom. He produced various neo-realists titles, and went on to rightly win Best Foreign Language Film Oscars in 1956 and 1957 for Federico Fellini's La Strada and Nights of Cabiria respectively.
But Italy alone could not keep De Laurentiis focused. From the mid 1950s he began a series of international co-productions that brought Hollywood stars to Europe to take advantage of comparatively cheap production costs: Henry Fonda, Audrey Hepburn and Mel Ferrer starred in King Vidor's 1956 adaptation of Tolstoy War and Peace. His business fortunes were perennially chaotic, with production companies coming and going and the ownership of earlier films often clouded by various deals to raise money for future production, but De Laurentiis never stopped getting pictures into cinemas.
The idea of the modern producer, developing a project over many years, wouldn't have interested him. He made decisions quickly and acted upon them, even if they didn't always pay off. In 1973, following disagreements with the Italian government over state subsidies, he moved to New York, and ushered an unlikely slate into motion; he produced both Sidney Lumet's gritty corruption tale Serpico and John Guillermin's flop remake of King Kong.
Some of his biggest productions were major failures, some of his achievements accidents. He argued so extensively with David Lynch during the making of 1984's expensive sci-fi epic Dune that Lynch said he would make his next film for just US$1 million and no interference. De Laurentiis honoured the proposal and gave Lynch the stipend, despite Dune's disastrous performance. The result was the acclaimed Blue Velvet.
De Laurentiis was larger than life, often making predictions to reporters that never quite came to pass. Assisted by his daughter, Raffaella, he kept working, even if he was not always diplomatic. When Jodie Foster balked at doing a 2001 sequel to 1991's Silence of the Lambs, a film De Laurentiis had himself passed on producing because his first Thomas Harris adaptation, Michael Mann's Manhunter, had failed commercially in 1986, he dismissed her publicly as not sexy enough and hired Julianne Moore to take over as Clarice Starling for Ridley Scott's Hannibal.
Despite the gaffes, and the snubs (Sir David Lean was one famous filmmaker who was adamant about not working with him), De Laurentiis was one of the signature producers of the 20th century, someone who helped see cinema from humble beginnings through to a vast worldwide industry. There were numerous ups and downs, but the former more than covered the latter.
Image © AMPAS