Reckoning With Michael Cimino, by Alexander Miller
It’s hard to explain, summarize, or “figure out” a tangible way to explain or decipher Michael Cimino’s legacy as a filmmaker. Despite being categorized as a director to have emerged from the New Hollywood era, he doesn’t really fit in alongside the likes of Scorsese, Coppola, or Bogdanovich. Unlike his contemporaries, his reputation wasn’t that of innovation, or forging new creative territory; in fact, he was more likely synonymous with the end of the artistic freedoms won during the director’s era by way of his highly polarized, box office failure Heaven’s Gate. On the other side, there’s his largely successful, Oscar-winning epic The Deer Hunter, and for many, his career was marked by these two immense sagas – one classic and one failure. In some ways this contrast is emblematic of Cimino’s mercurial career, fraught with highs and lows, and few in-betweens.
His meteoric rise and fall that had occurred during the comparatively short period between his debut Thunderbolt & Lightfoot (1974) to his precipitous fall with Heaven’s Gate (1980) reads like an expedited summary of an entire directorial career. The perverse irony is that his career was forged thanks to the same movement he managed to dismantle. Although the New Hollywood choked to death on his epic folly, Cimino’s career as a director continued. His filmography reads like a combination of chance, luck, unanticipated chances for redemption, missed opportunities and glaring contradictions. While his movies are anything but perfect, his subsequent work flirts with brilliance occasionally marred by raw ambition and compromised productions. Cimino’s legacy has left us seven feature films, a few writing credits outside his features (Magnum Force, Silent Running, his novel Big Jane), and more unrealized projects than Orson Welles.
Most success stories have “humble beginnings”, but Cimino’s appetite for greater things is a constant from the time he graduated Yale and made a name for himself in the competitive field of Madison Avenue. The comparatively smaller canvas of commercials couldn’t dwarf Cimino’s motivated direction. His famous United Airlines ad ‘Take Me Away’ made him a relative star by his constituents and standing as early evidence of his directorial prowess. Replete with elaborate dance choreography, expressive lighting, and some flashy cross dissolves, ‘Take Me Away” is sixty seconds of pastel-hued, razzle-dazzle eye candy. At this early junction, production manager Charles Okun recalls that “his visuals were fabulous, but the amount of time it took was astronomical. Nothing was easy with Michael.”
Piggybacking off of the success of Easy Rider, Cimino concocted a slightly comedic road movie/heist film with Clint Eastwood in mind, who was so impressed by the script that he and his Malpaso production company bought the script because Eastwood wanted to direct it himself. Before shooting, Cimino cowrote Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running and, with John Milius, penned the second Dirty Harry film Magnum Force. Realizing Cimino’s potential, Eastwood decided to let the young kid from Madison Avenue helm Thunderbolt & Lightfoot. The film was a hit, and Cimino went on to say that he owed his career to Eastwood. After their collaboration, a 35-year-old Cimino had a financially-successful mainstream movie right out of the gate.
Cimino had plenty of offers following Thunderbolt & Lightfoot. The development of The Deer Hunter began with a spec script about thrill-seekers playing Russian Roulette in Vegas titled The Man who Came to Play and would end in an embittered entanglement, leaving four accounts of the script’s inception. And that was just pre-production. The result is a stunning and nerve-fraying experience; it’s an epic and ambitious film that swept awards, critical acclaim, and an Oscar for Best Picture, Director, and three more of its nine nominations.
In the shadow of the accolades, awards, and critical praise, The Deer Hunter exceeded its budget and went over schedule. But the most important part about the film in terms of its director’s future is that it was successful. Studios will forgive a lot of transgressions if you win awards and make money. Before the film captivated audiences, two young studio executives at United Artists saw an advance print of The Deer Hunter and were floored. After a beef with their parent company Transamerica, Steven Bach and David Fields found themselves trying to forge a new reputation. Although UA had James Bond and Rocky, they felt like “inherited” properties. They took Cimino for the next big thing, someone in the model of Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, or Francis Ford Coppola. And Heaven’s Gate was going to be Cimino’s magnum opus, a modern Gone With with the Wind, and Bach and Fields were confident when Cimino cleaned up at the Oscars that his third film would be the tentpole production they desired.
Heaven’s Gate was a sprawling failure, pole vaulting from a budget of $7.5 million to $44 after distribution, it was dead before it was in the can. Reports chronicling a tyrannical director whose rampant indulgences included to animal cruelty, endless retakes, actors and extras stranded for months without being shot, and a compound laughably recalled by cast members Bridges and Kristofferson as “Camp Cimino” where cast member spent months perfecting their roller skating, horse riding, dancing, cockfighting, and shooting (blanks) as a result of his meticulous adherence to historical detail.
You could say Heaven’s Gate is a sprawling canvas of self-indulgence, ego run amok, compromised ambition and a colossal waste of talent. Over the years it’s been reevaluated as a victim of media thrashing, an unfairly lambasted production that never had a chance to survive, and that its director was a visionary artist whose instincts are justified in the name of art. Coming from someone who loves the film, maintains that both schools of thought are correct; it is an incredibly self-indulgent film, Cimino had gone a bit mad during production. Going as far as to stop shooting to wait for clouds to move, build a complicated (and expensive) underground irrigation system so the grass would be bright green, his obsession with the film’s beauty mutated a cavalier filmmaker into a deluded tyrant.
As a champion of Heaven’s Gate, I’ll admit the narrative loses momentum and some of the character motivations are unclear. But it’s an inarguably beautiful revisionist western with ambition, passion, and scope that works in a way few films do. Heaven’s Gate is a distinctively American realization of a dark chapter in history (That was The Johnson County War) with the tonal veracity of a 1930s studio-helmed classic. It was supposed to be a Gone With the Wind for the modern age; financially it was the opposite, but hindsight and compassion have brought some new light to this claim.
Cimino turned down offers to direct an adaptation of Robert Daley’s The Year of the Dragon; when he agreed to do so, he was on a timeline rendering it impossible for him to write and direct the film. On paper, The Year of the Dragon sounds like an excellent movie – Oliver Stone’s script followed a seasoned cop who returns from the Vietnam war and declares war on Triad gangsters in NYC Chinatown. The result is another self-satisfied and forceful film, the reversal of this somewhat awkward affair complimented with brilliantly-staged action set pieces, powerful scenes of violence and a brawny lead performance from Mickey Rourke, not to mention an elaborate finale that stands along some of the director’s best work. Despite a promising veneer, this gritty neo-noir failed to connect with audiences and Cimino’s grasp once again exceeded his reach. The otherwise positive components are weighed down by awkward dialogue, clunky editing and a perplexing love story that only anchors the inconsistent tone of the film.
His next folly was sold under the curious moniker reading “the author of The Godfather” and the “the director of the The Deer Hunter” with an ostentatious tagline reading “Before the ‘The Godfather’ there was…’The Sicilian’.” Well, The Sicilian succeeds in establishing no likeness to either these films. Aside from some exciting action sequences, Cimino’s long chronicle on bandit Salvatore Giuliano is a laborious affair. The fatal flaw in The Sicilian is casting Christopher Lambert in the lead. Cimino was insistent upon his hiring, which now almost seems self-sabotaging as his acting range consists of a graduating palette of squinting – he can squint with his mouth open, or his mouth closed, occasionally a word or two might fall out, but that’s about it.
The rest of Cimino’s career would continue with more disappointments; the needless remake of Wyler’s Desperate Hours is a paint-by-numbers retread that offers almost nothing of value aside from some establishing shots of Utah and some moments from Mickey Rourke and Elias Koteas, but that’s about it.
Cimino’s final feature film is a thing called Sunchaser, where a chronically ill juvenile criminal who takes a doctor hostage to find a lake believed to have mystical healing powers. I can’t say much about this direct-to-video misfire because I honestly couldn’t muster the stamina to finish it. Reading the plot should have been enough warning, but my completist tendencies couldn’t help me power through an ultimately dumb story.
In the wake of his death, the further I dug for information to better understand or make sense of his career, I was left with more questions than anything else. Instead of trying to find answers or unveil some profound revelation I asked myself why I like some of his work, and the lure of his career as a whole. Weighing out his motivations, it’s evident that Cimino was a passionate filmmaker. His robust utilization of location and texture in Heaven’s Gate yields a staggering work of beauty, but it was that sense of dedicated passion that led to his undoing. Despite being on the outside of the countercultural rebel yell of The New Hollywood, there is an immediately identifiable sense of rebellion in his work. His protagonists, like many in American cinema, are usually defiant individuals whose ideals are driven by principle.
But these strengths are also responsible for Cimino’s shortcomings as well. His zealous direction lead to perfectionism, and obsession. Inspired by outcasts and trailblazers, Cimino’s realizations are in a way cathartic, but his actual nonconformist proclivities were limited to feuding with studios, rampant spending, and self-serving productions. Cimino has left a legacy behind him, one that defies comparison. His mismatched psychology is accountable and visible in his films; tenacious and uncompromising with a reputation as a bullying primadonna made him a pariah in Hollywood. His checkered history mirrors his self-proclaimed tall tales that he spun around his own life. He trumpeted an inconsistent record of military service and academic accolades. Even his age comes into question as his reputation for embellished and misleading stories he shared were commonplace.
Despite all this, Michael Cimino will be a subject of discussion for years to come. His incongruous movies are adored by some, loathed by others, and debated by everyone in between.