Michael Cimino: The Deer Hunter, Heaven’s Gate and the Price of a Vision Charles Elton Abrams Press, €19.99
Michael Cimino was one of the most fascinating figures in Hollywood history. Few directors have burned so brightly and burned out so quickly. A former ad man who moved into movies, he quickly became one of the most respected auteurs in the world when his second feature, The Deer Hunter (1978), a three-hour film about three steelworkers whose lives are changed by the Vietnam War, was a huge box office hit worldwide and won three Oscars. His follow-up Heaven’s Gate (1980), an epic Western starring Kris Kristofferson, was a critical and commercial disaster and became a byword for expensive Hollywood flops.
Cimino’s reputation never recovered. He was subsequently fired from the movie Footloose – which became a huge hit – and he lived out his years as a semi recluse, with rumours that he was transgender fuelled by his dramatically changed appearance.
In his biography of Cimino, The Deer Hunter, Heaven’s Gate and the Price of a Vision, the producer and novelist Charles Elton tells the story of Cimino’s life principally through the tortuous production processes of the movies for which he was known.
Elton paints a portrait of a self-mythologising and selfish figure, “a compulsive credit grabber” who, interestingly given the later rumours, was “fixated on the nature of masculinity in his life and work”.
He shunned his family, faked his Vietnam service (he said, “I have this insane feeling that I was there”), made up his age, and boasted of his love for cars and “one beautiful model after another – sometimes three at a time”. He was always opaque about his private life, and right to the end of his life the exact nature of the relationship with his right-hand woman, Joann Carelli – whom Elton calls Cimino’s “shadow government” – was, Elton suggests, never clear.
Carelli was a producer on The Deer Hunter, but she may have been one of the few people connected with the film with whom Cimino had anything approaching a harmonious relationship. He fought with studio executives, whom he saw as philistine bean counters, got rid of writers, and was generally a pain in the ass to work with. But it all paid off when the film touched a cultural chord in an America grappling with ambivalence towards
Elton rightly points out that the acclaim for the film was not quite as universal as recalled, and quotes a contemporaneous review in Village Voice calling it “massively vague, tediously elliptical and mysteriously hysterical” – which might strike a chord with anyone who struggled to make it through the film’s three hours.
Elton does not stint on the sprawling horror that was the production of Cimino’s follow-up, Heaven’s Gate, from which everyone from studio heads, to crew members, to location townspeople came away reviling him; without proper penalties for overrunning on budget, Cimino quite literally felt he had been given a blank cheque, and exploited that freedom. When the film was panned, Kris Kristofferson said: “It was like having a beloved child of yours murdered and then the murder blamed on you.”
An usher described the premiere as like “being an undertaker at a funeral”. The principal blame was for Cimino, Elton writes, but it was perhaps unfair that he lost so much on a flop when others had box office disasters that were comparable, if not of the same order.
Elton may cast a cold eye on his subject’s shortcomings, but ultimately he feels Cimino got a raw deal in the court of public opinion. He points out that the charges of critics, who tried to outdo each other with their barbs, were often “petty and irrelevant” (pulling Cimino up on the supposed lack of realism, for instance).
He dismisses the idea that Heaven’s Gate bankrupted the studio; it is a sad postscript to the film that its critical reappraisal as a masterpiece came too late for the director.
Cimino’s raw deal extended to the speculation about his appearance and gender identity, Elton suggests, citing the Wachowski sisters (directors of The Matrix) whose transitions were handled respectfully. Rumours abounded for years before Cimino’s death that he was transgender – these were fuelled by his obvious penchant for plastic surgery – but the director dismissed them in an interview with Vanity Fair in 2010 as gossip which came from “this crazy girl that I was going with”.
But the rumours did not go away and Cimino’s appearance seemed to speak for itself. Elton interviews a woman, Valerie Driscoll, who knew Cimino as “Nikki”, addressed the director with female pronouns and helped him out with his female makeover. Driscoll describes Cimino in the book as “the most beautiful woman I ever saw”.
Elton compares Cimino to the wizard in The Wizard of Oz, who presented himself in various forms to various people. But the difference, Elton says, is that in Cimino’s case, “the figure behind the curtain was not a diminished version of him. It was simply a different one that he did not want to show, the one that came close to the final draft that he could never quite pull off”.
The problem is that without Cimino to interview and with Carelli, who knew him best, vowing not to tell Elton anything (although she did meet with him, and appears to have verified or denied quite a few parts of the story), it’s not fully clear that Elton pulled off the final draft either.
Movie buffs will adore this biography and Elton makes Cimino’s tarnished legend gleam, but, for me, the various strands of myth and conjecture never fully coalesce into a clear portrait of its subject.
Cimino emerges from it all a still-enigmatic figure and the most satisfying parts of this book are about his films, and their making, rather than about him.