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Inimitable, indomitable, indefatigable Dino De Laurentiis: A giant falls

by Mark Burger

One name said it all: Dino.

As far back as I can remember going to the movies, the name Dino De Laurentiis meant something special. It didn’t always mean good, but it meant big.

Mind-boggling.

Jaw-dropping. A spectacle in every sense of the word. Sometimes breath-taking and aweinspiring, sometimes missing the mark so completely that it staggered the imagination as to how much money could make a movie go so wrong.

The man was a showman. The career of producer Dino De Laurentiis, who died last week at age 91, was a cinematic legacy of such amazing, amusing, occasionally appalling entertainment that defined, and sometimes defied, the very nature of that description.

We shall not see his like again.

Movies boasting the Dino De Laurentiis name indicated something special, something Big — something that only Dino could deliver. “The most exciting, original motion picture event of all time,” boasted the ads for Dino’s King Kong in 1976 — conveniently forgetting the excitement and originality of the first King Kong 40 years before. Dino’s Kong was certainly bigger than the original, although few considered it better.

He made Arnold Schwarzenegger a star and Charles Bronson a superstar. He made a cottage industry out of Stephen King movies. He brought big-time Hollywood to North Carolina.

After sinking millions of dollars (in every sense of the word) on a disastrous 1979 remake of Hurricane, Dino wound up making money on the hotel and resort he built on Bora Bora originally to house the film’s cast and crew.

Yet for all of the big-budget doozies that Dino foisted upon us over the years, many that initially failed critically and/or commercially — including The Shootist, Waterloo, Ragtime, Firestarter, Dune and Manhunter — have either undergone favorable critical

assessment or become bona fide (or admittedly bone-headed) cult favorites. Yes, even Maximum Overdrive, Orca and Mandingo, among the most reviled films in the De Laurentiis canon, have their fans. And, at the end of the day, almost all of his movies made money.

This is the man who produced two of Federico Fellini’s early masterpieces: La Strada and Nights in Cabiria. What’s more, they won consecutive Academy Awards as Best Foreign Language Film.

This is the man who had Ennio Morricone compose a love theme (“My Love, We Are One”) for Orca, a Jaws knock-off in which Richard Harris and a killer whale vied to see which could chew more scenery. Incredibly, the song was not a hit. Oh yeah, the whale also bites Bo Derek’s leg off.

This is the man who first brought Hannibal Lecter to the screen. Then, after watching Silence of the Lambs sweep the Academy Awards in 1991, brought him back. Again and again. And then once more.

For all the critical brickbats lobbed at Dino over the years — and there were many — he had a sense for tapping the zeitgeist: Serpico (1973), Death Wish (1974), Three Days of the Condor (1975), Blue Velvet (1986), Bound (1995) and even Breakdown (1997) hit a nerve, made an impact. They were the right movies at the right time. If you throw enough fastballs, you’re going to get a strike every once in a while. Dino threw a nine-inning game.

Dino’s contribution to the North Carolina film industry is inestimable. With producer Martha Schumacher (later his wife and producing partner as Martha De Laurentiis), he founded the North Carolina Film Corporation and, thanks to the state’s tax incentives and community support, built the production studios in Wilmington that once bore his name and served as his filmmaking headquarters.

Not unlike Dino himself, those studios weathered some tough financial times over the years, but they’re still in business today. Wilmington is still the primary filmmaking hub in the entire state, and Dino played a big part of it — if not the biggest. Without Dino, it wouldn’t have happened. End of story.

When I started reviewing movies professionally, I would lightly applaud whenever Dino’s name appeared on the screen, much to the amusement and eye-rolling of fellow critics. The name alone aroused a reaction. “What’s that for, Flash Gordon?” one asked. “No, Amityville 3-D.” It may have been the only laugh of the evening. (Indeed, Flash Gordon has its fans. So does Amityville 3-D… just not as many of them.)

Any time I interviewed an actor or filmmaker who worked with Dino, I asked for an anecdote. They always had one, or two… or more.

Some talked about his expansive personality, his enthusiastic bluster, his undying optimism that, with Dino at the helm, even the sky was no limit. One actor who made two movies with him related how Dino promised to make him a “big star.” Both films were well-promoted and financially successful — and absolutely roasted by the critics. As this actor wryly told me: “I wasn’t sure my career could take being much bigger!” Yet he remembered Dino with affection and amusement.

There were others, of course, who took an entirely different view. “That man has f**ked more movies…,” one filmmaker told me. Another told me it was a thrill to see his name on billboards after “Dino De Laurentiis Presents” promoting a film they made together — even if the film wound up one of the lowest-grossing studio films of its year.

As with any powerful Hollywood figure, there were controversies, allegations, lawsuits, rumors and other obstacles. He weathered them all, outliving (and out-producing) friends and enemies alike.

Dino worked with some of the world’s best directors, and why not? He paid and he paid well. Ingmar Bergman, John Huston, David Lynch, Sydney Pollack, Sidney Lumet and Fellini tended to sing his praises. Robert Altman and David Lean tended not to. He fired Burt Kennedy from one project and

Richard Fleischer from another, yet worked with the latter in the ’80s on such films as Conan the Destroyer, Red Sonja and, perhaps most ignominiously of all, Million Dollar Mystery. (The film didn’t gross enough at the box-office to pay off the $1 million prize.)

No one, it seemed, was unaffected by the experience. Including the audience.

When a Dino De Laurentiis production failed, it failed Big and it failed Bad. He founded the Dinocitta Studios in Rome in the 1950s and then the De Laurentiis Entertainment Group (DEG) in the ’80s, both of which eventually collapsed into bankruptcy. Not Dino, though. He simply dusted himself off and moved forward. His resilience was legendary. His was a personality of both effusive charm and steely resolve. That smiling standing ovation afforded him when he received the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award at the 2001 Academy Awards ceremony wasn’t for nothing… and isn’t it odd that another wasn’t awarded until eight years later? (After all, who could follow Dino?) In the end, he produced movies that were distributed by every major Hollywood studio. Dino always found a deal. Dino always made the deal.

For me, perhaps, the quintessential Dino De Laurentiis performance was given by John Belushi in an unforgettable “Saturday Night Live” sketch in which a guffawing, chain-smoking Tom Snyder (Dan Aykroyd) interviews Dino (Belushi) on the “Tomorrow” show about King Kong.

When asked why he would remake a classic, “Dino” answers in a thick Italian accent:

“When Jaws die, nobody cry. When my Kong die, everybody cries.”

In truth, that was Dino’s line. He actually said it. That’s what made it funny. That’s what made it Dino.

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