Landing in L.A., in 1974, I had four hundred dollars to my name. A sum that initially seemed perfectly adequate for my new hippie lifestyle. A fledgling actress –I’d done a couple of movies in London – I was also a novice writer, freelancing for the L.A Times. But as I was only being paid two hundred dollars for an article in the Calendar section, and having recently broken up with my first American boyfriend (also a writer, dooming both of us to a life of neurotic penury), I needed a job.
An Italian man I knew took me to meet the producer Dino de Laurentis. The last of the legendary tycoons, married to great actress Silvana Mangano, Dino had made some impressive movies, Fellini’s "La Strada," Visconti’s "The Stranger" and "War and Peace," among them.
We went to see him in his sleek thirties offices on Canon Drive. He was smaller than I’d imagined, a diminutive, sharp-suited Il Duce, and only half visible behind an immense leather and mahogany desk.
I stood there politely, then started to list my credits. But Dino wasn’t the least bit interested. “Girate, girate,” he said, one finger circling his pomaded head. He wanted me to turn for him, so I did. “Now please walk back and forth.” Per favore – va, va,” he commanded. I obeyed, gliding to and fro across his Persian rug and for some reason not finding this the least bit offensive. After watching for a minute, he nodded. “Va bene!” And that was it. I had the part.
The movie was the kind of thing I did well. Overly dramatic, with a fake accent. Drum was the sequel to Dino’s "Mandingo," a cautionary tale about a slave-breeding plantation in the south. To be honest, it was terrible. Spectacularly distasteful. A movie with flourishes of sadism and depravity and something, I realized, only a person who didn’t have a full grasp of the language could have made.
I played a French governess who becomes the plantation owner’s (Warren Oates’) wife. Thankfully, my scenes were limited to a few crinoline-rustling tantrums and chest heavings, or a strident command to the black help (Ken Norton): “Go git yo masta, boy!” – shouted from the top of a sweeping antebellum stairway.
For the finale there was the inevitable bloody slave revolt. I can remember lying in a barn somewhere near Baton Rouge, at four in the morning, smeared with mud, my dress artistically ripped, while behind me, accompanied by a chorus of extras’ screams, a wall of orange flames licked the sky. Dino’s version of the burning of Atlanta.
Nevertheless, I have to say Dino was a charming man.
Not unattractive – slick, yes, but elegantly refined. After giving me the part that day, he asked me if I would go “out to dinner” with him. I respectfully declined. After all, he was married to the great Silvana Mangano. However, had he been a foot or two taller, I might have accepted.