Michael Cimino, best remembered for 'Heaven's Gate,' is gone
There are days where the Internet feels like the most ghoulish game of telephone ever, particularly when the word starts to spread that someone notable has died. Edgar Wright was the first one I saw mention the death of Michael Cimino this afternoon, quoting a Tweet by Cannes luminary Thierry Fremaux, who announced, “Michael Cimino died peacefully, surrounded by his family and these two women who loved him. We loved him also.”
Without question, Cimino’s career was defined by one remarkable high and one remarkable low, and to some degree, his career is the perfect illustration of what happened as film culture moved from the ‘70s to the ‘80s, and part of what makes him such a fascinating figure is how questionable every “fact” about him was. Cimino was a mystery in many ways, and when he made his debut as a director with Thunderbolt & Lightfoot, he looked like a filmmaker who was on track to have a big mainstream commercial career. If you haven’t seen that film, starring Jeff Bridges and Clint Eastwood, it’s one of the best things either of them ever starred in, and it is nothing like the films that Cimino became known for later. It’s loose and funny and it looks, on the surface, like a normal heist movie with some buddy comedy poured on top. He had already been working as a screenwriter for a while, with credits on Silent Running and my favorite Dirty Harry sequel, Magnum Force. He had made his bones shooting commercials, and so he was able to take his relationship with Clint Eastwood and his script for Thunderbolt and leverage that into his first directing job. It took four years after that to get his second film into theaters, and it changed everything for him.
If you aren’t old enough to remember the release of The Deer Hunter, it was a huge cultural moment. Vietnam was a fresh wound for the American people still, and movies about it were an iffy proposition at best. Look at John Wayne’s psychotic The Green Berets for an example of the kid gloves that they used when dealing with the subject. Cimino wasn’t the only filmmaker grappling with it at that moment, but the release of his film was part of a major shift in the overall conversation we were having at the time. We started to make an uneasy peace with our involvement, and there is no doubt that The Deer Hunter was part of that process. It also introduced Meryl Streep to film audiences, which would make it historic even if it wasn’t a great movie, and both Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken gave amazing performances in it. It’s also notable for being one of the five films that John Cazale appeared in during his brutally short career, each of which was nominated for Best Picture.
The Deer Hunter feels like a perfect film for the ‘70s. It was an era of sprawling personal visions that were somehow supported by the studio system, and there was a point during the publicity for the film when Cimino claimed that it was an autobiographical story. He got called on it, though, and if anything tarnished that film’s reputation during release, it was the idea that Cimino was claiming experience that he never really had. A year after his film, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now was released, and as much was written about the chaotic production of that film as there was about the film itself. It was an interesting precursor to what happened to Cimino on his next film, Heaven’s Gate, which remains one of the most intimately covered production disasters in history.
What you think of the finished film is irrelevant in many ways. There are people who adore Heaven’s Gate and think it got a raw deal. There are people who hate Heaven’s Gate who think it deserved its fate. Personally, I think it’s a beautiful film that doesn’t totally work. It’s certainly better than you would think based on the reaction to its initial release, but I don’t believe it’s the unsung masterwork that some people have claimed in the years since that first release. I’m glad people have stopped using it as a punchline, but anyone who thinks film coverage today is pointed and/or biased should go back and look at the way the press decided, from the very start of production, that Cimino had to be taken down. They were all over him, and by the time Heaven’s Gate went into post-production, it was already an industry-wide joke, a debacle, the worst thing to ever happen to a major studio. It was also the end of the ‘70s, conclusively, like a door slamming closed. When Cimino’s movie led to the bankruptcy of United Artists, it was justification for executives all over town to stop allowing directors to pursue their mad visions, pushing them to move the entire industry towards the box-office-above-everything obsession that still defines it now. Cimino could only have thrived in the system of the ‘70s, and it’s because he did that he helped burn it down for everyone else.
Watching him flounder through the back half of his career was painful. Year Of The Dragon was about one-third of a good movie, with some wildly insane stuff packed in around it and featuring a Mickey Rourke performance that basically defines actorly excess. His film version of Mario Puzo’s The Sicilian was hobbled by the source material and by Christopher Lambert’s bizarre lead perfomance, but even looking at it stylistically, it didn’t feel like the same filmmaker behind those early films. His remake of The Desperate Hours is so bad it felt like he’d never seen a movie before, much less made one. And The Sunchaser, his final feature film, feels to me like it was abandoned rather than finished. I think it’s safe to say that whatever it was that defined Cimino as a filmmaker, the experience of making Heaven’s Gate broke him. He refused to discuss Steven Bach’s book about the making of the film, and I understand why. For anyone interested in filmmaking, though, Final Cut remains an essential read, and it is a fascinating study of someone who was undeniably talented but who seemed to feel that his talent absolved him of all personal responsibility.
It is always frustrating as a film fan to watch someone get sidelined when you know that they’ve got a voice and stories to tell, and Cimino did not deserve to spend years in the wilderness. His film career was defined as much by the movies he almost made as by the ones he did, and I can’t help but wonder what his version of The Fountainhead with Clint Eastwood playing Howard Roark would have looked like, or how he and De Niro would have approached The King Of Comedy, or what he could have done with The Pope Of Greenwich Village, or what Footloose would have done for him if he’d made it into a hit. Well before Kevin Costner wanted to make Dances With Wolves (one of two Costner films that wags dubbed “Kevin’s Gate” during production because people were so sure they would fail), Cimino planned a sprawling epic film about the Sioux that would have been made completely in that language. He and Bo Goldman tried to make a Janis Joplin film that would have leaned heavily on her music, something that has stopped several proposed movies about her before they could be made. And above everything else, he supposedly wanted to make a version of Crime and Punishment, and I am so curious what he would have done with that material to make it his own.
There are no filmmakers like Cimino today, and I’m not sure there ever were. He was a giant right out of the gate, and that ended up working against him. It’s been a while since he was an active force in storytelling. And despite all of that, it feels like a genuine loss to hear that he is gone. I was rooting for him to have a second act, and I’ll always feel like his potential was only partially realized. If you'd like to read the final published interview with him, you can do that here.
Michael Cimino was 77 years old. Or 73. Or 62. Depends which version of his story he was telling.