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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 of King 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 story intending to be told by the showbiz cast of characters radically changes but the movie still manages 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 by who?). Such was the case with his remake of King Kong (1976)...

The director was actually John Guillermin who made one of the very best Tarzan movies, and was at the peak of his career when assigned King Kong having just directed The 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!" 

with a cut immediately to the credit title...


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 misbegotten King Kong is 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 successive 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.

Apart from the Oscar-nominated cinematography which holds up beautifully - this movie is as picturesque as it is sloppy -- the best reason to watch King Kong now 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 proclaimed (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 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 'Kong AS The 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 say otherwise De Laurentiis claimed that the idea of remaking King Kong was his 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 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 Kong becoming 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.

After King Kong it is perhaps no surprise that De Laurentiis mounted another remake of a showbiz institution. This time it was Flash Gordon which 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 drama Get Carter (1971). The producer's luck ran out this time; Flash Gordon was 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 hits and misses. 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 (19)

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

Beautiful article, Nathaniel! Great point about Lange in this embryonic stage of her career. And an enjoyable film, even with its flaws. I like all the King Kong films, though the 1933 original is my favourite.

August 10, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterEdward L.

Streep can be many things. Sexy is not one of them.

August 10, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJoan Castleman

When that 1976 Kong movie was coming out, early SNL took a swing at De Laurentiis and the hubris of remaking a classic with a sketch where he was interviewed about it... and was presented as an opera buffa Italian stereotype. I don't remember who the performers were, but I vividly recall faux De Laurentiis proclaiming:

"When the Jaws die, nobody cry. But when the monkey die, everybody gonna cry."

Of course, as a huge fan of the original, I HATED that movie. Sure, it's got camp value now that it's a period piece, but it was a godawful disappointment at the time to genre fans.

August 10, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterDoctor Strange

Hearing Nathaniel call Jessica a goddess has made my day!

August 10, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterEricB

Great article, Nathaniel. I had a poster of this in my room as a kid. A quite underrated film. It’s campy to be sure, but this is tempered by the fact that it can be actually scary—the sequence surrounding Kong’s first reveal is horrifying. The cinematography impresses. The effects aren’t bad—this is still better than cgi. Bridges and Grodin work well together. And Jessica has great presence and seems to know the type of movie this is. She is still a great sport when folks talk about the film.

August 10, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Flash Gordon deserves a post all to itself.

August 10, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterBiggs

Streep is sexy. Not everything is an opportunity to insult someone.

August 10, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJane

Streep is sexy in Defending Your Life and Bridges of Madison County. Still, I don’t think the part in King Kong requires sexy, just gorgeous.

August 10, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterBiggs

Anyone who thinks Streep isn't sexy needs only see her with Kurt Russell in Silkwood. Those two had amazing sexual chemistry.

August 10, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMareko

The scene where the gorilla plays with her boobs was very traumatic for me as a child.

August 10, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJono

Watch Streep in Plenty. Sexy as hell.

August 11, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMichael R

"King Kong" (1976) was a disaster from the get go

August 11, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

Streep is sexy, but she's a not a "babe" in the way Hollywood wants when they casts roles like the one in King Kong. Not sure why everyone is in a huff. Streep is easily one of the least sexual actresses in mainstream movies.

August 12, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterPeter

Streep is sexy AF in "The Devil Wears Prada."

August 12, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterDaniella Isaacs

Of course Streep is sexual and attractive. She was and is one of the most popular leading ladies Hollywood has ever produced. She may not have been as explicitly sexual as Jessica or other women actors, but it's insulting to say she is not sexy.

Not sure why people even have to say she is "unsexy" when the post is about Jessica Lange, who went on to do much better roles than the terrible King Kong (1976).

August 12, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMiss Cleo

Jessica looks uncomfortable in that shot with Dino.

August 12, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSoSue

I am chiming in because my mother was at an art show in rural Minnesota last weekend for my cousin's wedding AND WAS FIVE FEET AWAY FROM JESSICA LANGE. She didn't say anything because she didn't want to make a fool of herself.

August 15, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterjakey

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