#115) Remembering Cimino

No animals were harmed during the writing of this blog post.

Late 1970s. A movement that recently dominated has shown signs of fading from public favor. In these uncertain times, a young rising star becomes the darling of the industry. Seen as infallible, he is given unlimited power to create the masterpiece that will bring glory, fame and influence to all involved.

Result: disaster.

No, we’re not talking about Howard Scott Warshaw and the “E.T.” video game, but a man whose life had some interesting parallels to that of the Atari software engineer. Oscar-winning film director Michael Cimino has become the latest unfortunate addition to the Class of 2016 at age 77.

You don’t have to have seen “The Sicilian” or “Year of the Dragon”(I haven’t) to find the life of Cimino intriguing; indeed it’s at least as compelling a movie subject as, oh, I don’t know, say the Johnson County War. There are one-hit wonders (If they can make a movie about Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger, why not one about Cimino?) There are those who are remembered only for one unfortunate moment, such as Miss Teen South Carolina and that guy who didn’t catch the ground ball Mookie Wilson hit. It’s unusual, however, for a person to be associated equally with a brilliant achievement and a dumpster fire. Yet Cimino’s story also has familiar elements of hubris and the American tendency to build something up, start resenting its power and then tear it down (not unlike the Son of Beast roller coaster.)

After his first film, “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” (1974), starring and produced by Clint Eastwood, Cimino swung for the fences with a $15 million Vietnam War epic. His studio, EMI, was wary. Just a few years removed from “The Godfather”, director-oriented movies were starting to seem like financial risks. A cerebral thriller called “Sorcerer” from director William Friedkin (“The Exorcist”) was badly beaten at the box office by another movie released the same weekend: “Star Wars.” How would audiences respond to a film with a “gruesome storyline and a barely known director?”

“The Deer Hunter” brought in $49 million at the box office and won five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. New Hollywood was still alive. Now signed with United Artists, Cimino was given full creative control over his next project, a film with an estimated $7.5 million price tag. The director and his crew headed up to the Montana wilderness in the spring of 1979 to start filming with the goal of finishing in time for the year’s Oscar season.

By the time “Heaven’s Gate” was released in November of 1980, its budged had exploded to $44 million and it had already been the subject of many tabloid stories. The film–cut from its original five hours to three and a half–was pulled after only one week of release. A two and a half hour re-release in 1981 also tanked. When the dust settled, “Heaven’s Gate” had made $1.5 million and was blamed for the demise of United Artists Studios. With Francis Coppola’s “One From The Heart” ($26 million budget, $636,000 box office), “Heaven’s Gate” also effectively ended the era of director-oriented pictures. Cimino directed four more films but his career never lived up to its promise.

Yet the years have been kind to “Heaven’s Gate.” Re-releases of the film have met with acclaim; while its flaws are not overlooked its virtues are also given light. Perhaps Cimino’s ultimate vindication came from general understanding that the post-New Hollywood way hasn’t resulted in better films. As Coppola said in 2000, “Directors don’t have much power anymore, the executives make unheard of amounts of money, and budgets are more out of control than they ever were. And there hasn’t been a classic in ten years.” In the 2004 documentary “Final Cut: The Making and Unmaking of Heaven’s Gate” former UA exec Steven Bach states, “The business of Hollywood has overwhelmed everything else, and it’s hard to see how the movies are better off for it.”

Now that Cimino has joined “Heaven’s Gate” cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (1930-2016), how will he be remembered?  This article from the Guardian might provide a clue: “…[Y]ou don’t always have to think of the terms ‘catastrophe’ and ‘classic’ as incompatible. Just this once, you’re permitted both.”

 

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