Galloway on Film: How Michael Cimino Joined the Ranks of Hollywood's Great Failures

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Michael Cimino

Even the greatest successes know what it means to fail. Just ask Amy Pascal, Mel Gibson and Jim Gianopulos.

The 51st Academy Awards set up a battle not just between two films but also between two ideologies.

The year was 1979, and for the first time since the end of the Vietnam War, Hollywood was tackling that conflict with radically different portrayals. One was a seemingly jingoistic epic that followed three men in and out of combat, the other an intense personal drama about a military officer’s wife who falls in love with a paraplegic veteran.

The latter was Coming Home, the former The Deer Hunter, and these two pictures (released respectively in February and December 1978) seemed to embody the intellectual debate about the war that was still raging in the late 1970s.

Both were exquisitely made and exceptionally well-acted. (Jane Fonda, Jon Voight and Bruce Dern top-lined Coming Home; Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and Meryl Streep were among the ensemble in The Deer Hunter.) But nobody who wagged a political finger had the least doubt about where he or she stood regarding each one.

Conservatives slammed Coming Home as the latest salvo from “Hanoi Jane”; liberals were repulsed by the way The Deer Hunter fabricated its most explosive contention that the Viet Cong indulged in games of Russian roulette with American servicemen. They were just as livid that the movie’s writer-director, a hitherto little-known filmmaker named Michael Cimino, then 40 years old, implied he had served in Vietnam, when his main service had been to the entertainment industry.

But in those days, the movie world was less liberal than it is today and The Deer Hunter emerged as the big winner on the night of April 9, when Cimino was named best director and his movie best picture.

He left the Oscars with two statuettes and an original screenplay nomination. He would never have it so good again. There's a whole group of Hollywood insiders today who know exactly how that feels. Just ask Amy Pascal and Jim Gianopulos and Mel Gibson — anyone who's fallen from grace knows the feeling, right or wrong.

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Even as Cimino was collecting his awards, he was sowing the seeds for his own destruction with Heaven’s Gate, the 1980 western whose budget spiraled so out of control that an entire studio (United Artists) was brought to its knees.

When the film was savaged by critics and died at the box office, so did Cimino’s career. True, several years later Hollywood cracked open its door just wide enough for him to slip through it and make four more features, but in the two decades leading to his death on July 2 at age 77, he never directed another movie.

Rather than an Oscar-winning director, he was considered an emblem of failure.

Failure has its own strange fascination for Hollywood people.

Men and women who reach the top are almost expected to tumble, and if it’s at their own hands so much the better. There’s no business like the movie business when it comes to embracing schadenfreude.

Billy Wilder, in his older and more dyspeptic days, reportedly quipped: “It’s not enough to succeed. Your best friend must fail.” Or maybe it wasn’t Billy Wilder: Go online and you can find that quote attributed to almost everyone from Gore Vidal to Somerset Maugham to the Duc de la Rochefoucauld to Genghis Khan — which gives you some idea of how enticing the notion is.

And yet people who might be lauded for their achievements anywhere else are shunned here once they fall from grace — or if not shunned, at least shunted aside, as if they were carriers of some artistic Zika virus that might infect anyone impregnated with a germ of talent or drive.

You can go all the way back to D.W Griffith, the silent-era master whose Birth of a Nation (1915) was reportedly described by President Woodrow Wilson as “writing history with lighting,” to see that. After his ultra-expensive Intolerance (1916) flopped and his later efforts failed to match his earlier ones, Griffith couldn’t get a gig.

As far as the “talkies” were concerned, the greatest director in early Hollywood history had crashed and burned.

His contemporary, Erich von Stroheim (1922’s Foolish Wives, 1924’s Greed), fared no better. Once he ran afoul of MGM’s Irving Thalberg and his well placed allies, the master director was unable to get behind a camera and spent the last three decades of his life having to take acting roles in movies he largely despised. So what if they included two of the best films ever made (1937’s The Grand Illusion and 1950’s Sunset Boulevard)? They were still just bread-and-butter as far as Stroheim was concerned. He forever referred to his most famous part, in Sunset Boulevard — directed by Billy Wilder, no less — as “that goddamned butler role.”

Orson Welles, of course, was the very quintessence of the Great Failure, and nothing he ever did came close to 1941’s Citizen Kane, though he also made such towering films as 1942’s The Magnificent Ambersons, 1958’s Touch of Evil and 1965’s Chimes at Midnight.

Welles was one of the most influential artists of the last century, but he had to scratch and scramble to find the money for his films, and the stench of failure clung to him even as Hollywood insiders were paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy the Citizen Kane sled at auction.

I remember seeing him from time to time when I first came to Los Angeles in the 1980s. He was almost always lunching at the then in-spot, Ma Maison, positioned at a front table where he could scan everyone and anyone, chatting to a few, but by and large a solitary figure.

Failure is lonely. Even when you haven’t failed at all.

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Hollywood hasn’t changed.

The nattering nabobs pounced on Amy Pascal after the Sony chairman’s emails were leaked in the 2014 hack, and the subsequent brouhaha (along with Sony’s weak performance at the box office) led to her firing last year, when her executive career appeared to have ended in failure.

But did it? Pascal had one of the longest-running reigns as a studio head in modern history and stamped Sony with her own particular vision — a vision that was filmmaker- and talent-friendly. She loved movies with a passion few executives share.

She was an idealist in an era that over-valued pragmatism, one who was prepared to take risks on the material she believed in, even when others were figuring out new and better ways to work their algorithms. That’s no mean thing at a time when executives marvel at the beauty of P&Ls more often than great scripts, and when the studios are almost all subsidiaries of conglomerates that are driven by a single concern: the quarterly report.

After her fall, Pascal disappeared for a while. You could barely spot her in the watering holes favored by the A-list. Perhaps she was wary of being too visible, or perhaps she disliked the idea of running into the very people whose careers she had once launched. This weekend, as I’m writing this column, some of my friends are off to see Ghostbusters, the fruit of her new career as a producer. I hope it does well.

Pascal put a human face on a bland corporation and clung to the belief that film mattered desperately. She’s worth a few cheers.

So is another fallen Hollywood prince, Mel Gibson.

Before his career was mowed down by his anti-Semitic (and anti-girlfriend) rants, he’d starred in such pictures as Mad Max and The Year of Living Dangerously and Lethal Weapon. He also proved to be a remarkable director. Whether or not you’re a fan of Braveheart or The Passion of the Christ or Apocalypto, it’s hard to argue that this isn’t a memorable body of work.

The very demons that drove him to some sort of self-destruction also fueled his art, giving it a stamp that you can’t find in the work of most cookie-cutter directors. And yet that was entirely overlooked when his tirades made headlines.

Now he’s set to make a comeback, if word about his new movie, Hacksaw Ridge (out in November), is anything to go by. There’s even talk of a Passion sequel. Maybe F. Scott Fitzgerald was wrong and there are second acts in American lives, after all — but if so, they’re rare.

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Few understood that as fully, and perhaps as painfully, as Cimino. And yet, looking back, his work seems better than ever. A brief poll of critics at this publication last week found all of them singing even Heaven’s Gate’s praises.

When Deer Hunter was first released, its politics seemed outrageous to anyone on the left side of the political spectrum. It wasn’t just that all the Viet Cong were barbaric, but also that the picture ended with a paean to nationalism, when a gathering of family and friends hum and spontaneously begin to sing America the Beautiful. Its apparent ideology certainly didn’t help Cimino return to favor in his later years.

How different the movie seems today. The ending now seems like a monument to ambiguity, a coda that is both a celebration of what it means to be American and a questioning of it. Even in the 1970s, an age of remarkable filmmaking, The Deer Hunter stands out for its bravado. It’s one of the great works of a great decade.

And how much more than that does a person need to be considered a success?

For more Galloway on Film, please check out the archive.

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