Michael Cimino, who won Oscars as director and a producer of “The Deer Hunter” before “Heaven’s Gate” destroyed his career and sped up the demise of 60-year-old United Artists, has died. He was believed to be 77.
Cannes Film Festival director Thierry Fremaux tweeted the news Saturday, writing that he died in peace surrounded by those close to him and the two women who loved him. “We loved him too,” wrote Fremaux.
Michael Cimino est mort, en paix, entouré des siens et de ces deux femmes qui l’aimaient. Nous l’aimions aussi. pic.twitter.com/emPv4nj5cZ
— THIERRY FREMAUX (@THIERRYFREMAUX) July 2, 2016
His birthday is usually cited as Feb. 3, 1939, though many facts about Cimino’s life, including his birthdate, were shrouded in conflicting information.
Cimino directed eight films in his career. His first film was 1974’s “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot”; his second was the 1978 Vietnam War masterpiece “The Deer Hunter,” which won five Academy Awards, including best picture and director; his third was 1980’s “Heaven’s Gate,” the film that became synonymous with showbiz disaster; and the rest were mostly footnotes.
The rise and fall of Cimino is so extreme that it would undoubtedly make for a great book, miniseries or opera. But it may not make a good film: It would require too big a budget, and the plot would be too complex. His career is a cautionary tale for Hollywood, about the eternal conflict between artistry and finance, with side battles between creative people and the media.
When Cimino pacted with Universal and EMI for the 1978 “The Deer Hunter,” he had only two screenplay credits, then wrote and directed only one other film. “Hunter” ran behind schedule and over budget, but proved a big profit-maker, earning $48 million on a $15 million budget. It was nominated for nine Oscars and won five — including best director for Cimino and best picture (another statuette for Cimino as one of the four winning producers).
Based on its success, United Artists signed him for “Heaven’s Gate,” a Western based on the Johnson County Wars. Since its founding in 1919, UA had a long tradition of giving creative freedom to filmmakers, from Charlie Chaplin to Billy Wilder to Woody Allen. In 1978, a new United Artists team was in place, after top execs like Arthur Krim battled with parent company Transamerica and defected to form Orion Pictures. The new team at UA were eager for a big hit and Cimino seemed just the ticket. So they contractually gave him control over the production. The French New Wave in the early 1960s had anointed directors as auteurs, and the 1970s, after “Easy Rider,” saw many successful films from maverick filmmakers. So, the UA execs figured, what could possibly go wrong?
“Heaven’s Gate” started filming in April 1979 and wrapped 11 months later, in March 1980. In his book “Final Cut,” Steven Bach, who was a UA exec at the time, said the film was greenlit for $7.5 million but eventually budgeted at $11.5 million. It ended up costing $35.1 million, with another $9 million for marketing, leading to a $44 million writedown for UA. After the film, Cimino directed only four more features, ending with the 1996 “Sunchaser.” He always avoided questions about “Heaven’s Gate,” except to label Bach’s book “a work of fiction.”
Cimino was born in New York City and raised in Long Island; his father was a music publisher, his mother a costume designer. He went to Michigan State, graduated from Yale in 1961 and got an MFA there in 1963, both in painting. He directed TV commercials for United Airlines, Kool cigarettes and Pepsi, among others.
He moved to L.A. in 1971 and was repped by Stan Kamen at William Morris. He got gigs as a co-writer of the ecological science fiction film “Silent Running,” starring Bruce Dern, and the 1973 “Magnum Force,” the second “Dirty Harry” film. Eastwood was impressed, and gave Cimino his big break by agreeing to star in Cimino’s directing debut, the 1974 “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot.” The film was a box office hit and gained an Oscar nomination for Jeff Bridges.
His second work, 1978’s “The Deer Hunter,” was the right movie at the right time. Though the Vietnam War was a daily presence on American TV, the studios generally avoided the topic on the bigscreen until long after the last troops had withdrawn in 1973. Cimino’s film was a three-hour-plus look at events on the battlefield and the home front, a gritty, grim study with excellent, Oscar-nominated performances by Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep (her first) and supporting actor Christopher Walken, who won. The film also won for editing and sound.
When “Deer Hunter” was released, Cimino implied in various interviews that the story (credited to him and three other scribes) was autobiographical, or else based on tales he heard when he was part of a 1968 Green Beret medical unit in Vietnam. Others refuted both versions, saying Cimino was never in Vietnam and his military experience was limited to six months in the reserves. Other details of Cimino’s life were subject to scrutiny, criticism and re-evaluation, including his age and even his gender identity. He variously listed the year of his birth as 1939, 1943 and 1952, sometimes shifting the month.
This story first appeared on Variety, who broke the news