Hollywood Flashback: Cannes Was Kinder to 'Heaven's Gate' Stars in 1981

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Kris Kristofferson, who played a marshal in 'Heaven's Gate,' and Isabelle Huppert, who played a bordello madam, in Cannes on May 20, 1981.

Though the film was in competition for the Palme d'Or during the festival, it was originally pulled from release six months prior for extensive editing and received scathing reviews.

The version of Heaven’s Gate that screened in May 1981 at Cannes, where it was in competition for the Palme d’Or, was not the one that premiered in New York six months earlier. That 291-minute version had been pulled from release for extensive editing after receiving scathing reviews and was brought to the festival at a 149-minute length. Director Michael Cimino’s Western told the bloody story of Wyoming’s 1889-93 Johnson County War between immigrant homesteaders and wealthy cattle ranchers.

But it was the stories about the production’s excesses that made Heaven’s Gate the fest’s most anticipated film. Cimino’s budget had ballooned from $11 million ($30 million today) to $44 million ($123 million), and he shot 1.3 million feet (or 220 hours) of footage, was five days behind schedule on his sixth day of filming and earned the nickname "The Ayatollah Cimino" from his crew. The embarrassment and losses led United Artists’ corporate owner to sell the studio to MGM. While time and different "director’s cuts" prompted some critics to view Heaven’s Gate in a new light, The Hollywood Reporter actually liked — or at least didn’t hate — the maligned 291-minute version. "The film does represent a remarkable achievement in terms of scope and detail," wrote THR. "It is epic by design and evokes an emotional response in spite of the fact that it never totally connects on a personal level."

At the Cannes premiere, Heaven’s Gate got a somewhat better reception than it did in New York. During a news conference with Cimino, one French writer said he believed the real reason American critics disliked the film was "it depicts faithfully the way the West was won with the blood of European immigrants." A Parisian critic praised Cimino as "le Tolstoi de la caméra." But the fest jury, led by French filmmaker Jacques Deray, didn’t single it out for any honors. That year’s Palme went to Andrzej Wajda’s Man of Iron. 

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's May 15 daily issue at the Cannes Film Festival.