Tuesday, June 6

The Directors: Michael Cimino

With only eight films to his directorial credit, he climbed to the top of the 1970's New Hollywood directors heap and then fell from grace with a resounding thud so noisy and chaotic that his career never recovered. Michael Cimino was always a target for controversy,  He was 5'5" tall, odd-looking and always altering his facial looks.  As a Hollywoodite, he was imperious, contrary, a devil on a movie set and thumbed his new noses at producers, studio heads and Hollywood bigwigs.  He was determined to do it his way... restraint and budgets be damned.

Cimino was a third-generation Italian-American born in New York City in 1939 to a mother who was a costume designer and father who was a music publisher.  In his late teens, Cimino enlisted in the Army, giving up Yale where he had been a fine arts major.  He later got his master's while attending New Haven University. Afterward he returned to Manhattan and studied acting and ballet.  He began his professional work doing industrial films and then television commercials.

In 1971 he moved to Los Angeles to try his hand at movie-making. He began writing or co-writing scripts (Silent Running, Magnum Force and later uncredited on The Rose). On Magnum Force he began a friendship with Clint Eastwood and by 1974 Eastwood was producing and starring in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot and tapped Cimino for his first directorial assignment.  It concerned a Big Sky mining heist and was very popular with the public.  A vibrant Jeff Bridges performance (partly in drag) was a highlight.

It took him four years to work as a director again but it would be helming the best work Cimino would ever do... The Deer Hunter (1978).  He wrote the story of three Pennsylvania steel workers (Robert DeNiro, Christopher Walken and John Savage) who enlist in the Army to fight in the Vietnam war. The film, at three hours and three minutes, gave a detailed look into the men's lives before going off to fight (a wedding and reception scene was longer than some real-life ones I've been to).  The war sequences were as harrowing as they come with particular emphasis on a grueling-to-watch Russian Roulette scene, which, as was the case on most Cimino films, was weighed down in controversy.  In this case, authorities on the war said such a thing never happened.  I say now and said then... so what?  This was a work of fiction.  The film's final passage is about a return to civilian life.

The Deer Hunter was a massive hit with both critics and the public. It was nominated for nine Oscars and won five, including two for Cimino for best director and best picture.  He was the fair-haired boy of the moment but it was about to change... forever.

With DeNiro on the set of The Deer Hunter

Heaven's Gate (1980) would change all that. It would (a bit unfairly) become one of the biggest flops of all time.  Inspired by a real-life incident, the so-called Johnson County Wars in late 1890s Wyoming, it told the story of a clash between a sheriff and a gunman over protecting immigrant farmers from wealthy cattlemen.  To add more flair, both men are in love with the same woman.

It stars Kris Kristofferson, then at the height of his modest career, French actress Isabelle Huppert, then unknown to American audiences, Bridges and Walken again and also John Hurt, Brad Dourif and Sam Waterston.  I thought it was superbly cast.

Cimino must have cut the class on "Collaboration in Hollywood" and his listening skills needed some serious sharpening.  He clearly suffered from bigheaditis, agreeing with his detractors to their faces and then proceeding as he chose.  Cimino always had a problem with alternative facts, frequently making up fake stuff as he went along. It didn't help either when reports of animal abuse began surfacing.  He would have sets built and destroyed with reckless abandon and put everyone through endless retakes. But when a release date was missed and the budget soared from 10 million to 44 million, United Artists had had enough. Cimino's tactics and supposed movie-making expertise enraged execs so badly that they didn't mind shooting themselves in the foot. UA never stood behind the project at all. Ultimately the film closed up the studio or rather it was blended into MGM and was certainly no longer the bold powerhouse it had always been.  What a shame.  

It has also been widely bandied about that Cimino and his western effectively brought down the curtain on the brat-pack directors who thrived on working as independently as they could from the studios. From now on, it was claimed, there would be a clamping down on wunderkinds and runaway productions.

Looked at today, without all the negative attention, Heaven's Gate is not a bad movie at all, ignoring its gargantuan 320-minute original length.  I found it to be an epic western, gorgeously filmed, well-acted, completely absorbing, an interesting part of western history.  People were so fired up about Cimino himself that they seemingly didn't take the time to appreciate the film at all. Passing years have engendered more thoughtful critiques. 

Cimino felt the pain.  He knew he was a pariah but mostly he thought he was misunderstood.  The phone didn't ring for some time and when it did, someone wanted him to direct a studio product that left him wanting to gag.  He wanted them to fork up the loot for something he'd written or at least something he found stimulating on some emotional level.  They said no and so did he. He lived in one of the tony Los Angeles canyons but no one ever saw him.  Many claimed he was riddled with drugs... he said not so riddled.  He avoided interviews and would not allow himself to be photographed. One day he would shave off his eyebrows, another create some bizarre bangs or bleach his hair.  He gained and lost much weight. There was talk of him being a pre-op transexual. Rumors circulated that the never-married director was gay, which he denied but admitted that he wasn't all that fond of women.  He would occasionally get it together and make a movie.  He would have five more in him, none of them praiseworthy.

Year of the Dragon (1985) was one of several movies Cimino did with Mickey Rourke.  They were buds.  A sordid tale of a police crackdown in Chinatown, it was far below the type of film the director wanted to do.  It became notorious because the Asian community was up in arms over how it was portrayed.

Italians didn't like the glamour treatment given to one of its most notorious thugs, Salvatore Giulano, in The Sicilian (1987). Humphrey Bogart's tense 1955 home-invasion drama, The Desperate Hours, was given new life in 1990 with Rourke and Anthony Hopkins but it died at the box office.

The Sunchaser (1996), a Woody Harrelson, manhunt crime caper, went straight to video. Cimino didn't work for another 11 years and then made To Each His Own Cinema (2007), actually a series of 33 shorts, directed by different directors who reminisce on their feelings about the movies.  It was a French production, which is worth noting because Cimino was revered in France, much in the same way they feel about another American enfant terrible, Jerry Lewis.

For many of his reclusive years, Cimino spent most of his time writing novels.

Cimino claimed to be a child prodigy on painting.  His two college degrees were on the subject and to his credit, several of his films, most especially The Deer Hunter and Heaven's Gate, reflect gorgeous, sweeping visual styles.  His films were given to sudden bursts of violence with a tone of bitterness. He loved authenticity, nostalgia and controversy, all easily spotted in his work. His detractors, and they are legion, will always remember him for two films and for being vain, self-indulgent and living in some sort of alternate universe.

Almost a year ago, on July 2, 2016, Cimino, 77, was found dead in his home from apparent heart issues. 

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