Steven Bach, the United Artists exec who took the fall for the disastrous “Heaven’s Gate” and wrote “Final Cut: Dreams and Disaster in the Making of ‘Heaven’s Gate’ ” about the film, died of lung cancer March 25 in Arlington, Vt. He was 70.
As senior VP of worldwide production at UA starting in 1978, Bach shepherded influential films such as “Raging Bull,” “Manhattan,” “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” and “True Confessions.” But his string of money-makers and prestige items came to a screeching halt when he presided over the making of the epic 1980 Western “Heaven’s Gate,” directed by Michael Cimino.
Cimino was fresh off his 1978 success “The Deer Hunter,” which won five Academy Awards, including best picture. Under the perfectionist director — who sometimes staged complicated sequences, but refused to print the take because he didn’t like the clouds, the budget for “Heavens Gate” skyrocketed from a modest $7.5 million to anywhere from $36 million to $44 million, depending on the report.
That was an astonishing sum for the time, and critics inevitably zeroed in on the budget in their overwhelmingly negative reviews of the 3½-hour film. The title became synonymous with Hollywood excess, and the pic grossed only $2 million at the box office.
Bach was then fired from his UA post.
A recut, much shorter version was released, and that did no better at the boxoffice and it’s only in recent years that the film has been re-evaluated, with some film scholars praising it as under-appreciated.
Bach’s examination of the effect of the film’s failure led to changes throughout the entertainment industry. “Within three years of the ‘Heaven’s Gate’ debacle, the management of every major company in the motion-picture industry had changed,” he wrote in the 1985 “Final Cut,” which became a classic insider look at the movie business.
In 2001, Bach wrote a biography of Moss Hart, which prompted Variety to revisit the exec’s career: “Bach was fired on a Monday. On Friday, UA was sold to MGM. Soon after UA’s demise, Bach formed a partnership with director Richard Lester. They began putting together financing for several films, which they hoped to make in Munich using German tax money. But a change in German tax laws eventually scuppered those plans. Bach subsequently built a career around writing and teaching.”
Born in Pocatello, Idaho, Bach studied at the Sorbonne and graduated Northwestern U.
He earned a doctorate of film at USC before becoming a story editor for Palomar Pictures, which produced “Sleuth” and “The Heartbreak Kid.” He then worked on the production of films including “The Parallax View,” “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three’ and “Mr. Billion” through his partnership in Pantheon Pictures, which also produced Broadway plays.
His other books included bios of Marlene Dietrich and Leni Riefenstahl. He also taught in the film program at Columbia U. and for the past 10 years at Bennington College.
He is survived by his companion, Werner Rohr.