Of all the downfalls in Hollywood history, Michael Cimino’s haunts me the most, destroyed by his artistic ambitions in a corporate town whose rules he didn’t want to play by. Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich may come close, but they never ruined an entire movement or destroyed a film studio. In a single stroke of hubris and artistic obsession, Cimino burnt down the New Hollywood that created him with just one movie: Heaven’s Gate (1980).
Filmmakers had made massive bombs before Heaven’s Gate and they have made massive bombs since. Three or four were released last year, including Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story and Guillermo Del Toro’s Nightmare Alley, which is by far the best film Del Toro has created. Both of these films are nominated for Best Picture Oscars this year and have probably lost far more money for their studios than Heaven’s Gate. How is it that Cimino became so famous and was able to create two towering works of art in the space of three years? And then become a pariah?
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Cimino lived for 77 years, having had so much plastic surgery by the end of his life that it was rumoured he transgendered. In the end, he looked like the cliché of a middle-aged lesbian. When he was barely 40, at the height of his career, he was briefly the world’s most famous youngish director, after winning the Oscar for directing The Deer Hunter, a new Hollywood masterpiece that spoke powerfully to Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation about the cost of war. It was a huge, serious R-rated movie for adults that was also a big popular hit, a work of movie art that resonated with filmgoers everywhere. (Well, that was 1979 for you.) But the following year, when his follow-up Heaven’s Gate bombed, Cimino instantly became the most disgraced director in Hollywood history and his career was mostly over. What happened? A big part of it had to do with the perils of obsession and perhaps not being as talented as your only great film implies.
Cimino was born in 1939, a third-generation Italian American who grew up on Long Island. His father was a music publisher, and his mother was a costume designer, and Michael was considered a prodigy from a very early age at the private schools he attended. But Cimino resented what was expected of him and he began to rebel in high school. He started hanging out with juvenile delinquents and getting into fights and coming home drunk. His parents couldn’t believe this was happening to their well-behaved little boy and they couldn’t stand his new friends. But these new friends lived with a passion and an intensity that Cimino, as a rich kid, just never found among his peers. They were the outsiders and the individuals that Cimino would be attracted to for the rest of his life; men with their own code — all of his seven movies are about criminals, soldiers, policeman, mob bosses, murderers.
Cimino found it strange that his father, not so much his mother, disapproved of his delinquency because his father was, according to Cimino, the life of the party. He travelled a lot, he was an intense womanizer, he loved martinis and chain-smoked and died young.
Cimino graduated high school in 1956 and then enrolled in Michigan State in East Lansing, where he majored in graphic arts and was a member of the weightlifting club. He was a popular student and in the 1959 yearbook he was described as someone who “loved blondes, Thelonious Monk, and drinking, preferably vodka”. After studying at Yale, Cimino moved to New York City and worked in advertising on Madison Avenue, where he directed commercials for everything from Kodak to United Airlines to Pepsi to cigarettes. The added incentive, Cimino said, was to meet beautiful girls.
Clients were soon clamouring to work with Cimino, but he had one drawback: because of how meticulous his work was he almost always went overtime, and yet most thought the results were worth it, even if Cimino went overschedule and over budget. Through advertising he met a woman named Joann Carelli, who was an agent for commercial directors, and they began what would become a 30 year on-off relationship and she would be the only credited producer on the ill-fated Heaven’s Gate. She is also the only woman Cimino has been quasi-romantically linked with; he never married, he never had children.
As the Seventies began, Cimino decided to move to Los Angeles, where he began his career as a screenwriter. It was Carelli who encouraged this, even though Cimino had never written a script before. But by 1978 he had written about a dozen and was making a decent living. Cimino would have rather directed, but he didn’t have any money to option properties or buy books or pay someone to write a script and the only chance he had to direct something was if he owned the screenplay that a movie star wanted to make. And that’s exactly what happened with a screenplay Cimino wrote called Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, which was shown to Clint Eastwood who bought it for his production company.
Eastwood had planned on making the movie himself but allowed Cimino a chance to direct it, his first feature, after being impressed with his rewrites on the second Dirty Harry movie, Magnum Force. Cimino had been hired in to revise a second version of the script, and the film turned out to be a massive hit — the sixth-highest grossing movie of 1973, a much bigger hit than the original Dirty Harry. Cimino has said that if it weren’t for Clint Eastwood, he would never have had a career in film, and Thunderbolt and Lightfoot was the 17th highest grossing film of that year and Jeff Bridges was Oscar-nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Cimino was 35.
Because of the success of the movie Cimino was deluged with offers, but he didn’t like any of them and decided that he would only get involved with a project that he wanted to do. This was the Seventies. This was the era of the filmmaker as auteur. This was the decade of freedom and studios were willing to take big risks.
So Cimino kept rejecting offer after offer until he decided to pitch a big ambitious Vietnam movie to a few EMI executives who had approached him in November 1976 about another script called The Man Who Came To Play, whose central conceit was about people going to Las Vegas to play Russian roulette. But the script needed to be heavily rewritten and revised: EMI loved the premise but it wasn’t a movie yet.
Cimino had read the script and told EMI he was confident that he could elevate the script into an actual movie, but it was unclear who these people in Vegas playing Russian roulette were, why they were there, and what had happened to them. Cimino was intrigued and decided to hire Deric Washburn, who had worked with him on a previous script, on the revision. Washburn went ahead and wrote a first draft and when Cimino read it he thought it was so bad that Washburn must be mentally deranged. Cimino and Washburn supposedly had a confrontation at the Sunset Marquis in West Hollywood where Washburn said he couldn’t take the pressure of working on the script with Cimino’s attitude and gave up. So Cimino fired him and threw everything out and wrote the first draft completely alone. The Deer Hunter was born.
Now, Washburn has said that this is all a lie. He claimed that the two of them spent three days together at the Sunset Marquis and hammered out the new plot and agreed that Washburn would do the bulk of the writing. Washburn claimed he had been given a time limit of a month — the clock was ticking — and he had spent the entire time writing and rewriting the script. When he was finished, according to Washburn, Cimino and Carelli took him to a cheap restaurant somewhere on the Sunset Strip where Carelli told Washburn: “Well, it’s fuck-off time.” And Washburn was fired.
Washburn saw this as a classic Hollywood situation: you get a dummy to write the goddamn thing, then tell the dummy to go fuck himself, then put your own name on the dummy’s script, and make sure the dummy never comes back. Washburn admits he was so tired that he didn’t really care if he was fired. He’d been working 20-hour days for a month and was completely burnt out. He left LA the next day, got on a plane and flew back to Manhattan.
EMI was surprised by the new The Deer Hunter script and how it turned one man into three — and how these men now worked in a steel town in Pennsylvania and were all drafted into Vietnam. In the original script it is Mike, played by Robert De Niro, who stays in Vietnam and Christopher Walken’s Nick who comes back to the steel town and returns to Linda (Meryl Streep). It is Mike who meets his tragic fate at the Russian roulette table and not Nick. Cimino revised all this, but the Writer’s Guild of America in their arbitration process awarded Washburn sole screenplay by credit and the original authors of the script The Man Who Came To Play were given story credit along with Michael Cimino. Cimino was pissed. But he had a movie to make.
The Deer Hunter started shooting in June of 1977, and it took six months to complete at double its original budget. The cast, along with De Niro and Walken, was made up of John Savage, John Cazale and Cazale’s girlfriend at the time, Meryl Streep, who De Niro recommended to Cimino after seeing her in a play. Streep didn’t really respond to the role of Linda — she saw her as a vague, stick girlfriend — but Cazale was dying of lung cancer and she took the role so she could be near him on set.
There was an arduous year of post-production — the film editor Peter Zinner, who won an Oscar for his work, was handed about 110 miles of printed film to edit. This was a monumental task in 1978. How did so much film get shot, one wonders. How did the already large budget double? The answer is Cimino had become obsessed. He was now a film artist who wanted to create a masterpiece, something that could be compared to The Godfather and The Godfather Part II — movies that are looked at as the pinnacle achievements of the New Hollywood.
The wedding sequence that opens The Deer Hunter was supposed to be about 20 minutes long but in the finished film it’s over 50 minutes and it’s grand and ominous. Visconti would be proud. Cimino’s instincts were so right: to give us this much time to spend with these characters until the horror of Vietnam interrupts everything and destroys their lives. The moviemaking in the wedding sequence and then in Vietnam is monumental. An artist has painted this movie and seems to know exactly what he’s doing with every brush stroke, every camera pan, every edit.
The first cut of The Deer Hunter was three and a half hours. EMI and Cimino were pleased with it but executives at Universal, the studio which had bought the film before production and were releasing it in the United States, were not so enthusiastic. According to an exec at EMI, the Universal contingent were shocked and thought the use of God Bless America in the final scene was anti-American. They really did not like it and they really didn’t like it any more when it was cut down by 30 minutes to just over three hours. Michael Deeley, the EMI executive who had overseen the film’s production, said that he realised too late that Universal was the wrong home for The Deer Hunter.
The head of Universal at that time was Thom Mount, who has described the post-production process on The Deer Hunter as a continuing nightmare from the moment Cimino finished it to the day it was released. Cimino was wedded to every single frame he shot. He was an artist obsessed with his own creation.
When The Deer Hunter was released in December 1978, it was given just a one-week run in two theaters in North America: one in New York and one in Los Angeles. The one in Los Angeles was The National in Westwood, which, along with the Village, was the grandest of all the theaters in LA. It was always a thrill, no matter what was playing, to go see a movie at The National: even if we had no interest in a particular movie and it was playing at The National, we’d still go.
My movie-mad friend and I — we were 14 — bought advanced tickets for the Saturday matinee. Four of us went with his parents, who had to take us because The Deer Hunter was R-rated. We sat in the last row and the movie began, no trailers, in 70mm. It remains one of the most powerful and overwhelming experiences I’ve ever had. The Russian roulette sequence was so suspenseful, so violent — no one had ever seen anything like this — that I was terrified, wiped-out.
Of course the literal-minded press complained that there weren’t any recorded cases of Russian roulette in the Vietnam War, but Cimino said The Deer Hunter was a personal and an autobiographical film. This is the kind of film an artist makes. The Deer Hunter for Cimino was not political, polemical or supposed to be historically accurate. This is what an artist says. And Cimino sometimes teasingly defended these scenes by saying he had news clippings from Singapore stating that Russian roulette was used during the war though never showed these clippings to anyone. Cimino was a prankster and liked to make fun of the press and toy with them. This is what an artist does. I’ve done it before. Often you can’t help yourself. You think: they need to be tricked. They need to learn a lesson and get fucked with a bit. You think: why do we even have to talk to them?
In some factions — and this is so tiresome — The Deer Hunter was called a racist movie because of its depictions of the Vietnamese soldiers who torture the Americans. The whole film was apparently a racist rewriting of that tragic war. But Christopher Walken has said that while making the movie no one ever mentioned Vietnam — it was simply a war film and Russian roulette was its metaphor. Michael Deeley, that EMI exec, also said that The Deer Hunter wasn’t really about Vietnam but about how individuals respond to pressure in an unworthy war and how they face the horrible choices presented to them.
The Deer Hunter is a parable and many Vietnam veterans who responded favourably to the film thought the Russian roulette sequences were a valid allegory. Maybe not the liberal entertainment press who, despite admiring the film, kept pushing the racist angle. But this is what an artist is often up against: a wilful misreading of your intentions in order to satisfy someone’s own ideological outlook. This is so boring and it was happening in 1978 just as it happens now. Some things don’t change.
That the movie was originally released in just two theatres in December — in order to qualify for Oscar nominations — was the brainchild of a flamboyantly gay Grease producer called Allan Carr. He had become a fan of the movie at early screenings and devised a PR campaign that would ensure the movie would be talked about and then rereleased nationwide at the end of February, when we saw it again at The Village Theater and where it played even more powerfully.
My friends and I were in awe of this movie. And most critics were too, with many of them writing that The Deer Hunter was the best American epic since The Godfather. Roger Ebert called it one of the most emotionally shattering films ever made and David Thomson has called it one of the great American films of all time. It was nominated for nine Oscars and won five: Picture, Director, supporting actor for Walken, editing and sound. De Niro, Streep and John Savage were also nominated for their performances — as was Vilmos Zsigmond’s extraordinary cinematography.
And this sweep at the Oscars happened despite a pushback campaign against the film once the nominations were announced. It was spearheaded by Warren Beatty, a famously liberal Hollywood insider, whose comedy Heaven Can Wait was also up for nine Oscars and was competing with The Deer Hunter in many of the same categories. Jane Fonda, the star of Coming Home, another Vietnam War film that was The Deer Hunter’s main competition at the Oscars that year, also criticised the film for its racism in public, even though she had never seen it. There were demonstrators outside the auditorium where the awards were given out. Robert De Niro was so anxious over the controversy that he decided not to go and stayed in New York, but then Jon Voight was the heavy favourite to win for Coming Home that night, which he did. A week after that Oscar ceremony, Cimino, newly minted as New Hollywood’s latest boy wonder, flew to Montana to begin shooting his follow-up to The Deer Hunter — a movie called Heaven’s Gate.
Heaven’s Gate was a script Cimino had written in 1971 called The Johnson County War, a western set in 1892 about cattle barons versus immigrants that didn’t get any traction because no stars wanted to sign on. It was shelved, but in the days leading up to the 1979 Academy Awards, when it seemed certain Cimino would triumph and The Deer Hunter would win him both a Best Picture and a Best Directing Oscar, United Artists was convinced to resurrect what was now called Heaven’s Gate, starring Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, Jeff Bridges and John Hurt.
United Artists approved a budget of $11.6 million and offered Cimino complete artistic freedom. The studio was coming off a heady run: it had won the Best Picture Oscar three years in a row, with One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Rocky and Annie Hall, and it was considered the go-to studio in a town for filmmakers who didn’t want to be constrained by the politics and bureaucracy and interference of some of the other bigger studios. This was the headiest time in Cimino’s career: he was offered the most freedom as an artist, and he took full advantage of it. He was going to paint the screen with not only the most amazing western ever made but one of the grandest achievements of the New Hollywood. It would be the ultimate auteur movie, aiming not only for a stunning work of visual art but also a violent and popular movie that would connect with a mass audience.
Cimino was drunk on the possibilities and when a filmmaker becomes this obsessed with a movie, the first thing to go out the window is judgment. There was only one thing that United Artists asked of Cimino, and that was to have his film ready to premiere in December — to make sure it was eligible for a truckload of Oscar nominations and also have it play during the lucrative Christmas season.
But by the sixth day of filming, Heaven’s Gate was already five days behind schedule. Cimino had become an artist whose fanatical attention to detail led to an entire street being built to his precise specifications, and then being torn down because it just didn’t look right. The artist’s mania was settling in. An entire tree that Cimino approved of was cut down and moved in pieces and rebuilt in a courtyard in Oxford, England, where the opening Harvard graduation scene takes place. An entire irrigation system was built under the land where the climactic battlefield scene would unfold so that it would remain vividly green.
But why not? This was the era where Francis Ford Coppola shot a million feet of footage for Apocalypse Now. Kubrick had shot almost as much footage for The Shining. Spielberg had lavishly overspent on 1941. Even Martin Scorsese had spent $20 million on Raging Bull. What was United Artists supposed to do except trust the artist they hired to make the movie they agreed upon?
But Heaven’s Gate was soon haemorrhaging money, and by the time Cimino was finished with principal photography he had shot more than 220 hours of footage. The movie was costing around $200,000 a day to produce at one point. But Cimino was in the grip of something: he wanted to make his perfect movie and soon he was demanding up to 50 takes of individual scenes. Cimino had become the kind of director who delayed filming for the day until a cloud that he liked rolled into frame. Actors and musicians who had been brought to Montana where most of the movie was shot would wait around and end up stranded, endlessly waiting to be called to shoot their scenes that never materialised. John Hurt, who plays Kristofferson’s best friend, temporarily left the set to shoot David Lynch’s The Elephant Man and claimed no one noticed that he’d been gone.
Heaven’s Gate didn’t finish shooting until March 1980, and ended up costing $44 million dollars, four times the agreed budget. Cimino then locked himself away with his editor — William Reynolds, who had edited The Godfather and The Sound of Music — and worked obsessively on putting the movie together for its new release date: Thanksgiving weekend, 1980 — a year after the original release date.
After I watched it for a third time during lockdown, I think Michael Cimino had convinced himself that he’d created a masterpiece, and that all the expense and hard work and time spent had been worth it. And though there are dozens of images in Heaven’s Gate that are as stunning as any ever shot and there is undeniable genius in it, the movie does not work.
In late June 1980, Cimino previewed a rough cut for the execs at United Artists that ran to 5 hours and 25 minutes, with Cimino promising to cut about fifteen minutes. UA flatly refused to release the film at that length and conspired to fire Cimino. Cimino finally relented and said that he could re-edit the film to about 3 hours and 40 minutes, but no less. In the end, he cut it down to 3 hours and 39 minutes.The premiere took place on November 19 at a theater on the Upper East Side in New York, packed with celebrities including the stars of the movie. During the intermission, Cimino noticed no one was talking excitedly to him or drinking the complimentary champagne. He went up to his publicist and asked why everyone was so glum and subdued and the publicist reportedly told him: “Because they hate the movie, Michael.”
The critical reception the following day was an avalanche of negativity. The New York Times called it “something quite rare in movies these days: an unqualified disaster”. Instead of reviewing Heaven’s Gate as a flawed ambitious epic — with some of the most gorgeous cinematography ever seen in an American movie — it was reviewed mostly as a business story, with everyone blinded by the cost rather than what was in the movie itself. When he realised what was happening — that his movie was being cancelled! — Cimino complained that it wasn’t finished yet and that he had been pressured to cut the movie for a Thanksgiving release. After a one-week run in New York, Cimino and UA pulled the movie.
Cimino recut it down to 2 hours and 29 minutes and it was released in late April 1981. It might have been shorter, but it was far worse than the original version — which, despite being a mess, has a feeling and coherency that is lacking in the truncated version. Roger Ebert proclaimed it was still one of the most scandalous cinematic wastes he had ever seen in a consensus reappraisal. The film closed in two weeks having only grossed $3.5 million.
In the years since, there has been a major reassessment of Heaven’s Gate and what Cimino was trying to do. This began in the mid-Eighties, with European critics such as Robin Woods calling Heaven’s Gate one of the supreme achievements in Hollywood cinema. David Thomson called Heaven’s Gate “a wounded monster” that demands re-exploration. Martin Scorsese has said that it has many overlooked virtues. And it must be said that it does have a few overlooked virtues and that it does play better today that it did 40 years ago — its grandeur has become more powerful as the notions of movies are dying. But the damage to its reputation and to Cimino had already been completed in the early Eighties. The New Hollywood that thrived in the Seventies, where directors were often given free reign, had a stake driven into its heart. The New Hollywood was officially over. A decade of high-concept movies followed, negotiated by agents and lawyers as well as a return to studio control.
Heaven’s Gate damaged Cimino’s career considerably, but he still worked throughout the Eighties. It wasn’t until 1996, after a series of flops, that Cimino made his final film, Sunchaser, starring Woody Harrelson, with a budget of $31 million and only grossing $21,000. This was when Cimino supposedly snapped: reports of him arriving to set late, seemingly under the influence of drugs. The editor on Sunchaser said that Cimino emanated an eerie, freaky vibe and that he had his face covered during the editing process with a handkerchief. Over the years, I always wondered what happened to Cimino. He very rarely opened up or gave interviews after Heaven’s Gate. And yet colleagues and financiers and executives and producers continued to talk about him: vain, self-indulgent, egotistical and megalomaniacal. How can one make a movie like The Deer Hunter and then nothing else that remotely rivals it? The rest of Cimino’s movies are mostly bad; in fact, all of them are bad to one degree or another. How did Cimino get so lucky that one time out?
He seemed to be an incredibly intelligent man: his tastes were wide-ranging and he had real moviemaking fever. But something went wrong. Something got fucked up. And I think part of it was that he was working in the wrong business and believed that the sheer force of his talent was going to keep the lights on — that no matter what, his talent was going to let him thrive in the jungles of Hollywood. In the end he became a recluse of sorts, hiding in his Beverly Hills mansion on Coldwater, looking, on the few occasions he was spotted, as if he were transitioning into a woman. He died in 2016 but no one knows how or from what — the cause of death was never revealed.
He once said: “When I’m kidding, I’m serious, and when I’m serious, I’m kidding. I am not who I am and I am who I am not.” To me, this sounds like an artist.
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