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Peter Biskind on Michael Cimino’s Twisted, Tortured Legacy: “A Mystery in Death as He Was in Life”

The director's bizarre behavior on 'The Deer Hunter' led to his (and a studio's) undoing on 'Heaven's Gate' — and the end of 1970s New Hollywood.

Michael Cimino remained a mystery in death as he was in life. He died July 2 at his L.A. home at 77, but as of this writing, no cause of death has been released.

At the risk of being struck down for speaking ill of the dead, not to mention for borrowing from my own books and articles, it’s worth musing on Cimino’s career because it was such an instructive one, illustrative of the best and the worst of the so-called New Hollywood, the directors’ decade of the ‘70s. It was bookended by Cimino’s momentous achievement, The Deer Hunter (1978), which walked away with the best picture Oscar that year, and his even more momentous failure, Heaven’s Gate, that crashed and burned in 1981, effectively ending the era. (He did go on to make four other undistinguished features.) Heaven’s Gate went so far over budget that it also doomed United Artists, the storied company that was synonymous with New Hollywood and had the misfortune to produce it.

During the course of his roller-coaster ride through Hollywood, this short, slight man with a nimbus of auburn hair became a magnet for controversy. The Deer Hunter was released a scant three years after the fall of Saigon, which marked the end of the most divisive war in American history, excluding, of course, the Civil War. Albeit a powerful film that displayed Cimino’s talents to the full, with long, languorous takes that allowed the spectacularly gifted cast the freedom to make the most of a bone-crushing story, it tore open barely healed wounds with its vicious portrait of the North Vietnamese, who subjected poor American GIs confined in cramped tiger cages to games of Russian roulette while cackling like monkeys as they bet on the outcome.

Trouble started early, at the script stage. “When I first met Michael, he was making commercials and came to see me one day in a gigantic, perfectly manicured Rolls-Royce,” recalled Deric Washburn, a relatively inexperienced screenwriter whose day job was carpentry. As Washburn told it, he and Cimino spent three days together at the Sunset Marquis pounding out the story, whereupon the director disappeared while Washburn spent a month on his own turning the story into a script.

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After he handed it in, Washburn recalled Cimino and Joann Carelli, his longtime collaborator, taking him to dinner at a cheap joint off the Strip. “We finished, and Joann looks at me across the table, and she says, ‘Well, Deric, it’s f—-off time.’ ” According to Washburn, “It was a classic case: You get a dummy, get him to write the goddamn thing, tell him to go f— himself, put your name on the thing and he’ll go away.” But Washburn didn’t go away. When he next saw the script, Cimino’s name indeed was attached to it, and his was nowhere to be seen. The director always claimed he wrote it himself. Of Washburn’s script, he said: “I could not believe what I read. It was written by somebody who was mentally deranged. He was totally stoned on scotch, out of his frigging mind. He started crying and screaming and yelling, ‘I can’t take the pressure! I can’t take the pressure!’ He was like a big baby.” But Thom Mount, then president of Universal, which owned U.S. distribution rights, said, “Deric wrote a brilliant script, so good that immediately Cimino turned on him and tried to discredit him.” In any event, Washburn took the matter to arbitration and won sole screenplay credit.

Once production began, there were signs of things to come, as an $8 million movie turned into a $14 million movie ($52 million today). Cimino turned out to be a perfectionist. Barry Spikings, co-head of EMI Films with Michael Deeley, worried about the snail’s pace at which Cimino was proceeding, particularly when he arrived at the Greek Orthodox wedding sequence that occupies the middle of the picture. It ate up an unprecedented 45 minutes-plus of screen time — Heaven’s Gate waiting to happen, though the sequence itself is brilliant, the last glimpse of normal life with the bridesmaids in their dresses flitting down the street like pink moths.

From left:
Coming Home‘s best actor and actress Oscar winners Jon Voight and Jane Fonda in 1979 with Cimino, who won best director and best picture for The Deer Hunter.

After watching Cimino shoot take after take — 10 or 20, sometimes more — Spikings took him for “the walk.” Producers usually are helpless in situations like this, when so much money has been spent. Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond told me in 2007: “It was very difficult to deal with Michael. He was very stubborn. He wanted it the way he wanted it. He basically fired all the producers he didn’t like.” Spikings told him, “Michael, some people are saying that you are going a little crazy with this one.” Cimino reassured him that “he was going to be very concise.” The scene would last no longer than the “flicker of a candle. Michael lied about it, but he was right. This sequence is the heart of the film.”

Cimino delivered a three-hour-plus cut to Universal. Its executives, as Cimino explained to the Los Angeles Times, were “concerned about everything. The subject, the violence, the length.” According to Mount, “It was just a f—ing continuing nightmare from the day Michael finished the picture to the day we released it.” He added, “I came away with no respect for Cimino and no respect for Joann. I thought they acted like thugs. I thought they were brutal with the other creative participants, and I thought they were entirely greedy and out for themselves.”

Cimino didn’t do much to help his own cause by fudging his military service in The New York Times. Mount recalled getting a call from a Universal publicist as the studio was about to release the picture: “Michael told the f—ing New York Times he was a medic in the Green Berets? I know this guy. He was no more a medic in the Green Berets than I’m a rutabaga. So I went to see Mr. Wasserman. I said: ‘Lew, I think we have a huge problem. I think in 24 hours, The New York Times is going to run an article about a delusional director.’ ” Wasserman fixed it, as he fixed everything, and The Times printed the story with Cimino’s version of his military record even though the paper had trouble confirming it.

The Deer Hunter was treated like the second coming by reviewers. Vincent Canby praised it in The New York Times for coming “as close to being a popular epic as any movie about this country since The Godfather. Its vision is that of an original, major new filmmaker.” The best picture Oscar was the icing on the cake. But Cimino’s misstatements continued to dog him. It later came out that Cimino indeed was assigned to a medical unit in the Army Reserve — in 1962, three years before the first American troops landed in Vietnam, not in 1968, after the Tet offensive, as he claimed, giving the impression he was inspired to sign up by patriotic fervor. He served for six months instead of the two years he would have served had he been drafted, and had nothing to do with the Green Berets.

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Indeed, Cimino seemed to have a problem with the truth. He gave at least three different dates of birth — 1939, 1943 and 1952, changing the month at whim. Sometimes he insisted The Deer Hunter was an antiwar picture, while at other times he voiced the opposite opinion. He told Spikings, “The Russian roulette is a metaphor for what America was doing with its young people, sending them to a war in a foreign place.” On the other hand, when Cimino was asked by L.A. Weekly how he felt about audiences cheering when the movie’s GIs killed their North Vietnamese captors, he replied, “We’ve been defensive too long about feeling positive about this country.” Wading deeper into quicksand, he told Vanity Fair, “When I’m kidding, I’m serious, and when I’m serious, I’m kidding.” He added, “I am not who I am, and I am who I am not.” Even Carelli was confused about Cimino’s military service: “It’s hard to tell with Michael. I don’t know where this comes from.” Said Washburn: “Mike is or was a pathological liar. He lied to everybody — about everything.”

Cimino’s problems with the truth spilled into The Deer Hunter as well. The film turned the war upside down, starting with a sequence in which the character played by Robert De Niro, brandishing a flamethrower, incinerates a North Vietnamese soldier who is dropping grenades into a bunker filled with Vietnamese women and children. It’s a dramatic scene, but it attributes to the North Vietnamese some of the atrocities committed against noncombatants by American GIs — the scene contains echoes of the My Lai massacre, which was an American not a North Vietnamese atrocity. Worst of all, he used the war as no more than a backdrop for a story about friendship rituals among American males — and while other U.S.-made war movies may have similarly put Americans in the foreground, the Vietnam War still was too recent and raw to treat the Vietnamese as nothing but extras, stick figures with guns. As Carelli admitted: “It’s not a war story. It’s how the war affected the lives of a group of friends that love America. And Michael is definitely a lover of America.”

With De Niro (left), who played factory worker Michael, on the set of
The Deer Hunter.

When the picture was released, veterans groups and former antiwar activists raised an outcry. Under the headline “The Gook-Hunter,” The New York Times ran a long op-ed piece by John Pilger, who had covered the war. “Watching The Deer Hunter, you’d never know that it was the U.S. that turned its overwhelming power on a Third World nation.” Peter Arnett, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the war in Vietnam, wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “In its 20 years of war, there was not a single recorded case of Russian roulette. The central metaphor of the movie is simply a bloody lie.” Carelli still insisted the film is accurate: “That happened there. And those guys in pens, and so on. Yes.”

Indeed, The Deer Hunter is not a documentary, and it is true that most feature films, plays, novels and so on based on actual events play fast and loose with the facts. Great art creates its own truth, which is what The Deer Hunter tries to do and in many instances achieves — but ultimately, the wounds it opened were too raw and the tropes it uses too crude to succeed. “I don’t think any of us meant it to be exploitive,” said Spikings. “But I think we were … ignorant. Would I make a different movie today? Hopefully. It would be more careful about the Vietnamese people. We defamed them. And I regret that.”

Cimino never had been a shrinking violet. He claimed he was a child prodigy and once actually compared himself to Michelangelo. The rapturous reviews and his Oscars confirmed his high opinion of himself and emboldened him to pursue his next project, called The Johnson County War. Cimino shopped it around town, but neither EMI Films nor Universal bit. Recalled Mount, “We just looked at each other and said, ‘There would have to be an unbelievably compelling reason for us to go through this again.’ “

Meanwhile, there had been regime change at United Artists. Arthur Krim and his partners, who had run the company since 1951, quarreled with their staid corporate owner, the Transamerica Corp., and left in 1978 to form Orion. Transamerica appointed Andy Albeck, who had worked his way up from sales to become vp operations, to replace him. Two wet-behind-the-ears kids without much experience, Steven Bach and David Fields, headed production.

UA screened The Deer Hunter for Albeck, and he agreed to back The Johnson County War, now known as Heaven’s Gate. At an estimated cost of $7.5 million going in, what could go wrong? Oh, one thing. Cimino won the contractual right to go over budget if necessary to make a Christmas 1979 release date.

Cimino (right, with Clint Eastwood in 2015) became a recluse in his later years.

Principal photography began on April 16, 1979, by which time the budget already had climbed to $10 million ($33 million today). If Cimino had moved slowly on The Deer Hunter, at least he had a good excuse: Thailand. Heaven’s Gate was shot in Kalispell, Mont. No drug lords, no elephants, nothing to slow him down but himself. Said Zsigmond, with admirable understatement, “On Deer Hunter, Michael was still, basically, a second-time director, and he had to behave, respect the budget. That didn’t happen too much on Heaven’s Gate.” Cimino built sets, tore them down and rebuilt them, shooting as many as 30 takes per scene and printing most of them, all the while losing approximately one day for every day shot, exposing approximately 10,000 feet of film a day to the tune of $200,000 — or nearly $1 million a week. A month and a half in, he nearly hit $10 million, the original budget, with 107 script pages to go. Albeck determined that if the director proceeded at this pace, the film would cost $43 million and change (or about $140 million today).

Bach and Fields flew out to the set. In the same way Cimino won over producers of The Deer Hunter by the simple expedient of showing them the stunning dailies, so he did with UA. They arrived intending to stanch the flow of blood; they left thinking Cimino was a genius, that they had another Oscar winner on their hands.

Months passed. Cimino continued to build more sets, tear them down and build them again. He fell further and further behind. Albeck was getting desperate. According to Mount, he never bothered to ask Universal executives about their experience with Cimino. But as the costs mounted, Stan Kamen, head of the motion picture division at William Morris and Cimino’s agent, tried to dump a portion of the costs on EMI Films. Kamen called Spikings and told him, “If you will come in and take over the movie personally — you’re there every day, every hour — then Andy [Albeck] will let you have 50 percent of the movie for 30 percent of the cost.”

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Spikings and Deeley flew to Montana. By this time, Cimino was refusing to show dailies to UA, but he showed them to the two EMI producers, and they were, according to Spikings, “dazzling.” Spikings said, “I’m in.” They began the deal conversation, but according to Spikings, Albeck “started to nickel-and-dime.” He said, “Well, I did say that, but what I really meant was da-da da-da da-dit.” Albeck didn’t realize he had been thrown a lifeline. Kamen was furious and said, “Let me talk to this prick.” Spikings continued, “I don’t know what Stan said to him, but it must have been something like, ‘You’re gonna get what you deserve.’ And he did. Albeck took early retirement before Heaven’s Gate was even finished.

Four and a half months later, when the patient finally had been bled dry, the shoot ended. Cimino had shot about 220 hours of film. Needless to say, he missed the Christmas 1979 release date. Nearly a year later, in November 1980, Cimino opened his three-hour and 34-minute cut at the Cinema I and II in New York City. Arthur Krim was in the audience to witness Cimino’s folly. The end credits were greeted by a deathly silence. Almost no one attended the afterparty at the Four Seasons. Canby, who had overpraised The Deer Hunter, carpet-bombed Heaven’s Gate, calling it an “unqualified disaster.” Other reviewers followed suit. With Cimino’s approval, UA canceled the L.A. premiere, which was set for two days later. A new cut, slimmed down to two and a half hours, was shown at the Chinese Theatre in April to tepid reviews. When the numbers were all in, Albeck’s projection proved accurate. The cost, including prints and ads, was approximately $44 million ($145 million today), with first-run box office of $1.3 million ($4.3 million) in 830 theaters.

Transamerica sold UA to MGM, owned by Kirk Kerkorian, who hired — the crowning irony — David Begelman, who when he was head of Columbia Pictures had almost but not quite been drummed out of Hollywood for forging Cliff Robertson’s signature on a check. UA was never the same. It was sold and resold, becoming for a while a vanity company for Tom Cruise and eventually a TV company now headed by Mark Burnett, or something like that. It’s hard to know.

It was a sorry end to New Hollywood, which finally foundered on the egos of auteurs like Cimino. To paraphrase myself from [my book] Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, if it hadn’t been Heaven’s Gate, it would have been something else. Many of the ’70s directors were pushing against the limits of the system, ignoring budgets and abusing their power. Warner Bros. head of production John Calley had swept producers out of his studio a decade earlier to make way for directors. It seemed like a good idea at the time, and it was, but there was a price. “Yes, the director is in creative respects the most important part of the team,” said producer Jerry Hellman. “But directors are not producers, and if you look at the cost overruns and huge, terrible movies being made by guys with two credits like Cimino, you begin to see how they built a disaster in there. It was a case of the baby getting thrown out with the bathwater.”

Peter Biskind, a film historian and author of books including Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and Down and Dirty Pictures, is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair.

This story first appeared in the July 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.