HOLLYWOOD — Since Hollywood was initially built by outsiders and its product often celebrates them, it’s perhaps fitting, and yet ironic, that one of the movie biz’s greatest outsiders, Dino De Laurentiis, will receive one of the industry’s ultimate insider awards.
De Laurentiis, 82, resurrected Italy’s postwar movie industry, invented the international co-production, launched the careers of dozens of filmmakers and stars, stood as the central figure in the distribution of foreign-made films across international boundaries (especially into the United States), then came to Hollywood and successfully produced scores of outstanding films for over three decades.
As unquestionably the greatest and most successful independent producer in film history, he came, he saw, he conquered — not unlike some of the heroes in his historical epics.
And the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ Board of Governors will celebrate the man who personally produced more than 200 movies and had a substantial hand in realizing or distributing 400 others all over the globe — and built three studios — by giving him the Irving G. Thalberg Award on Oscar night.
“His love of, passion for and dedication to making motion pictures has suffused through his career,” says Acad president Robert Rehme. “He has always had the courage to make the films that he believes in.”
The diversity of De Laurentiis’ filmography encompasses John Huston’s “The Bible” (1966) as well as Roger Vadim’s “Barbarella” (1968), John Wayne’s valedictory film “The Shootist” (1976) and David Lynch’s influential “Blue Velvet” (1986), the great and time-honored classics from director Federico Fellini, and titles such as “Hell Raiders From the Deep” (1952) and “Girls Marked for Danger” (1953).
“It was a big surprise,” De Laurentiis says of being honored. “I’m very happy and flattered. I have always made pictures by relying on my passion and energy and on my humility.”
Though he has officially received one Oscar for producing foreign-film winner “La Strada” in 1956, De Laurentiis’ films have accumulated a total of 33 nominations in various different categories.
“In the way I work, I approach any business meeting in good faith and with an open mind,” De Laurentiis says. “If I disagree with what a studio wants, I go on my own and do the picture without the studio. When I find new talent, I do all I can. For instance, with (writer-director) Jonathan Mostow and ‘Breakdown’ (the 1997 missing-wife thriller starring Kurt Russell), I shopped it to all the studios and they say, ‘It’s a good script, but change the director.’ I say sorry to all the studios, because I know Jon Mostow will do a fantastic job.
“Then I get a call from Sherry Lansing at Paramount and she says, ‘Dino, I’m still interested.’ And I sell the picture. In all my life I have tried to realize my dreams. ‘War and Peace’ (the 1956 adaptation of the Leo Tolstoy classic starring Henry Fonda) was a dream. But I did it. I made it come true. Many people think that you need money to make a movie. No, you need a good idea, a good script and a good director. Then the money will come to the idea.”
The son of a Naples pasta maker, De Laurentiis enrolled in Rome’s Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia at 17, and worked as an extra, actor, prop man, unit manager and assistant director, producing his first film before he was 20.
His first hit proved to be “Bitter Rice” (1946), about rice harvesters in the Po River Valley. It starred Vittoria Gassman and Silvana Mangano, the future Mrs. De Laurentiis, in a sensual performance that made her an international star.
De Laurentiis worked to reinvigorate the Italian film industry after the war, and he produced and/or distributed films made by many of the notable Italo directors of the era: the Fellini films, Alberto Attuada’s “Il Bandito” (1946), Roberto Rossellini’s “Europa ’51” (1952), Vittorio de Sica’s “Gold of Naples” (1954), Mario Camerini’s “Ulysses” (1955) and Mario Monicello’s “The Great War” (1960).
He partnered in the early and mid-1950s with that other great name of Italian producing, Carlo Ponti, but their pact dissolved in 1957.
At this time, American and British actors began to be attracted to De Laurentiis productions — Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn in particular for “Ulysses” — and they made many of his films bankable in all territories. International co-productions in the truest sense with polyglot casts and crews became a business trend in the 1960s.
De Laurentiis made such truly internationally constructed pictures as director Richard Fleischer’s “Barabbas” (1962), with Quinn, Mangano and Jack Palance; Sergei Bondarchuk’s “Waterloo” (1970), with Rod Steiger and Orson Welles; and Burt Kennedy’s “The Deserter” (1971), with John Huston and Bekim Fehmiu.
The producer says his most fondly remembered picture is director Sidney Lumet’s “Serpico” (1973), starring Al Pacino as real-life New York undercover cop Frank Serpico.
“I say this film not because of how excellent it was or any awards it earned, or the making of it, all of which were great,” De Laurentiis says.
“When I decided to move to the U.S. from Italy, my English was very poor and I didn’t know anyone in the American film industry and I didn’t know the audience,” he says. “So, one day, I called Peter Maas, who I had met. I said, ‘Peter, give me something new.’
“He told me he was working on this book about this cop. I met with him and read the first 20 pages, which captured the character of Serpico. I said, ‘I am going to buy this for the movies. We’re going to get a great actor and we’re going to make a good movie. And we did it better than expected. So then I say to myself, ‘Dino, I can do it in America, too.’ It made me believe in myself.”
His critical or financial hits since then include Sydney Pollack’s “Three Days of the Condor” (1975), Robert Altman’s “Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson” (1976), Milos Forman’s “Ragtime” (1981, eight Oscar noms), John Milius’ “Conan the Barbarian” (1982), David Cronenberg’s “The Dead Zone” (1983) and Roger Donaldson’s remake, “The Bounty” (1984).
His most recent pictures have been the submarine drama “U-571” and “Hannibal,” the sequel to the multi-Oscar-winning “Silence of the Lambs” that has delivered boffo box office numbers.
When a De Laurentiis picture failed, it was often in a huge way, as with the “The Bible”; Swedish great Ingmar Bergman’s one American venture, “The Serpent’s Egg” (1978); the remakes of “King Kong” (1976) and “Hurricane” (1979); David Lynch’s “Dune” (1984); and the Madonna-wallow noir “Body of Evidence” (1993).
In the late 1980s, his mini-major studio, De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, rode the crest of cutting-edge critical approval with “Blue Velvet.” And he built three major studios: Dino Citta in Rome; what is now Screen Gems in Wilmington, N.C.; and Village Roadshow Studios in Australia.
“In Italy, we needed modern studio facilities as we were doing ‘Barabbas’ and ‘The Bible,’ so I had to build it,” De Laurentiis says. “We were making ‘Firestarter’ in North Carolina, and they said, ‘North Carolina needs more industry,’ so I build that one. And in Australia, it gives them their first big, modern studio.
“Why did I do this? As a producer, I like to create new ways to work, new distribution systems, new stars, new directors, give young people a chance. This is the job of the producer.”
The Thalberg award was established in 1937 to commemorate the career of MGM’s mercurial production chief of the 1920s and ’30s, and be awarded to “creative producers whose bodies of work reflect a consistently high quality of motion picture production.” Recent winners include Warren Beatty, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Clint Eastwood.