Italian movie producer Dino De Laurentiis has died at the age of 91. A film student in Rome whose studies were interrupted by World War II, De Laurentiis got his start in producing by working with legendary directors Roberto Rossellini and Federico Fellini during the height of the Italian neo-realist period. He was successful enough at it that by the 1960s, De Laurentiis built his own studio facilities in Italy.
By that point, De Laurentiis’s creative focus had evolved, and he began producing the type of very expensive, glossy genre pictures that he’s best known for today. The most emblematic of his 60s output was perhaps Barbarella, featuring Jane Fonda in various states of undress as aliens try to have sex with her. It’s easy to dismiss it as an exploitation picture—because it is—but there’s a good-natured self-awareness to Barbarella (on everyone’s part but Jane Fonda, who is apparently under the impression that she’s doing high drama) that makes it hard to dislike. That is, unless the leaden pacing puts you to sleep.
The 1970s saw De Laurentiis’s Italian studio fail financially, but he responded by relocating to Los Angeles and offering his talents to the American movie industry. The results were partly good (Serpico), partly bad (Death Wish), and partly ugly (the 1976 remake of King Kong), but met with sufficient financial success that he was, by the end of the decade, a fixture in Hollywood.
With 1980s Flash Gordon, De Laurentiis returned to the science fiction camp aesthetic of Barbarella, but without the faint musk of sleaziness, and with Max von Sydow as Ming the Merciless, and a soundtrack by Queen. Despite these amazingly brilliant selling points, Flash Gordon underperformed at the box office, in part due to the financial profligacy that made Dino’s Italian studio go out of business. Undeterred, De Laurentiis went on to produce both Conan movies, spinoff Red Sonja…and Dune.
It was not enough to be associated with campy science fiction movies, or expensive movies that flopped, or movies that didn’t make much sense. Dino De Laurentiis, it seemed, wished to do all at once. Dune represents the realization of that goal. It was very campy. Extremely expensive. Performed hideously at the box office. And even if you read the book, the movie makes no sense. (In fact, the more you read, the less sense it makes.) As such, it is a magnificent achievement in cinema and maybe De Laurentiis’ finest moment as a producer.
De Laurentiis would continue producing for nearly the remainder of his days (his last picture was released in 2007), with less ostentation and more consistency, though this combination meant that the possibilities of great heights or lows—however one regards Barbarella, Flash Gordon, Conan, or Dune—were diminished. Through sheer staying power, he managed to outlast the unkind nickname bestowed on him by the Medved brothers, “Dino De Horrendous,” and be remembered more as an old lion than as a shlock merchant.
Now, upon his passing, let us remember Dino De Laurentiis for his irreplaceable contributions to camp SF cinema. For sheer entertainment value—ironic or no his pictures were nearly always entertaining—he has few peers. Let us not smirk at him, but allow ourselves to smile.