Directed Deer Hunter and Box Office Disasters
By Ed Garea
Director Michael Cimino, who went from being a critical darling and box office success with his 1978 film, The Deer Hunter, to a critical pariah and box office flop with his 1980 release, Heaven’s Gate, died July 2 in Los Angeles. He was 77.
He only directed seven feature films, but his career stands out as a cautionary tale about the eternal conflict between artistry and finance in Hollywood, with side battles raging between creative people and the media.
Cimino was born February 3, 1939, in New York City and grew up in Long Island. His father was a music publisher and his mother a clothing designer. He graduated from Westbury High School and attended Michigan State University before studying painting, architecture and art history at Yale, earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1961. He received a Masters of Fine Arts degree from the University of New Haven in 1963.
In New York, he enjoyed a successful career directing commercials that were admired for their perfectionism. Looking ahead to Hollywood he began writing screenplays and moved to Los Angeles in 1971. His first writing credit came in 1972 (as “Mike Cimino”) as a co-writer for Silent Running, a science-fiction drama with environmental concerns.
Along with John Milius, he co-wrote the screenplay for the second Dirty Harry movie, Magnum Force (1973). He impressed the film’s producer-star, Clint Eastwood, and Eastwood not only bought his script for Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, but also allowed him to direct it as well. The film, a buddy-heist tale, was a box office hit and garnered an Oscar nomination for co-star Jeff Bridges. It also exhibited a breezy touch and knowing wit that would never again be associated with a Cimino film.
Based on the film’s success, Cimino received several studio offers, but he turned them down – he only wanted to work on projects he was passionate about. One such case was a story he championed about three steelworker friends who go off to fight in the Vietnam War. He convinced EMI to finance it, and shooting began on The Deer Hunter in 1977.
The Deer Hunter proved to be the right movie at the right time, the first of a wave of pictures that examined the Vietnam War’s effect on America and the American psyche. Though the Vietnam War was featured daily on American TV, the studios generally avoided bringing it to the big screen until long after the last troops had withdrawn in 1973.
A three-hour-plus look at events on the battlefield and the home front, it was a gritty, grim study, divided into three distinct sections that depicted a group of Pennsylvania steelworkers before, during and after the war.
Though it ran behind schedule and over budget, Deer Hunter scored at the box office, earning $48 million on a $15 million budget. The film contained a wealth of poignant material delving with an uncommon understanding into the nature of the men’s friendships and was studded with excellent performances, winning Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Sound, Best Film Editing, and Best Supporting Actor (Christopher Walken). It was also nominated for Best Actor (Robert De Niro), Best Actress (Meryl Streep, her first nomination), Best Writing (Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen), and Best Cinematography (Vilmos Zsigmond).
When the movie was released, Cimino implied in various interviews that the story was autobiographical, or else based on tales he heard when he served in a Green Beret medical unit in 1968. Others, however, refuted both stories, saying Cimino was never in Vietnam and his military experience was limited to six months in the reserves.
Based on The Deer Hunter's success, United Artists signed Cimino for Heaven’s Gate, a Western based on script he wrote back in 1971 about the Johnson County Wars. The studio, founded in 1919, had a long tradition of bestowing creative freedom on filmmakers, from Charlie Chaplin to Billy Wilder to Woody Allen. Compounding matters, in 1978, a new management team was in place, after top execs had tired of battling with UA’s parent company, Transamerica, and defected to form Orion Pictures. The new UA management was eager for a big hit and Cimino seemed like a sure bet.
There were ominous signs of trouble ahead in pre-production. After signing Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken and John Hurt as the male leads, the studio wanted Jane Fonda or Diane Keaton, two of the hottest actress of the day, for the lead role of Ella Walker. Though neither was keen to accept the role, Cimino came up with his own suggestion: Isabelle Huppert, at the time a relatively unknown French actress handicapped by her incomprehensible spoken English and complete lack of marquee clout. The studio balked at the casting, but Cimino threaten to walk unless she was signed, so management gave in.
It was originally budgeted at $11.5 million, with the studio expecting a masterpiece of filmmaking. But what they got instead was a masterpiece of extravagance. After six days of shooting the film on location in Montana, it was already five days behind schedule, and things only got worse from there. Cimino spent loads of money for extras (hiring 500), livestock, costumes, tons of dirt, and the installation of an expensive irrigation system under a stretch of prairie for a key battle scene so that he could have a field of lush grass. Rumors circulated that Cimino’s perfectionism was such that he stopped filming so an outdoor set could be rebuilt to have a wider sidewalk, and waited for the clouds to create the right formation before filming. Cimino also ended up shooting 1.3 million feet of film, as endless retakes were shot with the director insisting that almost everything be printed.
By the time shooting finished 11 months later, the cost was up to $35 million. With the addition $9 million for marketing, the studio now had $44 million sunk into the film. At various times, studio executives considered firing him or pulling the plug, but they didn’t want to spend all that money with nothing to show for it. Another factor in Cimino’s favor was that the executives were extremely impressed with the footage they were getting. “It looks like David Lean decided to make a Western,” said producer Steven Bach. In 1985, Bach would publish what became the final word about the picture – Final Cut: Dreams and Disaster in the Making of Heaven’s Gate.
One of the basic provisions of Cimino’s contract was that he had to deliver a film between two and three hours long. The first screening of his full cut lasted five hours and 25 minutes. By the time of its New York premiere on Nov. 18, 1980, the studio managed to cut the film to three hours and 39 minutes. But even the cuts couldn’t stop the scathing response from both the audience and critics. Vincent Canby of The New York Times called it “an unqualified disaster,” with other critics soon following suit.
The studio pulled the film and re-released it in April 1981 at 149 minutes, but it didn’t help, as the movie’s total domestic gross totaled a paltry $3.4 million. It just wasn’t a personal disaster for the director, it was also a financial disaster for United Artists, which in 1918, was sold to MGM.
Time had been kinder to Heaven’s Gate. Over the years, the film has been re-evaluated several times, garnering positive or rapturous reception. A new director’s cut, running 216 minutes, debuted in fall 2012 at the Venice Film Festival to positive feedback.
As for Cimino, he went on to direct only four more movies: the Chinatown gangster flick Year of the Dragon (1985) co-written with Oliver Stone, The Sicilian (1987), Desperate Hours (1990) and The Sunchaser (1996). Each lost money, with The Sunchaser grossing less than $30,000.
Cimino pitched many projects that never got beyond the starting gate: adaptations of Crime and Punishment, Truman Capote’s Handcarved Coffins, Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and Andre Malraux’s Man’s Fate, plus bios of Dostoevsky (developed with Raymond Carver), Janis Joplin, Legs Diamond and Mafia boss Frank Costello. Other projects he wanted to directed were eventually directed by others, including The Bounty, Footloose, The Pope of Greenwich Village, and Born on the Fourth of July.
In 2001 he wrote a novel, Big Jane, which was highly regarded in France and collaborated with Francesca Pollock in 2003 on the book Conversations en mirror (Mirroring Conversations). Though he was elusive about every aspect of his private life, he claimed in a 2000 interview to have a college-age daughter.