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Friday
Aug 09 2019

De Laurentiis Pt 4: T'was beauty that...ooh,look King Kong

This week at TFE we're celebrating the centennial of one of cinema's most prolific and legendary producers,Dino De Laurentiis.Here's Nathaniel R with a film that made the producer even more globally famous.

Dino de Laurentiis with "a new star"Jessica Lange

It's easy to see the retro but continuing appeal ofKing Kong to filmmakers.The legendary Beauty & Beast story is always about the movies themselves.An actress is the damsel in distress,the plot catalyst character is a movie director,the supersized monster is the myth being made.Along the way the storyintendingto be told by the showbiz cast of characters radically changes but the moviestillmanages to be about putting on a show.It's just another kind of show altogether after they meet Kong.The story,or,more accurately,the need to reboot it over and over again, is a great metaphor for the amoral churning of Hollywood as Capitalistic Machine.In most versions of King Kong,you dispose of the talent just as the show ends.Death to Kong!(Long live New Kong!)

While De Laurentiis was not actually a director,he was enough of a character in showbiz to often feel like the man behind the curtain instead of the man calling the shots on set (Directed bywho?).Such was the case with his remake ofKing Kong(1976)...

The director was actually John Guillermin who madeone of the very best Tarzan movies,and was at the peak of his career when assignedKing Konghaving just directedThe Towering Inferno(1974) which had become a massive hit and major Oscar player.Guillermin's capacity for scale must have excited De Laurentiis...but it's hard to think of Guillermin when the movie begins with a one-two punch of a telling toast...

"Here's to the big one!"

and cuts immediately to the title character

DINO DE LAURENTIIS presents

Yes,that line/cut surely sums up Dino De Laurentiis' need to cement his new place in the Hollywood firmament by mounting a remake of one of the town's foundational texts.

The impetus was clear but the execution is lacking,especially from our modern perspective when the once widely acclaimed visual effects (a special Oscar!) are more than showing their age.Instead,to today's eyes,this misbegottenKing Kongis good primarily for camp laughs and the altogether stunning sight of two of Hollywood's all-timers in the beautiful blondes department (Jessica Lange and Jeff Bridges) having continual hair-offs.In each success scene they are locked in a dual to determine whose locks are most lush and expressive.The winner is usually Jeff Bridges but Jessica Lange puts up quite a fight each time.

Apart from the Oscar-nominated cinematography which holds up beautifully - this movie is as picturesque as it is sloppy -- the best reason to watchKing Kongnow is the film debut of future goddess Jessica Lange,who was then a model.Even serious actresses apparently wanted the part.Meryl Streep infamously auditioned for it before she'd ever made a film.The legend goes that during her audition Dino pronounced (in Italian) that she was too ugly for the part.She snapped back in Italian,much to his shock.We would believe the story to be apocryphal because it's too perfect,indirectly flattering for the actress and like a cartoon portrait of sexism in Hollywood and the crassness of art as commerce,if Meryl Streep hadn't told it herself.

Still we're thankful Streep wasn't Dino's type.It's nearly impossible to imagine her in the role,which is,in every sense,a vacant sex symbol stock part.Dwan (yes she's named "Dwan,"don't ask) is an object to be bargained for (the natives),gazed at (everyone but especially the camera),and suggestively pawed (Kong gets horny in one scene,successfully causing a wardrobe malfunction with his giant finger).It's less fun to try to imagine Streep doing this than it is to watch it for what it actually is: the only known example of an embryonic great actor with no idea how to be born ever captured on film.In some ways 1976 Lange is an even stranger creature than 1976 Kong though they share a certain frustrating nearness to emotions that they haven't yet learned how to express,through lack of experience or technology.

There have been three major motion pictures called "King Kong"in Hollywood history and it's surely no coincidence that the one which ditches the 'KongASThe Movies' spirit is by far the weakest.The 1933 original and  Peter Jackson's 2005 remake have showbiz in their bloodstreams and on their minds consistently.Though some sources claim otherwise De Laurentiis claimed that the idea of remaking King Kong was his idea alone.We believe it and here's why: the 1976 version shifts the focus in a way that plays (unintentionally) like a producer's journey rather than an ambitious storytellers.Instead of a filmmaker as the plot catalyst bad guy the '76 version has Charles Grodin as Fred Wilson,an oil man.He's simply a corporate man out to make a LOT of money with no particular desire to tell any story other than "look how much money we made!"

And in the realm of filthy lucre,De Laurentiis's version succeeded.King Kongbecoming the 7th highest grossing of all 1976 films and later when it played television De Laurentiis was able to nab yet more millions from it.Charles Grodin's entrepeneurial spirit was punished onscreen with a big comic splat but De Laurentiis was more than rewarded for his.

FollowingKing Kongit's perhaps no surprise that De Laurentiis mounted another remake of a showbiz institution.This time it wasFlash Gordonwhich began life as a comic strip in the early 30s before quickly becoming a popular and long running movie serial starring Buster Crabbe.Despite its initial success it was not resurrected as a feature property until a good 50 years later.The process was not smooth -- De Laurentiis first approached Federico Fellini to direct (can you imagine?).When A-listers didn't work out or weren't interested he went with Mike Hodges,whose claim to fame was his feature debut,the gangster dramaGet Carter(1971).The producer's luck ran out this time;Flash Gordonwas a box office failure.

Blondes in chains: Sam Jones in Flash Gordon (1980) and Jessica Lange in King Kong (1976)

But when you take big swings,you can expect hitsandmisses.De Laurentiis always rolled right along,several projects brewing,whether he was experiencing the former or the latter.

Previous Installments

Tomorrow Chris Feil wraps up our Dino de Laurentiis series with the schlocky 80s.


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Reader Comments (2)

Thank goodness this did not ruin Jessica's career.I don't want to know anything about the casting process for this role with ugly lech Dino.

August 10,2019 | Unregistered CommenterFaye

Jessica Lange won the Golden Globe for Best New Actress for her performance in King Kong.

August 10,2019 | Unregistered Commenterharmodio

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