Michael Cimino, a controversial figure in the movie industry whose life best serves as a cautionary tale about how ego and hubris can destroy and derail even the most promising career, passed away July 2 from a massive heart attack at what is believed to have been the age of 77.
Hey, wait a minute! How can one say a person is believed to have been a certain age when he or she dies? The answer is simple: no one for sure knows exactly when Cimino was born. The Oscar-winning filmmaker had a penchant throughout his life for changing his birth year and age in an attempt to appear younger than he actually was. Most seem to have settled upon 1939 being his actual birth year.
Not much is known about his early life. Cimino was notoriously tightlipped about his youth, often claiming to remember very little about his childhood. In one interview, he did brag about being a childhood genius that rivaled Renaissance painter Michelangelo’s.
Cimino was also notorious for stretching the truth and lying outright about what he achieved in life, such the false claim that he served a tour of duty with the Green Berets in Vietnam. By the way, the closest he ever got to Vietnam was on the fake sets of The Deer Hunter and he was merely an Army reservist who didn’t travel further than Fort Dix, New Jersey.
So what is known about the young Michael Cimino? Here is what has been proven as genuinely true. Cimino was a native of Long Island, New York, growing up in the town of Old Westbury. He earned three college degrees: a BA from Michigan State University and both a BA and MA from Yale University. Although he liked to claim that his degrees were all in filmmaking, the truth was that his major was painting, with minors in architecture and art history.
He caught the movie bug sometime after graduation, eventually cajoling his way into directing TV commercials for Madison Avenue in the late 60s. His commercials for United Airlines, Pepsi, Kodak, Kool cigarettes and Leggs were highly regarded on the level of craftsmanship but were often criticized for taking too long and spending far too much money to produce them. This was the first sign of the single most recurring problem that would haunt Cimino’s career: the inability or unwillingness to complete a project quickly on time and on budget.
Cimino moved to Los Angeles in 1970 to break into the movies. It was around this time he had first pitched what would later become Heaven’s Gate, but a competing Western project at another studio and the reluctance of stars to sign onto a picture directed by a first time director put an end to that. He turned to screenwriting, earning two huge credits as a co-writer: the 1971 sci-fi classic Silent Running and the Clint Eastwood Dirty Harry vehicle Magnum Force two years later.
Eastwood was impressed enough with Cimino’s work on the latter that he decided to option Cimino’s first solo script. Upon meeting with Cimino, Eastwood decided to take a chance and give him his first directing job. Cimino brought in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot on time and budget, largely because Eastwood ran a tight ship as a producer whom no one dared to cross.
In an interview for the revealing documentary Final Cut (2004), production manager Charles Okun pointed out that Eastwood was the only producer willing to say no to Cimino's demands. Eastwood had no qualms about speeding things along whenever Cimino started to act tardy and to put the kibosh on any unreasonable demands, especially when it came to wasting time and money on unnecessary takes once an acceptable take was completed. The sole exception to the rule would be whenever an actor would ask for another take. That Eastwood was willing to accommodate.
Grossing $9 million at the box office against a $750,000 budget, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot was solidly profitable. United Artists considered the gross underwhelming by Eastwood’s box office standards then. For his part, Eastwood blamed United Artists for poor promotion and killed a planned two-picture deal with the studio, moving the remaining two pictures over to Universal. As for Cimino, he had received a few offers, but his arrogance and ego were such that he refused to accept what was offered.
Along came EMI, a British production company headed up by Michael Deeley and Barry Spikings. The duo figured Cimino might be the ideal candidate to fix a project that had been stuck in developmental hell for the past five years. Originally titled The Man Who Came To Play, it became The Deer Hunter after extensive rewriting.
Although it would become one of the best films of the 1970’s, the production was frought with problems. Roy Scheider, displeased with Cimino’s dictatorial ways during pre-production, quit. Co-star John Cazale was dying of terminal lung cancer, causing the insurance company to refuse to insure the actor. Only a last minute financial intervention by new leading man Robert De Niro allowed Cazale to say on the picture. Cimino went over budget and over schedule, but since EMI execs were preoccupied with major production problems on their summer blockbuster Convoy, all caused by an out-of-control, cocaine addled Sam Peckinpah, Cimino’s overages were overlooked.
There were also arguments in regard to the length of the final cut. Cimino’s final cut clocked in at slightly over three hours. Universal, who were handling American distribution, felt it was too long to be commercially successful and prepared a two-hour version. Cimino was only assuaged when Universal offered to test the two versions to see which received a better reception. Cimino’s 183 minute cut won out in the end and was the version ultimately released.
The Deer Hunter was also notable for achieving another first later in the 1980s: the first major R-rated motion picture to be presented on network television complete and uncut. Despite the generous use of salty language, harsh realistic violence and the occasional bare breast, The Deer Hunter was deemed socially important enough to allow such content to make the airwaves during a broadcast. Remarkably, no one complained. It would lead to the 1997 uncut broadcast of Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece Schindler’s List.
At Oscar time, many believed that the vote would be split amongst the seven major categories, especially with The Deer Hunter in direct competition with Hal Ashby’s brilliant Vietnam drama Coming Home. Sure enough, the awards were pretty much evenly split between the two, with Coming Home claiming Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Screenplay, while The Deer Hunter took home Best Supporting Actor, Best Director and Best Picture- the latter two of which went to Cimino. When claiming the latter prize, Cimino cried out “Who loves ya, baby!”
Two years later, the answer would be no one.