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.
In the spring of 1979, Michael Cimino was riding high. His second directorial effort, The Deer Hunter was an enormous critical and commercial success. Despite the leisurely paced three hour running time, the heartfelt epic was chalking up major grosses at the box office and sweeping up one major award after another, including three Oscars. The future looked bright as Cimino seemed sure to cement himself as a major force to be reckoned with.
Alas, all it took was one overlong, grossly over-budget Western to derail that dream.
United Artists, still recovering from the shocking exit of the Arthur Krim regime after a spat with then-owner Transamerica, was desperate to reestablish itself as a major player in Hollywood. As detailed in former UA head of production Steven Bach’s production memoir Final Cut, Michael Cimino seemed like the answer to their problems. After all, one would believe that hooking up with the newest Golden Boy of Hollywood was a surefire no-brainer.
What seemed like a no-brainer wound up being the Hollywood equivalent of an ocular migraine: long, slow and painful. After a pair of false starts with The Dogs of War and The Fountainhead, Cimino sold UA production chiefs Bach and David Field on The Johnson County War, later to be rechristened Heaven’s Gate. It wasn’t supposed to take longer than three months and cost more than $12 million to complete.
Little did Bach or Field suspect that Cimino apparently believed that his Oscars gave him invincibility and clout that couldn’t be revoked. Cimino decided that no expense would be spared in the pursuit of perfection. By the end of week one, Cimino five days behind schedule, shot over 1.3 million feet of film, of which only 90 seconds was usable. By June, the entire $12 million budget had been spent with little to show for it. Had steps not finally been taken to stem the bleeding, he was on par to spending two years and $60 million to complete.
The final figures weren’t too far off from the worst-case scenario as the final production cost was $44 million. This figure included the primary filming in Kalispell, Montana that came to a close in October 1979 and an additional April 1980 shoot in England of a prologue and epilogue intended to clarify a few key plot points.
One might wonder how Cimino was allowed to go so out of control. According to Bach’s book, Cimino quickly sized up the UA hierarchy as easy marks and took advantage of the traditional UA laissez-faire business model in which the studio stayed away until the film was ready to be shown to them. The phenomenal success of The Deer Hunter gave Cimino the incorrect perception that he could do whatever he pleased regardless of consequences. There was also his exploitation of a loophole, put in place by UA for an intended Christmas 1979 theatrical release that would never happen, that allowed him to go above and beyond the spending and schedule limits to deliver a finished film.
Despite a contractual obligation to deliver a film no longer than 3 hours long, Cimino handed in a rough cut that was 5 hours and 25 minutes long. When asked by Bach how close to a final cut the picture was, Cimino stalled by stating that it was a little long but it could bear to lose just 15 minutes. Yet rather than fire him, UA bizarrely allowed him to keep editing and retain his final cut. Mere weeks before the New York premiere, the final cut ran 3 hours and 39 minutes with Cimino unwilling to make any additional edits.
Despite the fact that he flagrantly violated his contractual obligation of a final cut between 2 and 3 hours, UA let it slide. Not one UA executive bothered to see the 219 minute cut before granting approval to lock the picture and make prints.
The NY premiere was a disaster. Bach reported that the audience at the Tivoli 1 took their blessed time during intermission to return to their seats rather than be subjected to a slowly paced, yawn inducing extravaganza. The after-party was poorly attended, partly because it started after midnight and partly due to few wanting to discuss what they had just seen. The NY film critics were brutal in their reviews of the picture, with NY Times critic Vincent Canby famously likening the film to a forced four-hour tour of a friend’s living room.
Ego and pride wounded and clearly in a panic to stem further injury, Cimino convinced UA execs to withdraw the film from distribution. He commenced a rush editing job that whittled the almost 4 hour movie to a shorter 2 ½ hours. Despite the last minute rescue operation, the shorter version bombed spectacularly at the box office when released in April 1981, barely grossing $1.3 million when all was said and done.
Disgusted with the entire fiasco, Transamerica decided they had had enough of the movie business, selling United Artists to billionaire Kirk Kerkorian for a reported $300 million. Since there wasn’t a plethora of potential buyers, most believe Kerkorian overpaid by as much as $200 million. Since he owned Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer at the time, he merged the two studios into what would become MGM/UA Entertainment, Co.
It seemed to even the most astute film buff that Heaven’s Gate was consigned to a fate as an occasional late night TV offering or a rare theatrical screening through an obscure film society. However, a funny thing happened along the way to cinematic obscurity. In December 1982, Jerry Harvey, the owner and programmer of the offbeat cineaste cable network The Z Channel, managed to convince MGM/UA to let him show Cimino’s 219 minute long version, which hadn’t been seen outside of New York and Toronto.
To everyone’s shock, the long version received shockingly great reviews, most surprisingly from famed California film critic Charles Champlin, who had famously trashed the short version one year earlier. It was warmly embraced as a masterpiece, which is most certainly is not- although it is nowhere near as bad as the NY critics made it out to be.
The long version earned a surprise theatrical release in Europe in 1983 and was released on videocassette worldwide by MGM/UA Home Video in 1984. The short version remained out of sight until a surprise resurfacing on American television occurred earlier this spring, when This TV aired it several times throughout May and June. A third alternate cut approved by Cimino, which made some strange unwarranted and unnecessary revisions, was released by the Criterion Collection on DVD and Blu-Ray in 2012.
Paramount Pictures quickly signed Cimino to direct the Kevin Bacon vehicle Footloose after original choice Herbert Ross proved unavailable. However, it soon became apparent that Cimino had learned nothing from the Heaven’s Gate fiasco. Months before filming commenced, Cimino started making demands, primarily demanding an additional $250,000 for doing an unnecessary rewrite on the script, demanding changes to sets, hordes of additional extras hired and handing in a budget that far exceeded the $7.5 million granted by Paramount. Unlike those in charge of United Artists during Heaven’s Gate, then-Paramount executives Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Barry Diller weren’t willing to twiddle their thumbs and let Cimino turn their low-budget musical into an expensive out-of-control production. Cimino was fired immediately.
He then turned to the black comedy crime caper The Pope of Greenwich Village for MGM/UA, now under the management of Frank Yablans. But once again, Cimino started making demands in regard to money, script changes and production. As per Eisner and Friends at Paramount, Yablans had no tolerance for such shenanigans, promptly firing Cimino.
By 1985, Cimino’s reputation was mud in the movie industry. In an attempt to prove that he wasn’t a difficult out of control filmmaker, he accepted Dino De Laurentiis’s offer to direct a film adaptation of Robert Daley’s highly regarded novel The Year of the Dragon. Partly due to the need to prove to Hollywood that he could be a good boy and partly due to not daring to cross De Laurentiis, who had zero tolerance for egotistical directors making demands, Cimino completed the film on time and on budget.
Although not a blockbuster hit, Year of the Dragon managed to make a respectable profit once home video revenue came in. A deal to direct an adaptation of Truman Capote’s true-crime drama Handcarved Coffins for MGM/UA fell through. Gladden Entertainment, headed up by disgraced former studio head/agent/convicted embezzler David Begelman, offered Cimino a chance to direct the film version of Mario Puzo’s novel The Sicilian. It seemed as if Cimino was back.
However, it soon became apparent that when not held under a tight leash by a strong producer, Cimino soon reverted back to his old tricks. Cimino’s odd miscasting of French actor Christopher Lambert in the lead was the least of the film’s problems, as it once again went over budget and schedule with little in the way of redeeming value to be found in the finished product.
For all intents and purposes, Cimino’s Hollywood career was over. He directed two more films, 1990’s ill-advised remake of the Humphrey Bogart classic Desperate Hours and 1996’s Sunchaser, which went direct-to-VHS in the United States. Neither made much of an impression upon anyone who saw them. Cimino became more famous in recent years for being dogged by rumors that he was transgender, which likely started due to the shock of seeing the reclusive director gaunt, marred by failed attempts at plastic surgery and massive weight loss.
As far as his legacy goes, the feeling on Cimino remains mixed. He was portrayed horribly in three film memoirs: Bach’s Final Cut, Michael Deeley’s Blade Runners and Deer Hunters and Michael Schulman’s Her Again: Becoming Meryl Streep. Roger Ebert once declared in frustration that Cimino seemed to fall into the pattern of making a good movie and then making a mess out of every other one he got his hands on. The hardcore cineastes have lavished high praise on Cimino as a master filmmaker in the same league as such all-time greats as Kubrick, Kurosawa, Lean and Hitchcock.
My feeling on Cimino is summed up in two words: wasted potential. He did make some very good movies, although his post-Dragon output is trash. Regardless of whether they were masterpieces or not, the good films at least offered something valuable to cinema. He was a visual stylist with a good eye for screen composition. To his credit, Cimino was unafraid to tackle controversial subjects, which made his work rather daring for the time. The Sicilian notwithstanding, Cimino worked well with actors and more often than not brought out their best work.
However, Cimino’s skills as a storyteller left a lot to be desired. He apparently lacked the discipline or the will to tell a story simply or clearly enough for all to comprehend. Large chunks of Heaven’s Gate are incomprehensible even to the most forgiving moviegoer. Apparently, Cimino believed that the strong visuals would compensate for his narrative shortcomings. They seldom did. Perhaps that summed up his life best: an endless quest for compensation for his shortcomings. It certainly would explain a lot.