Was there ever a greater “failure” in Hollywood than writer/director Michael Cimino? The late filmmaker’s very name is synonymous with bloated budgets, megalomania, and extraordinary hubris. But before the debacle of Heaven’s Gate, Cimino was the American movie industry’s golden boy. Born in New York, Cimino graduated from Yale University in 1963, and eventually found success as a screenwriter, co-penning the unconventional sci-fi flick, Silent Running, for director Douglas Trumbull, and the second Dirty Harry thriller, Magnum Force. Clint Eastwood then picked up Cimino’s spec script for the heist comedy, Thunderbolt And Lightfoot, with the intention of directing it himself. But Cimino, ever a decisive and cocky presence, twisted the superstar’s arm, and ended up in the director’s chair himself for the 1974 film. A considerable hit, Thunderbolt And Lightfoot’s – one of Eastwood’s best and most underrated star vehicles – box office success was Cimino’s ticket to a much bigger league.
A hot talent on the back of the film, the thirty-something director was given a much bigger canvas to work on with The Deer Hunter, an epic tale of friendship, responsibility and the horrors of Vietnam. Alternatively haunting, funny and horrifically violent, the film tracked a group of Pennsylvania mining buddies (played beautifully by Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Savage, and the late George Dzundza and John Cazale) and their experiences before, during and after the war. Deservedly showered with critical praise, The Deer Hunter is one of the keynote films of the seventies and marked the arrival of a bravura filmmaker. Though long and confronting, the film became a massive commercial success, and won a fistful of Oscars, including Best Supporting Actor, Best Director and Best Picture. The film still stands as a bona fide classic.
If Cimino was hot after Thunderbolt And Lightfoot, he was absolutely on fire following The Deer Hunter. Desperate to stay tight with this talent-on-the-rise, United Artists gave Cimino carte blanche to make the 1980 epic, Heaven’s Gate, a highly unusual western that defied simple categorisation. Extensively detailed in Steven Bach’s seminal behind-the-scenes book, Final Cut, Cimino went ludicrously over budget and created a film so idiosyncratic that there was no way United Artists could ever have made a profit. The exorbitantly long film was then hacked up by the studio and released into cinemas to almost uniform derision.
Heaven’s Gate was a financial disaster that nearly bankrupted the studio, and was held up as an example of the supposed “auteur mania” that was apparently crippling the industry. Film directors – who in the seventies had become like rock stars – were seen to be getting out of control by their studio bosses, and the dismal failure of Heaven’s Gate prompted the end of the party for the so-called Hollywood renaissance. But while the film is over-long, depressing and occasionally incomprehensible, it’s also strangely absorbing. The cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond is stunning, and some of the set pieces are absolutely breathtaking. The characters are also vividly realised, particularly Kris Kristofferson’s upright lawman and Christopher Walken’s cerebral, haunted gunman, while future big names, Willem Dafoe and Mickey Rourke, can be seen in small roles. Heaven’s Gate is no masterpiece, but it’s not cinematic torture either, and the film has enjoyed a major re-appraisal, with a re-release through boutique DVD label, Criterion. “It was really a great trauma, as everyone knows,” Cimino told People Magazine in 1996. “Since then, I’ve been unable to make any movie that I’ve wanted to make. I’ve been making the best of what is available.”
Making the best of what was available meant taking a “director for hire” gig on the teen dance flick, Footloose, but Cimino once again made major budgetary and production demands, and was dropped from the film, to be replaced by veteran Herbert Ross. After the nightmare of Heaven’s Gate, Cimino had blown this second chance, and from then on, he was persona non grata in Hollywood: the keys to the kingdom were taken away, and Michael Cimino was thrown into the wilderness of independent financing, foreign distribution deals, and budgetary constraints. But Cimino proved resilient, and returned in 1985 with the big, bold, beautifully orchestrated crime epic, Year Of The Dragon; though it failed to truly ignite at the box office, this crackling ball-tearer of a film – about a New York cop waging violent war on the Chinese mob – remains a cult favourite.
Most importantly, Cimino found a vocal champion in the film’s star, Mickey Rourke, who backed the director right to the end. “There were a lot of people that blamed Michael for the fall of [Hollywood studio] United Artists because of Heaven’s Gate,” Rourke told FilmInk in 2008. “He did a fine movie with Year Of The Dragon, but people started to jump on it, and said that we made a racist movie. That wasn’t our intention. I remember a press conference in Paris – we did 78 interviews in two days – and all of it was about defending Michael. I’ve never seen such hatred for one man…the hatred that they have for him in New York…I will never talk to any of them [the critics] again; what they’ve done to Michael is unforgivable. He’s a very passionate, committed director. He prepares the movie for a year-and-a-half. He knew everything about the Chinese, the gangs, the tongs. I’ve never had an experience as wonderful as my relationship with him. He gets more involved with certain overall choices for the actor. He has the picture in his head. You can’t look up in the sky and think about saying your lines. You gotta know your lines. Loyalty for me is number one. Loyally, respect, honour…those are the things that are very important to me. I don’t think I went out on a limb supporting Michael Cimino. I felt like I was speaking the truth.”
Michael Cimino’s next three films – the overblown mafia flick, The Sicilian (1987), the Mickey Rourke-starring crime remake, Desperate Hours (1990), and the metaphysical drama, The Sunchaser (1996) – all had their moments, but failed at the box office. Like so many creative pariahs before him, Cimino left the US for France, and published his first novel, Big Jane, in 2001. Though rumours about the filmmaker would abound for many years, Michael Cimino would never make another feature, with his final credit being a segment in the 2007 portmanteau film, To Each His Own Cinema. “If you don’t get it right, what’s the point?” Cimino once asked, and they’re words that could go on the tombstone of this visionary perfectionist, whose filmography remains far more impressive than most would give him credit for…