In the span of just two years, Michael Cimino went from being one of the most celebrated filmmakers in Hollywood to one of the most reviled. Say whatever else you will about him, the man was an original talent with a distinctive voice. The director passed away over the holiday weekend at the age of… well, he was believed to be 77.
A lot of the details of Cimino’s personal life were, shall we say, unclear.
In interviews conducted for the 2012 Blu-ray edition of ‘Heaven’s Gate’ (which we’ll get to in a moment), Cimino boasted of having no formal training in filmmaking. Nonetheless, he worked his way into the industry, first as a screenwriter with co-writing credits on Douglas Trumbull’s weird sci-fi drama ‘Silent Running‘ and the ‘Dirty Harry’ sequel ‘Magnum Force‘. Clint Eastwood was so impressed with his work on the latter that he gave Cimino his first big break by championing him to direct the caper action comedy ‘Thunderbolt and Lightfoot‘. The movie was a hit, which allowed Cimino to pursue a much more ambitious project next.
His 1978 Vietnam War drama ‘The Deer Hunter‘ was a massive success, both at the box office and with critics, and became a cultural touchstone for a nation still grappling with its feelings about the war. The film won five Oscars, including both Best Director and Best Picture. At that moment, Michael Cimino was on top of the world. Studio United Artists offered him a blank check to do whatever he wanted for his follow-up. What Cimino wanted was to make a Western – the biggest and most historically authentic Western anyone had ever seen.
Production on ‘Heaven’s Gate‘ was notoriously troubled. The movie ballooned from an initial greenlight budget of $7.5 million up to an eventual $44 million, making it one of the most expensive films ever made at the time. The first cut that Cimino delivered to the studio was nearly five-and-a-half hours long. The studio balked and refused to release it at that length. When a new compromise cut at close to four hours played briefly in New York, critics savaged it as (in the words of the New York Times) “an unqualified disaster.” United Artists quickly pulled the movie and made Cimino recut it again, this time down to two-and-a-half hours. The new version received even more scathing reviews and became one of the biggest box office bombs of all time, earning almost no money at all in theaters.
In his book ‘Final Cut‘, former UA executive Steven Bach delivered a withering critique of Michael Cimino as an out-of-control artist whose nit-picking perfectionism, absurd indulgences (such as tearing down and rebuilding an entire city street set in order to make the road a few feet wider), and wild fiscal irresponsibility led directly to United Artists’ bankruptcy and subsequent sale to MGM. Cimino of course denied the claims and called the book a work of fiction. His star Kris Kristofferson has stood in support of the director over the years.
Whatever the truth may be, the failure of ‘Heaven’s Gate’ signaled an end to the auteur movement of the 1970s and brought about a sea change in the industry. Hollywood studios tightened their belts and reined in their directors, no longer allowing the blanket artistic freedom that resulted in some of the great masterpieces of the prior decade (including ‘The Deer Hunter’). Filmmaking in the 1980s became much more rigidly corporate controlled, and (as many would argue) overly commercial and soulless. Fair or not, Michael Cimino took the brunt of the blame for that.
‘Heaven’s Gate’ was not quite the end of the road for Cimino. He continued to direct a handful of movies, including ‘Year of the Dragon’, ‘The Sicilian‘, and the remake of ‘Desperate Hours‘, all of which were critically panned and box office duds. His final film, 1996’s ‘Sunchaser’, fared so poorly with test audiences that it went direct-to-video in the United States.
Despite its notoriety, ‘Heaven’s Gate’ proved to be quite influential with other filmmakers. Its gritty, revisionist take on the Western genre can be felt especially strongly in the acclaimed HBO series ‘Deadwood’. Over the years, ‘Heaven’s Gate’ has found reappreciation from a number of fans, some of whom have proclaimed it a misunderstood masterpiece. (I don’t think I’d personally go quite that far, but I’ll concede that it has quite a bit of artistic merit buried in the unstructured and meandering plot.) In late 2012, the film was inducted into the Criterion Collection with a new 216-minute Director’s Cut painstakingly supervised by Cimino.
Cimino’s age is most commonly being cited as 77. However, the director was often evasive about his personal life. He’s known to have claimed different birth years at various times, ranging from 1939 to 1952. When ‘The Deer Hunter’ was released, he implied that the story was autobiographical based on his military service in a Green Beret medical unit in Vietnam, but others refuted that he’d ever served in Vietnam. After ‘Heaven’s Gate’, he largely retreated from public view. In later years, he showed up at film festivals with a radically different appearance resulting from obvious plastic surgery that left many speculating that he was transitioning his gender identity to female – claims that Cimino denied.
At the time of this writing, a cause of death has not been publicly announced for the filmmaker. He was found dead by police at his home in Los Angeles after friends reported that they couldn’t reach him.