Obituary: Michael Cimino
Oscar-winning film director whose career never fully recovered from the box-office calamity, 'Heaven's Gate'
Published 10/07/2016 | 02:30
Michael Cimino, who died last Sunday aged 77, was the Oscar-winning American director whose rise and fall occurred at a speed unprecedented even in Hollywood.
Cimino enjoyed critical acclaim and commercial success with only his second film, the Vietnam war epic The Deer Hunter (1978). But his third, the western Heaven's Gate (1980), was delivered so far over budget that when it flopped it practically bankrupted the studio, destroyed Cimino's career, shifted power back from the auteur-director to the executives and became a byword for directorial folie de grandeur.
Yet the two films were closer in spirit than their reception suggested. Both were sweeping, beautifully photographed, three-hour tales that shared, in Cimino's words, an interest in "the heroism of ordinary people in the face of extraordinary challenges" that was "the glory of America".
Where they differed was in their immediacy and intensity. Nineteenth-century Wyoming may have been closer to home, but Vietnam was seared into the contemporary consciousness. So while the endless landscape of Heaven's Gate proved exactly that, The Deer Hunter, with its searing Russian roulette scenes, battered its audiences into emotional surrender.
Although both films bore the uncompromising stamp of their obsessive writer-director, The Deer Hunter was almost a great picture, and large enough to carry its flaws. It was, in the words of one critic, "one of the few American movies that understand the state of outrage and mistake within American hope".
But there is a thin line between single-minded artistic integrity and self-destructive narcissism, and in Heaven's Gate that line was crossed. Often incomprehensible and, to many, plain boring, it became a cautionary tale.
Cimino continued to write screenplays, but struggled to raise finance and so was confined to modest features on which he served as a "director-for-hire". That his life-long ambition was to adapt Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, the story of an architect prepared to destroy his creations rather than betray his vision, was an irony highlighted by every journalist to whom he granted an interview.
Michael Cimino was born on February 3, 1939, in New York. He maintained that he was born in 1943 but university records suggest the earlier date. He was brought up on Long Island and educated at Westbury High School.
A precocious child, he became estranged from his father, a music publisher, his mother - who told a reporter in 1979 that she only realised he was famous when his name was a clue in the New York Times crossword - and his siblings.
He studied architecture at Yale before joining the army reserve and undergoing basic training in Texas. After apparently failing to be admitted to the Green Berets - a subject on which he was opaque while publicising The Deer Hunter - he took acting and directing classes from Lee Strasberg, and directed industrial films before switching to making commercials.
In 1971 he moved to Hollywood and co-wrote Silent Running (1973), a sci-fi movie. He also co-wrote Magnum Force (1972), the sequel to Clint Eastwood's cult classic Dirty Harry, in which the San Francisco cop stands as a lone beacon for truth, justice and a high body count.
Impressed, Eastwood agreed to star in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), a caper movie involving a gang of crooks getting together for one final heist. Despite gaining critical plaudits Cimino was unable to secure another stint in the director's chair.
He wrote an adaptation of Frederick Forsyth's The Dogs of War, attempted to adapt Crime and Punishment and began his long tussle with The Fountainhead, but nothing reached the screen under his direction.
Eventually EMI offered him the story of a US soldier who stayed in Vietnam after the war playing Russian roulette. Having been offered a theme, and a central metaphor, Cimino wrapped his own story around the idea.
The Deer Hunter starred Robert De Niro and concerned three Pennsylvanian steelworkers who were sent to Vietnam.
Splitting his interest between the war and the friends they left behind, Cimino's loving portrayal of steel town life allowed for a symphonic shift of tone when the action moved to Vietnam, where the horror was as stunning as it was historically inaccurate.
The first Vietnam film, opening so soon after ignominious defeat, The Deer Hunter was controversial. Jane Fonda called it "the Pentagon's version of the war", while Cimino was variously accused of being racist, fascist and small-minded.
But no one could doubt its visual beauty, the strength of the performances, its power to move or its portrayal of trampled American idealism trying to move on. Despite its length it dominated the 1979 Oscars - winning five, including Best Director and Best Picture - and became the cultural event of the year.
Heaven's Gate was an event for different reasons. The tale of immigrants helped by noble cowboys in 1880s Wyoming, the film was poorly cast, badly written (by Cimino), slow and unable to link its violence to wider moral concerns.
The real story was its cost, the egotism driving that, and the pathology of a director at war with a timid studio. Costing $40m - five times over budget - it recouped barely one 10th of that at the box office and hastened United Artists' demise.
The studio bosses were partly the architects of their own misfortune. Having acceded to Cimino's obsessiveness - on one occasion he re-shot Christopher Walken removing his hat 36 times - they killed the film, in effect, by pulling its release after a disastrous preview.
Jeff Bridges, one of the stars, recalled: "The audience sat stupefied for three-and-a-half hours. Afterwards we heard that terrible, stuttering applause." The New York Times pronounced it "an unqualified disaster".
It was five years before he returned, with Year of the Dragon. A script by Oliver Stone pitted Mickey Rourke's Vietnam veteran, Asian-hating cop against John Lone's Chinese triad boss and in the ensuing turf war violence was the only winner. It did nothing to resuscitate Cimino's reputation.
The Sicilian, in 1987, was adapted from Mario Puzo's novel and portrayed the Mafia in the old country. It received a lukewarm reception. Three years later Desperate Hours, a remake of a crime classic, again starring Mickey Rourke, left critics and audience unmoved.
Finally Sunchaser (1996), starring Woody Harrelson, was a road movie exploring the director's favourite theme - redemption in America's wide open spaces. It went straight to video.
He still pursued projects vigorously - for years struggling to make an adaptation of Andre Malraux's novel, Man's Fate, about the failed 1927 uprising in Shanghai -and wrote many scripts that remained unseen. He published a novel in France and was appointed a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres, of which he was immensely proud.
His frustration was evident, however, and perhaps justified. He had tried, in the words of his Oscar-winning cinematographer, Vilmos Zsigmond, "to make a perfect film. He overdid it. But they should not have killed him for it". For his part Cimino reflected: "It took me a long time before I was able to say: 'I'm proud of that movie. I could not have made it any better. No excuses. No regrets.' "
He became a prickly recluse on his estate in the Hamptons, venturing out only occasionally to excoriate his peers, United Artists, Hollywood and, particularly, Steven Bach, the UA executive whose book Final Cut exposed the Heaven's Gate debacle in morbid (and, according to Cimino, unreliable) detail.
A diminutive man with bouffant hair who dressed in cowboy boots with raised heels, stetson and sunglasses, he was rumoured in the late 1990s to have undergone a sex change. He had not. As his friend the film critic FX Feeney observed: "You are talking about an internationally renowned perfectionist. If he can't come out looking like Catherine Deneuve, forget it."
He never married.