Cimino and star Kris Kristofferson on the set of the ill-fated production of "Heaven's Gate".
BY LEE PFEIFFER
Michael Cimino, whose fast rise to royalty in Hollywood was matched only by the sudden demise of his career, has died at age 77. He was born in Long Island and entered the film business with his first success as the co-writer of the 1973 Clint Eastwood Dirty Harry sequel "Magnum Force". (He had previously written the screenplay for the sci-fi cult film "Silent Running" starring Bruce Dern.) Eastwood was suitably impressed and gave Cimino the opportunity to make his directorial debut with the buddy crime caper "Thunderbolt and Lightfoot". Released in 1974, the film was a hit and helped launch Jeff Bridges to stardom with the Oscar nomination he received. In 1978 Cimino released his ambitious Vietnam War epic "The Deer Hunter" starring Robert De Niro and newcomer Meryl Streep. The politics of the big budget film are still being debated, with some arguing Cimino was an apologist for either the pro-war hawks or the anti-war peaceniks. Either way, the film packed a powerful punch and spoke to a generation that had suffered through the war. Cimino received Oscars for producing and directing the film and a promising future seemed to be in store. However, his 1980 mega-budget Western "Heaven's Gate" would derail his career forever. Accused of having a giant ego and being fast and loose with other people's money, Cimino oversaw the filming of the bloated production that lasted eleven months and ended up costing $35 million on a budget that was not to exceed $11 million. The three -and-a-half hour film was also the victim of bad timing. It had a pro-Marxist story but was released within weeks of Ronald Reagan's election to the White House. The nation was veering to the political right and Cimino's film was an homage to socialists. The film was roundly panned by critics and lost virtually all of its production cost in a sea of red ink. United Artists, which had failed to reign in Cimino's excesses, paid the dearest cost. The fabled studio, which had recently come under new management, almost went into bankruptcy and diminished over the ensuing years to being little more than a trademark instead of a thriving studio. In desperation, UA ordered Cimino to create a much shorter version of the film for wide release, but the results were still terrible. The debacle resulted in UA executive Steven Bach writing his well-received book "Final Cut", which documented the disaster on celluloid. Bach took his share of the blame for giving Cimino carte blanche on the ever-soaring budget but put the bulk of the responsibility on Cimino himself, whose hubris was such that he refused to even show UA executives his final cut until its first public screening in New York. By the time the reviews came out, the damage was done. (Rex Reed claimed the audience of sophisticates actually threw popcorn at the screen.) Cimino dismissed Bach's allegations but rarely spoke of the film ever again (although he did provide a commentary track for Criterion's Blu-ray special edition of the film in which he extolled its virtues while skirting the controversies.)
Cimino's looks changed radically over the years, leading some to speculate his was undergoing a sex change operation.
Cimino went on to direct a scattering of minor films, the most successful being the crime drama "Year of the Dragon". His last film was the little-seen "Sunchaser", released in 1996. He did have the satisfaction of seeing the uncut version of "Heaven's Gate" re-evaluated and gain respect in many quarters of the film industry. Nevertheless, he kept a low profile and his always eccentric personal behavior became bizarre. He underwent radical plastic surgery which so altered his appearance that many speculated he was undergoing a sex change operation. Cimino issued a non-denial denial that was more cryptic than illuminating. He also told conflicting stories about his early life and even once stated that he had served in Vietnam (he hadn't). In more recent years, he wrote occasional novels and would come out of seclusion to attend a film festival or event every now and then. He rarely gave interviews and disdained appearing on television. Whatever one thinks of his reed-thin filmography, Cimino thought in grandiose terms and went to extremes to fulfill his artistic visions. Whether he was indeed a visionary, a psychologically disturbed artist or both, will be factors relating to his legacy that will be debated for many years to come.