Critic's Notebook: Michael Cimino, a Comet that Blazed Brightly, Briefly

Universal Pictures/Photofest
Michael Cimino (left) with Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep on the set of 'The Deer Hunter.'

The writer-director of 'The Deer Hunter' and 'Heaven's Gate' hit a dazzling early career peak before his long decline into elusive, reclusive, eccentric behavior.

Beyond a certain level, blazing early success can cause more damage than failure. And so it arguably proved with Michael Cimino, a former leading light of the New Hollywood "movie brat" generation, who died Saturday at 77. A sometime novelist and thwarted architect who often expressed regret about his detour into the "insane" world of moviemaking, Cimino built his Oscar-winning career on grand-scale myth-making, often about himself. He leaves behind a slender but fascinating body of films, though his later years were marred by self-sabotage and stalled projects.

After cutting his teeth directing commercials for Madison Avenue, Cimino moved to Hollywood in the early 1970s with ambitions to become a screenwriter. A script credit on the second Dirty Harry movie, Magnum Force (1973), introduced him to Clint Eastwood, who remained a loyal friend for the next 40 years. "He's responsible for my career," Cimino told The Hollywood Reporter last year, in one of his rare and final interviews. "I wouldn't even be talking to you were it not for Clint."

Eastwood was certainly responsible for Cimino's feature debut, the rollicking 1974 road movie Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. Initially intending to take the reins himself, Eastwood ultimately agreed to give this cocky young aspiring auteur a shot at directing him and a young Jeff Bridges as ill-matched partners in crime embarking on a bank-heist spree under the big skies of Montana. Profane, funny and irreverent, the film was a box-office success, opening doors for its young writer-director.

In 1978, Cimino leveraged this newly bankable reputation by making the closest thing to a masterpiece in his canon, The Deer Hunter. One of the first major U.S. features to grapple with the still-raw taboo of the Vietnam War, this fable-like epic follows a cohort of blue-collar Russian-Americans from their dying Pennsylvania steel-mill town to the bloody battlefields of southeast Asia.

Featuring a stellar ensemble cast led by Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, John Cazale, Christopher Walken and John Savage, The Deer Hunter is a lyrical fable about friendship and community as much as it is about Vietnam specifically. The drama's bold, sprawling centerpiece is a riotous 50-minute wedding scene that signals Cimino's audacious disregard for conventional dramatic pace and structure. It comes as no surprise that Quentin Tarantino is a fan.

The Deer Hunter triggered an angry backlash against its apparently hawkish political message, its allegedly racist depiction of North Vietnamese characters and its climactic Russian-roulette scenes, which veterans and scholars insisted had no basis in reality. But Cimino was typically bullish in defending his film, shamelessly claiming in The New York Times that he had been "attached to a Green Beret medical unit" during the Tet Offensive of 1968. Not quite true, but this mythic spin helped the film scoop five Academy Awards, including best picture and director honors. This novelistic epic still stands as Cimino's career peak, a critical and commercial smash which opened the gates for a flood of anguished Vietnam War movies.

As a reward for The Deer Hunter, United Artists handed the young Oscar-winner $11.6 million and a carte blanche creative slate. The result was Heaven's Gate, a sumptuously mounted 1980 historical Western about warring cattle barons and settlers on the plains of Wyoming. Largely shot on location in a purpose-built Montana frontier town, the film came in more than three times over budget and over five hours long, chiefly because Cimino insisted on painstaking accuracy in every detail.

"In the days of the studios, they trained their actors to ride horses, to do fencing, to do boxing, to do all sorts of things, but we had to take the place of a studio," Cimino recalled to THR last year. "You couldn't make Heaven's Gate today, even were you to quadruple the resources to make the movie, you couldn't make it because the people don't exist."

United Artists slashed Cimino's cut of Heaven's Gate down into two disjointed shorter edits, finally allowing a limited release to almost universally hostile reviews. The film's epochal failure had a fin-de-siecle feel, almost bankrupting a studio and bringing down the curtain on the "New Hollywood" era of personalized, director-driven projects. That chapter also yielded one of the most uniquely fascinating micro accounts of a Hollywood flop ever written in the 1985 book Final Cut: Dreams and Disaster in the Making of Heaven's Gate, the Film That Sank United Artists, by former UA senior vp and head of worldwide productions Stephen Bach.

In fairness, the movie has since been restored and reissued in Cimino's original symphonic version, regaining a reputation as a lost classic. Almost four decades later, Heaven's Gate is undoubtedly an admirably ambitious and sumptuous sensory experience, but its ungainly mass of plot and character continues to divide critics.

Forever tainted by Heaven's Gate, Cimino's later directing credits became increasingly scarce as his critical and commercial stock declined. That said, his Mickey Rourke-starring cop thriller Year of the Dragon (1985) remains a guilty-pleasure exercise in superior '80s pulp, despite earning fresh accusations of racism toward its Chinese characters. Cimino was briefly attached to direct both The Godfather III and Footloose, but both fell through. Among his dozens of unrealized projects were long-cherished screen adaptations of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead and Andre Malraux's historical war novel Man's Fate.

Cimino's final full-length feature, Sunchaser (1996), is a wayward road movie starring Woody Harrelson as a strait-laced Los Angeles medic abducted by one of his patients. This botched exercise in magic realism was a resounding flop, bypassing theatrical release altogether, yet it is still an intriguing swan song statement from a single-minded auteur who maintained his unorthodox vision to the end.

In his later years, Cimino's reputation took a bizarre turn. Friend and frequent collaborator Rourke claimed the director "snapped" some time during Sunchaser. The film's editor Joe D'Augustine recalled an eerie encounter with Cimino in a darkened edit suite, his face covered, voice hushed. Like some kind of Michael Jackson figure, he shunned cameras and interviews for years. Rare photos showed his face was unrecognizable after cosmetic surgery, for a time stoking gossip that he had undergone gender reassignment. In his THR interview last year, Cimino angrily denied those rumors as "personal assassination."

Cimino's paranoid, reclusive nature may have denied him the kind of robust third-act resurgence currently being enjoyed by contemporaries like Terrence Malick and Martin Scorsese, but his reputation as a control freak hardly helped his case either. His former producer Michael Deeley once accused Cimino of "ruthless self-indulgence combined with a total disregard for the terms in which the production has been set."

In recent years, Cimino's rare appearances at European film festivals (notably Venice in 2012, where he accepted a career honor) certainly revealed a man with a forceful ego, an enduring distaste for critics and a flair for bending large crowds to his will. In other words, he was a movie director to his dying breath. The sad irony is those same uncompromising personality traits that helped him to make such great films probably also prevented him from making more of them.

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