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What One Loves about Life Are the Things That Fade: Michael Cimino 1939-2016

Sometimes after coming out of yet another lackluster movie—the kind made without any sort of personal touch or unique vision—I find myself thinking about what I would do if I wound up in the highest corridors of power in the film industry with the ability to make anything that I wanted. Although I have come up with any number of such dream projects in my head over the years, one of my favorites was the notion to bring back controversial filmmaker Michael Cimino, the man who became the toast of Hollywood with only his second directorial effort, the Vietnam epic “The Deer Hunter” (1978) and its ultimate pariah with his third, the Western epic “Heaven’s Gate” (1980), and let him do whatever he wanted. Sure, the results might have outraged or annoyed certain portions of the moviegoing audience, and the financiers might have had coronaries at the thought of letting the man behind one of the industry’s most infamous (and infamously expensive) box-office flops indulge himself once again, but whatever this dream project might have been, it certainly would have been more interesting than the vast majority of what has been passing for filmed entertainment in recent years.

Alas, even if the machinations to give me that sort of power were to somehow occur, that dream officially ended with the announcement of Cimino’s death today at the age of 77 by Thierry Fremaux, the director of the Cannes Film Festival. Since it has been 20 years since the release of his last feature film and nearly a decade since his last directorial effort, a contribution to 2007 anthology feature “To Each His Own Cinema,” the impact of his loss may not be immediately felt, but for those who equate his name with the impact of his admittedly brief artistic output (a mere seven features) rather than the circumstances of his downfall in the industry, his passing should inspire reflection on what proved to be one of the most audacious careers in modern cinema as well as a bit of ruing over the tantalizing projects that wound up never getting made along the way.

Born in New York on February 3, 1939—though some have questioned the veracity of this date, along with other aspects of the personal life that he tended to keep shrouded in as much secrecy as possible—Cimino attended Michigan State University before graduating from Yale in 1961 and receiving his MFA from there two years later for painting. After that, he went into the advertising business and made successful commercials for companies like Pepsi, United Airlines and Kool cigarettes—considering how he would be criticized in later years for the elongated nature of some of his films, it is ironic that he would first achieve success in a medium in which economy of narrative was so important. In 1971, he went to Los Angeles to break into films and began getting work as a screenwriter. He first served as a co-writer of the ecologically-oriented science-fiction hit “Silent Running” (1972) and later did a rewrite on John Milius’ screenplay for “Magnum Force” (1973), the first sequel to the enormously popular Clint Eastwood vehicle “Dirty Harry.”

That film might not have been a profound or powerful work, but it made a lot of money, and, more importantly, those screenplay contributions impressed Eastwood so much that he agreed to star in what would be Cimino’s directorial debut, the action-comedy “Thunderbolt & Lightfoot” (1974). In that film, Eastwood played a legendary bank robber who winds up joining forces with a goofy auto thief (Jeff Bridges) and his former partners (Geoffrey Lewis and George Kennedy), who think that he double-crossed him. Combining violent action with oddball comedy and culminating with an unexpectedly downbeat ending, the film never quite caught on with audiences—those who might have liked the humor stayed away because of the violence and vice versa—but those who did see it tended to like what they saw—Bridges received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor while critics singled out Cimino, who also wrote the screenplay, as someone to look out for in the future.

Cimino was courted by producer Michael Deeley to do some work on “The Man Who Came to Play,” an unproduced screenplay that he owned dealing with people playing Russian roulette in Las Vegas. There are many stories about how this piece eventually became the film that we know as “The Deer Hunter”—Cimino claimed to have rewritten the entire thing himself while credited co-writer Deric Washburn (who collaborated with Cimino on “Silent Running”) said that he did much of the writing only to be unceremoniously fired by Cimino. Whoever did what (the final credits gave Washburn sole screenplay credit and Cimino story credit along with Washburn and the two authors of the original “The Man Who Came to Play”), the results were strong enough to get Cimino the go-ahead to make the film and to bring in a cast that included Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Cazale and the virtually unknown Meryl Streep. Despite the film being a risky project—Vietnam films were considered to be box-office poison back then—Cimino indulged in his penchant for realism at all costs (such as filming the harrowing Vietnam sequences in Thailand instead of in a studio), and by the time shooting wrapped up, he had gone over schedule and nearly doubled the budget in amassing over 600,000 feet of printed film that would finally boil down to a three-hour film that Universal Studios was understandably nervous about distributing. Astonishingly, the gamble paid off as the film went on to become a surprise commercial hit and won five Oscars, including two for Cimino for Best Picture and Director.

It makes some perverse sense, I suppose, that Cimino’s most popular film would turn out to be the one that I find the most difficult to defend. As many critics of the film (and there were many, including Jane Fonda, whose own Vietnam-related film, “Coming Home” was coming out at the same time) remarked at the time, the depiction of the Vietnamese as little more than subhuman savages straight out of an old propaganda movie was somewhat troubling and there was no proof that there was a single documented case of Russian roulette—the game that makes up the film’s central metaphor—being played during the Vietnam War, let alone at the level depicted by Cimino, who rebutted by stating that his movie was not necessarily meant to be literally accurate. Beyond those controversies, there is the inescapable fact that the film is more than a little self-indulgent at times—the much-discussed opening wedding sequence goes on for so long (almost an hour of screen time) that even the most patient of viewers may find themselves wishing that they were at a real wedding instead. And yet, while I seriously dislike this particular film, I cannot deny that there is a special power to it—it has the kind of epic and novelistic sweep that few American films other than the “Godfather” movies and “Nashville” were attempting at the time and Cimino proved to be equally good at getting performances out of his actors (including Walken, who would win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his haunted portrayal of the one who survived Vietnam physically but not mentally) as he was in creating big and showy moments that simply overwhelmed viewers.

At that point, Cimino was in the rarefied position in which he could essentially do anything that he wanted as his next project and decided to use that to take a screenplay that he wrote back in 1971, a historical Western titled “The Johnson County War.” Loosely based on the 1890’s skirmish of the same name between European settlers and the American land barons driven to violent measures to claim their lands for themselves, the project was shelved back in the day for not being able to attract big stars, but at this point Cimino was the star, and he was able to convince United Artists, a studio that was reeling from the recent defection of five top executives and needing to demonstrate to the industry that it was still a player, to give him a cast including Kris Kristofferson, Isabelle Huppert (then a complete unknown to American audiences) and Walken, an initial budget of $11.5 million and complete control over everything to bring it to the screen under the new title of “Heaven’s Gate.” What happened next is now Hollywood legend and if you do not already know the story, you should read “Final Cut,” a blow-by-blow account of its production and ultimate reception by then-studio executive Steven Bach that pulls few punches in showing how the combination of an out-of-control production and a corporate mindset that had no real idea of how to deal with artistic types could lead to the kind of disaster that occurred here. Suffice it to say, the film was such an enormous critical and commercial failure that it was pulled from release after a week and recut from nearly four hours to two and a half, and when that shorter version failed to inspire any interest, certainly not enough to recoup the then-record-breaking $36 million price tag, the studio itself went actually went under and was eventually bought up by MGM.

As I said, read “Final Cut,” because while it does have an undeniably anti-Cimino perspective, it remains one of the most fascinating and compulsive readable books about the eternal struggle in Hollywood between art and commerce. At the same time, you should also watch “Heaven’s Gate” as well because, despite all the rumors and scandals and reports of megalomania, not to mention the massive overruns regarding the schedule and the budget directly tied into Cimino’s always-expanding artistic vision, the final film is, quite simply, a masterpiece. Cimino may have been vilified for his profligate ways but one cannot say that the money isn’t up there on the screen—shooting on location in Montana and Idaho and inspired by period photographs, Cimino, cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and the army of technicians deployed created a film that, with the possible exception of “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” has an authenticity to it that puts most other movies of its genre to shame. It is also a film that is as grandiose in its dramatic ambitions as it is in its purely cinematic ones. Cimino presents a view of a cherished part of the collective American experience that is distinctly at odds with how the textbooks have chosen to depict it and, lest anyone think that it is merely a dusty bit of history with nothing to say, the angry story it tells about the tensions between the haves and have-nots boiling over into violence and intolerance arguably feels even more timely and relevant today than it did when it was first released. The film also contains moments of such sheer beauty that they practically take your breath away—there is one extended sequence featuring a group of immigrants celebrating at a roller rink that runs on for about 10 minutes or so and while it adds little to the drama, it is so formally ravishing that I cannot imagine it existing without it.

Although “Heaven’s Gate” would undergo a much-deserved critical rehabilitation in subsequent years, it made Cimino persona non grata in the industry. And while his name would occasionally crop up in conjunction with projects from time to time—including unproduced biopics on Frank Costello and Legs Diamond and such eventually realized (by others) titles as “The Pope of Greenwich Village” and, inexplicably, “Footloose” (the mind reels)—it would be five years before Cimino returned to the director’s chair with “Year of the Dragon,” a crime drama that was adapted from the Robert Daley novel by Cimino and Oliver Stone. In it, Mickey Rourke plays Stanley White, a highly decorated police captain who makes it his personal mission to break up organized crime in New York’s Chinatown district, specifically the organization belonging to the outwardly charming and inwardly ruthless triad leader Joey Tai (John Lone). The battle between the two of them escalates rapidly with many people caught in the crossfire (including both White’s wife and his news reporter mistress) until the startling last scene in which the two, having pretty much destroyed everything they had, end up charging at each other on a dark railroad bridge while wildly firing their guns in a final gasp of misguided machismo.

Although Cimino brought the film in on time and on budget, much of that possible goodwill was overwhelmed by charges that the film’s depiction of the Asian community was racist, eventually leading to a disclaimer being added to the beginning of the film. Though the film did get some decent reviews, not even the controversy was enough to bring people into the theaters and it died quickly. Cimino manages an effective balance between the over-the-top action beats (there is a restaurant shootout so elaborate that if you are watching it on DVD, you immediately want to watch it again the moment it concludes) and the quieter moments showing life in Chinatown. And Rourke goes so all-out in his performance that you cannot help but find his character intriguing despite his general loathsomeness.

Alas, that would prove to be Cimino’s last great directorial statement. “The Sicilian” (1987) was an adaptation of the Mario Puzo novel about famed Sicilian bandit Salvatore Giuliano and his efforts to liberate his homeland and make it a part of America in the 1950s. It ended in a dustup with producers over the running time that led to it being recut by others before bombing in theaters. “Desperate Hours” (1990) was a remake of the 1955 Humphrey Bogart crime film of the same name that featured Mickey Rourke and Anthony Hopkins that just simply did not come together, though Rourke’s performance does offer up a few live-wire moments. “Sunchaser” (1996), a sort-of road movie in which a 16-year-old juvenile offender (Jon Seda) dying of abdominal cancer kidnaps his oncologist (Woody Harrelson) and forces him to drive them to a sacred Navajo mountain lake in Arizona, had moments of real style that were unfortunately linked to a clunky screenplay and the film went almost directly to video.

And then, nothing. Although there were occasional rumors about film and even stranger ones about his personal life, there were no more films from him. He moved to France and wrote a couple of books, “Big Jane” (2001) and “Conversations en miroir” (2003). His adopted country celebrated his work by awarding him the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres and the Prix Litteraire Deauville in 2001. Meanwhile, despite the slowly growing reappraisal of “Heaven’s Gate” in America, he was never able to put another project together. From a financial standpoint, that was no doubt prudent but considering how many terrible and financially disastrous films that have come out in recent years by people who are nevertheless allowed to continue working in the industry, the refusal to give him another chance is a little sad. However, think of what might have resulted if someone had taken the risk and given him another chance—after all, no one ever claimed that he didn’t have talent. (If he didn’t, he would have been content to play it safe throughout his career in order to keep on working.) With the passing of Michael Cimino, an era has truly come to an end. Film would not be the same without him.

Peter Sobczynski

A moderately insightful critic, full-on Swiftie and all-around bon vivant, Peter Sobczynski, in addition to his work at this site, is also a contributor to The Spool and can be heard weekly discussing new Blu-Ray releases on the Movie Madness podcast on the Now Playing network.

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