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Michael Cimino, ‘Deer Hunter’ and ‘Heaven’s Gate’ Director, Dies at 77

Michael Cimino, who won Oscars as director and a producer of “The Deer Hunter” before “Heaven’s Gate” destroyed his career and sped up the demise of 60-year-old United Artists, has died. He was 77.  Friends called the police when they couldn’t reach him and he was found dead Saturday at his Los Angeles home. Cause of death has not yet been determined.

Cannes Film Festival director Thierry Fremaux tweeted the news Saturday, writing that he died in peace surrounded by those close to him and the two women who loved him. “We loved him too,” wrote Fremaux.

His birthday is usually cited as Feb. 3, 1939, though many facts about Cimino’s life, including his birthdate, were shrouded in conflicting information. 

Cimino directed eight films in his career. His first was 1974’s “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot”; his second was the 1978 Vietnam War masterpiece “The Deer Hunter,” which won five Academy Awards, including best picture and director; his third was 1980’s “Heaven’s Gate,” the film that became synonymous with showbiz disaster; and the rest were mostly footnotes, though some (like “Year of the Dragon”) have passionate fans.

In a statement Saturday, Robert De Niro said, “Our work together is something I will always remember. He will be missed.”

Directors Guild of America president Paris Barclay also issued a statement on the news late on Saturday: “With his visionary approach and attention to every detail, Michael Cimino is forever etched in the history of filmmaking. In his most iconic work, the DGA and Academy Award-winning film ‘The Deer Hunter,’ Michael captured the horrors of war through a personalized lens – captivating a nation in the process.”

The rise and fall of Cimino is so extreme that it would undoubtedly make for a great book, miniseries or opera. But it may not make a good film: It would require too big a budget, and the plot would be too complex. His career is a cautionary tale for Hollywood, about the eternal conflict between artistry and finance, with side battles between creative people and the media.

When Cimino pacted with Universal and EMI for the 1978 “The Deer Hunter,” he had only two screenplay credits (including “Silent Running”), plus the one film he wrote and directed. “Hunter” ran behind schedule and over budget, but proved a big profit-maker, earning $48 million on a $15 million budget. It was nominated for nine Oscars and won five — including director for Cimino and picture (another statuette for Cimino as one of the four winning producers).

Based on its success, United Artists signed him for “Heaven’s Gate,” a Western based on the Johnson County Wars. Since its founding in 1919, UA had a long tradition of giving creative freedom to filmmakers, from Charlie Chaplin to Billy Wilder to Woody Allen. In 1978, a new United Artists team was in place, after top execs like Arthur Krim battled with parent company Transamerica and defected to form Orion Pictures.

The new team at UA were eager for a big hit and Cimino seemed just the ticket. So they contractually gave him control over the production. The French New Wave in the early 1960s had anointed directors as auteurs, and the 1970s, after “Easy Rider,” saw many successful films from maverick filmmakers. So, the UA execs figured, what could possibly go wrong?

“Heaven’s Gate” started filming in April 1979 and wrapped 11 months later, in March 1980. In his book “Final Cut,” Steven Bach, who was a UA exec at the time, said the film was greenlit for $7.5 million but eventually budgeted at $11.5 million. It ended up costing $35.1 million, with another $9 million for marketing, leading to a $44 million writedown for UA. After the film, Cimino directed only four more features, ending with the 1996 “Sunchaser.” He always avoided questions about “Heaven’s Gate,” except to label Bach’s book “a work of fiction.”

Cimino was born in New York City and raised in Long Island; his father was a music publisher, his mother a costume designer. He went to Michigan State, graduated from Yale in 1961 and got an MFA there in 1963, both in painting. He directed TV commercials for United Airlines, Kool cigarettes and Pepsi, among others.

He moved to L.A. in 1971 and was repped by Stan Kamen at William Morris. He got gigs as a co-writer of the ecological science fiction film “Silent Running,” starring Bruce Dern, and the 1973 “Magnum Force,” the second “Dirty Harry” film. Eastwood was impressed, and gave Cimino his big break by agreeing to star in Cimino’s directing debut, the 1974 “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot.” The film was a box office hit and gained an Oscar nomination for supporting actor Jeff Bridges.

Director Michael Cimino, left, talks with actor Robert De Niro, wearing beret, during a break in filming of “The Deer Hunter” on location in Bangkok, Thailand, Sept. 11, 1977.(AP Photo/Neal Ulevich)

His second work, 1978’s “The Deer Hunter,” was the right movie at the right time. Though the Vietnam War was a daily presence on American TV, the studios generally avoided the topic on the bigscreen until long after the last troops had withdrawn in 1973. Cimino’s film was a three-hour-plus look at events on the battlefield and the home front, a gritty, grim study with excellent, Oscar-nominated performances by Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep (her first) and supporting actor Christopher Walken, who won. The film also won for editing and sound.

When “Deer Hunter” was released, Cimino implied in various interviews that the story (credited to him and three other scribes) was autobiographical, or else based on tales he heard when he was part of a 1968 Green Beret medical unit in Vietnam. Others refuted both versions, saying Cimino was never in Vietnam and his military experience was limited to six months in the reserves. Other details of Cimino’s life were subject to scrutiny, criticism and re-evaluation, including his age and even his gender identity. He variously listed the year of his birth as 1939, 1943 and 1952, sometimes shifting the month.

Almost from the beginning, “Heaven’s Gate” was the subject of criticism and speculation. Cimino was such a perfectionist that Hollywood told tales of him halting filming so an outdoor set could be rebuilt to have a wider sidewalk, and waiting endlessly for the clouds to create the right formation before filming. The story, possibly apocryphal, was that on the sixth day of shooting, it was already five days behind schedule. Aside from complaints of  self-indulgence, there were claims of animal cruelty.

At various times, United Artists execs considered firing him (but relented, fearing a backlash and citing the actors’ support of him) or  pulling the plug. But they were impressed with the footage — “as if David Lean were directing a Western,” the execs said of what they’d seen. Plus, they didn’t want a huge writedown with nothing to show for it, so the film was completed.

In the next few years, there were four cuts of the film, of varying lengths. Three months after wrapping, Cimino had a print that ran 325 minutes (i.e., five hours, 25 minutes), with Cimino announcing that it needed to lose 15 minutes. However, it was trimmed to 219 minutes by the time it premiered in New York on Nov. 19, 1980. The audience and critical reaction were negative, so UA pulled the film and re-released it in April 1981 at 149 minutes. It earned less than $4 million.

United Artists was sold to Kirk Kerkorian and MGM; at a Cannes screening of “Heaven’s Gate,” Cimino denied that his film was responsible. UA honcho Norbert Auerbach said tactfully that if the film didn’t force previous owner Transamerica to exit show business, “Heaven’s Gate” certainly didn’t discourage that move. The company never regained its stature.

In 1985 Bach, who was senior VP and head of worldwide production for UA at the time, wrote “Final Cut,” a withering account of the film. Bach cited studio execs, including himself, for culpability, and questioned how artists are expected to learn “discipline and responsibility” in an age of conglomerates. He notes that it was a time of turbulence in the film biz, and within three years of “Heaven’s Gate,” every major company changed management. But Bach clearly portrays Cimino as the villain, for giving priority to his artistic vision over budget considerations, and for his refusal to deal with studio executives.

Over the years, the film has been re-evaluated several times, with either positive or rapturous reception. A new director’s cut, running 216 minutes, debuted in fall 2012 at the Venice Film Festival.

Although he directed a few films in the decades after “Heaven’s Gate,” Cimino kept a low profile, and plastic surgery made him almost unrecognizable. He resurfaced at the Cannes Film Festival for a screening of his 1996 film “Sunchaser.” He appeared at Cannes again in 2007 for his final film venture, a three-minute contribution to the multi-director anthology “Chacun son gout.” He obliquely addressed the rumor that he was transitioning into a woman, saying there were many false rumors about him, part of a “personal assassination”; he said if a detractor wants to prevent a person from working, the next best thing is to “destroy them personally.”

Cimino circled many projects that never came to fruition, including a life of Dostoevsky developed with Raymond Carver; adaptations of “Crime and Punishment,” Truman Capote’s “Handcarved Coffins,” Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead” and Andre Malraux’s “Man’s Fate”; and bios of Janis Joplin, Legs Diamond and Mafia boss Frank Costello. He also circled many projects eventually directed by others, including “The Bounty,” “Footloose,” “The Pope of Greenwich Village” and “Born on the Fourth of July.”

He wrote a 2001 novel, “Big Jane” and two years later collaborated with Francesca Pollock on the book “Conversations en miroir.”

He had no survivors.

 

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