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What the Hell Happened to Michael Cimino?

August 31, 2012

The news that Michael Cimino received a lifetime achievement award from this year’s Venice Film Festival raises the question: What has he achieved in his lifetime? True, he deservedly won an Oscar for his dead-on-target Vietnam epic The Deer Hunter, but he’s still best known as the madman behind Heaven’s Gate, one of the most expensive, worst-reviewed movies ever when it was first released in 1980. In Venice, Cimino (whose androgynous appearance will only add fuel to the rumors that he’s in the midst of a gender change, which he denies) presented a restored version of the 239-minute director’s cut, which reveals a misunderstood masterpiece that’s more relevant today than ever.

Kris Kristofferson headlines the stellar cast as a Ivy League-educated marshal who travels to Wyoming in 1890 to aid immigrants who’ve been targeted for elimination by a greedy landowners association. (Hey, isn’t that part of this year’s GOP platform?) Previous Cimino collaborators Christopher Walken (who won an Oscar for The Deer Hunter) and Jeff Bridges (who was nominated for the director’s debut, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot) eventually team up with Kristofferson and Isabelle Huppert’s frequently naked madam as the Johnson County War grows increasingly bloody.

Though it’s sometimes feels slower and sloggier than a stagecoach ride in the mud, Heaven’s Gate ultimately envelops you with its sweepingly romantic, though blood-drenched, storyline. Plus, it’s gorgeous to look at (thanks to Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography) and peppered with enough familiar faces—Mickey Rourke! Willem Dafoe! Joseph Cotten! John Hurt! Terry O’Quinn! Sam Waterston!—to hold your interest. Still, the nearly incoherent abbreviated version Cimino was initially forced to release earned back less than $4 million of its then-massive $44 million budget, and the filmmaker became a scapegoat as studios sought to reassert creative control of their products from the auteurs who’d revolutionized Hollywood in the ’70s.

The Heaven’s Gate debacle seemed to break Cimino’s cinematic spirit, and his career ultimately followed Francis Ford Coppola’s path to obscurity more than, say, Martin Scorsese’s long run of critical and sometimes commercial triumphs. Cimino helmed the Mario Puzo bomb The Sicilian and reteamed with the equally erratic Rourke on a pair of ill-fated thrillers, The Year of the Dragon and Desperate Hours. While he was attached to any number of films that he ended up not making—The Fountainhead, The Pope of Greenwich Village, The King of Comedy, Born on the Fourth of July, even Footloose!—he rode off into the sunset ignominiously with his final film, 1996’s Sunchasers (with Woody Harrelson and a pre-Homicide Jon Seda), which grossed less than $30,000.

So why give Cimino a lifetime achievement award? Maybe it’s more for what he could’ve accomplished, based on his promising early work (he also cowrote the sci-fi sleeper Silent Running and the Dirty Harry sequel Magnum Force), a la Orson Welles. More likely, it’s an encouragment for the 73-year-old to get back to work and make one more great film before he himself heads for Heaven’s Gate.

Where did it all go wrong for Michael Cimino? Post a comment!

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8 Comments
  1. Cimino is a real freak. I like your post a lot — it’s informative and well written. You clearly know a lot of films (I’ve browsed your site a bit). Good job with the site, I’ll certainly stop by again! Btw, if you’re a movie fan, you gotta check out my site, it has some great movie reviews up. Thanks! http://www.cinemasoundblog.com

  2. Jim Houghton permalink

    Informative and articulate. Thanks.

  3. Howard Roark permalink

    Michael Cimino should direct his last grand movie about the Heaven’s Gate Cult. Best damn idea for this director to make a picture once again returning to Heaven’s Gate. A weird director for a movie about a weird cult.

  4. Oliver_C permalink

    Cimino’s films are like watching time-lapse footage of a big bowl of fruit: Thunderbolt & Lightfoot is fresh and crisp; The Deer Hunter is a rich, ripe banquet; Heaven’s Gate is still tempting but in turns to murky rot the longer it goes on; everything after that, avoid for the sake of your (cinematic) health.

  5. Heavens Gate has since been heralded by BBC as a masterpiece. So much cotrol occurred since then between studios, producers, directors and actors no longer “belonged to studios” so Michael may now be considered a liberator and genius of all time even if Heavens Gate is not recognizef as an epic, Reds was an epic even if the ideology was screwey, Downey disappeared as did Beaty for years. Why?What powers control cenema as great as it couldve been leaving these three geniuses alone?Given the “suffering”Bridges and Kristipherson among others complained about they must have gotten paid well if they stayed to the end while Cimini was being bullied and punished, tho he did go overboard on the budget.

  6. Heavens Gate has since been heralded by BBC as a masterpiece. So much cotrol occurred since then between studios, producers, directors and actors no longer “belonged to studios” so Michael may now be considered a liberator and genius of all time even if Heavens Gate is not recognizef as an epic, Reds was an epic even if the ideology was screwy, Downey disappeared as did Beatty for years. Why?What powers control cinema as great as it couldve been leaving these three geniuses isolated?Given the “suffering”Bridges and Kristoherson among others complained about they must have gotten paid well if they stayed to the end while Cimini was being bullied and punished, tho he did go overboard on the budget.Geniuses are considered weird till their gone, too late to recognize and appreciate.Is there a political entity that ruins genius actors, directors, vreators as Cimini who created the whole movie and Beatty who made his directorial debute while Robert Downey Jr spiraled downwards when he deserved an award fir Chaplin but did not?Something remains strange.Beatty doesnt act, Kristopherson entertains the president, but Downey has nlosdomed.

  7. Heavens Gate has since been heralded by BBC as a masterpiece. So much cotrol occurred since then between studios, producers, directors and actors no longer “belonged to studios” so Michael may now be considered a liberator and genius of all time even if Heavens Gate is not recognizef as an epic, Reds was an epic even if the ideology was screwy, Downey disappeared as did Beatty for years. Why?What powers control cinema as great as it couldve been leaving these three geniuses isolated?Given the “suffering”Bridges and Kristoherson among others complained about they must have gotten paid well if they stayed to the end while Cimini was being bullied and punished, tho he did go overboard on the budget.Geniuses are considered weird till their gone, too late to recognize and appreciate.Is there a political entity that ruins genius actors, directors, creators as Cimini who created the whole movie and Beatty who made his directorial debute while Robert Downey Jr spiraled downwards when he deserved an award for Chaplin but did not?Something remains strange.Beatty doesnt act, Kristopherson entertains the president, but Downey has blossomed beyond belief.

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