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Michael Cimino: An appreciation of the late filmmaker

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Even in a town as fickle and faddish as Hollywood, the movie industry has never turned on one of its own as quickly and decisively as it once turned on Michael Cimino. In the span of two short years, the Oscar-winning director of The Deer Hunter, who died Saturday at age 77, went from boundless superstar to bruised and buried scapegoat — a tragic turnaround from which his career behind the camera would never quite recover. Some would say that Cimino only had himself to blame, that it was his ego that doomed his career so shortly after it took flight. But the sad truth is that it may only be now, with his passing, that we’re finally able to appreciate and fully reckon with all of the films he never got to make and that we never got to see.

Cimino came of age as a filmmaker in the 1970s, a decade when bold, rule-breaking, movie-drunk visionaries like Robert Altman, Francis Coppola, Roman Polanski, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and George Lucas were given unprecedented license to make the types of films they wanted to make, the way they wanted to make them. It was one of those seismic moments in movie history when the tectonic plates the industry was built upon seemed to be shifting. The major studios, which were still being run by clubby, old-school waxworks executives, had been caught flat-footed by the ‘60s counterculture. They’d lost the pulse of the times… and they knew it. It terrified them. The gut instincts that once told them what the public wanted before the public even realized it had been replaced by fear and insecurity. So they did the only thing they could do: They loosened their grips. They handed the keys (and their checkbooks) to a hip new generation in tune with the times. And for a while, this arrangement worked out beautifully, leading to a glorious string of timeless, often moody new classics like Nashville, The Godfather, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, Jaws, and Star Wars. Until one day, the arrangement didn’t work out so beautifully anymore. And when that day came, it was Cimino who got the blame. 

But let’s back up a bit…

Cimino entered the movie business through one of its more reputable side doors — as a director of TV commercials. But it was as a screenwriter that he found his earliest success. Although short and slight with the refined aesthetic tastes of a painter, Cimino proved to have a surprisingly intuitive knack for taut, muscular genre films like 1972’s sci-fi epic Silent Running and 1973’s Dirty Harry sequel, Magnum Force (on which he shared credit with the New Hollywood’s resident alpha male, John Milius). That film’s star, Clint Eastwood, saw something special in the young Long Island native — the kind of incandescent spark you want to gamble on — and Eastwood tapped him to write and make his directorial debut on his next film, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot

A classic example of “the kind of movies they don’t make anymore,” Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is part comic buddy movie, part twisty heist flick, part existential lost-America road movie, and every inch a product of the ‘70s. (That’s a compliment, by the way.) Eastwood gets to tap into a rare vein of lightness and play and sensitivity, Jeff Bridges earned his first Oscar nomination as his flaky, vulnerable young criminal sidekick, and the rest of the cast is a who’s who of the decade’s finest “that guy” character actors: George Kennedy, Vic Tayback, Geoffrey Lewis, etc. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot wasn’t the kind of movie that wound up on end-of-the-year critics’ lists, or that people remember very clearly 40 years later, but it did clean up at the box office. As calling cards go, it was an ace. 

Even with the promise that Thunderbolt displayed, no one reasonably expected that Cimino would make such a quantum leap with his second film behind the camera. One of the earliest big-budget studio films to earnestly grapple with the war in Vietnam (this was before Apocalypse Now and Platoon), Cimino’s The Deer Hunter is an epic of ambition, execution, and statement. Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and John Savage costar as three steelworker best friends from blue-collar Pennsylvania who go off to Vietnam and are all indelibly scarred in their own ways. The film was nominated for nine Oscars and won five, including Best Director and Best Picture. The Deer Hunter went up against another searing movie about Vietnam, Hal Ashby’s Coming Home. But the right film won. While both dissect the excruciating and unappreciated toll the war took on soldiers after they came home, it was Cimino’s that opened that story up into something more sweeping — an indictment about how the American Dream had curdled into a nightmare we hadn’t really begun to talk about.

The one time I ever spoke with Cimino, it was for a story about Christopher Walken, the only actor to win an Oscar for The Deer Hunter (De Niro and Meryl Streep were both nominated as well). This was in early 2000. He hadn’t made a film in four years (and would never make another, it turns out). But the voice on the other end of the phone couldn’t have been more generous with his time — or his memories. Shot in Thailand, Deer Hunter climaxes with a famous and haunting Russian roulette scene. Walken’s character is so out of it from his wartime experiences and the drugs he’s taken to forget them that he never went home. Instead, he’s been sucked into an underground world of wagering and vice where he risks his life by pointing a gun to his head, pulling the trigger, and letting fate decide what should happen. He’s so ashen and sweaty and strung out he looks like a half-mad zombie. Walken, it turns out, had to go to some pretty dark places to play those scenes — and thanks to Cimino, he was allowed to.

Cimino said he suggested Walken improvise and spit into De Niro’s face during the scene to get a reaction. Walken didn’t want to do it. “Chris goes, ‘You want me to spit in Bob’s face?!’ But he did it,” Cimino recalled. “Well, Bob almost f—ing… he got so angry he almost got out of the scene. But he knew it was working.” That was just a warm-up. According to Cimino, De Niro wanted to ratchet up the intensity of the Russian roulette scene and asked if he could put a live round in the gun. “We had a whole conference about ‘Okay, we’re gonna do it, but we’re gonna check this thing 5,000 times.’ We went to a lot of extremes on that film.” As a result, The Deer Hunter feels like the kind of story that isn’t being faked or acted or told. It feels like it’s being lived. Cimino was swinging for the fences… and he connected. The next time, he wouldn’t be so lucky.  

Over the past 35 years, Heaven’s Gate has become synonymous with ego run amok. It’s industry-wide shorthand for a fiscal sinkhole of cataclysmic proportions. It’s a cautionary tale of artistic hubris. And it’s also part of Cimino’s legacy. With all of the success of The Deer Hunter, the white-hot writer-director asked for and was given carte blanche on his follow-up — an epic western about homesteaders, ranchers, and U.S. marshals in 1890s Wyoming called Heaven’s Gate. It would become both his and his filmmaking generation’s undoing. As chronicled in Steven Bach’s inside account Final Cut, United Artists greenlit the two-and-a-half month shoot with a budget of $7.5 million. A year later, the budget would be $44 million — a large chunk of which no doubt went to the more than one million feet of film Cimino shot. Buffeted by his Deer Hunter success, the film became a self-destructive act of self-indulgence. Every detail was obsessed over. Each scene was too precious to cut. And by the time they knew what they had, the studio was in so deep they couldn’t turn the spigot off. So they had no choice but to sink or swim with Cimino’s folly. They sank. United Artists was finished. 

When Heaven’s Gate was finally shown to critics, they’d had a year to sharpen their knives. Vincent Canby of The New York Times pulled out a hatchet dipped in schadenfreude and wrote that the film “fails so completely that you might suspect Mr. Cimino sold his soul to the Devil to obtain the success of The Deer Hunter, and the Devil has just come around to collect.” Clocking in at three-and-a-half hours, Heaven’s Gate was shaved down significantly before it was eventually released to the public. But it was still a mess. A gorgeously dreamy-looking one, thanks to Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography, but still a mess. It ended up making less than $4 million at the box office. 

It wasn’t just United Artists that was finished after Heaven’s Gate came out: It also ended the brief reign of the New Hollywood generation. Cimino’s career was essentially over just as it was beginning. Afterwards, he retreated into a sort of spiritual exile from which he’d only occasionally emerge. But the sad truth was, he’d lost his swagger, his confidence. Who wouldn’t have? After all, maybe what we wanted from Cimino was something that was unfair to ask in the first place. Why shouldn’t it be enough that an artist give us one timeless masterpiece? Why do we need two or 10? Cimino would direct four more films during his life (1985’s Year of the Dragon, 1987’s The Sicilian, 1990’s Desperate Hours, and 1996’s Sunchaser). And while some have memorable scenes and performances, none of them are memorable films. Sunchaser, the last and probably least of his movies, made its debut at the Cannes Film Festival. It was as if the French cineastes, to whom idiosyncratic directors are revered as gods, wanted to singlehandedly rehabilitate Cimino’s reputation as an auteur. But there was too little of Cimino’s thunder and light left. Ironically, since then, Heaven’s Gate has undergone a bit of a reappraisal not just abroad, but here as well. I’m not one of the film’s champions, but who knows, with enough time, it may just end up becoming a classic instead of a cautionary tale. Cimino would have found that amusing. He would have agreed with it, too.