Michael Cimino, who has died at the age of 77, was the Academy Award-winning American director whose rise and fall occurred at a rate unprecedented even in Hollywood.
Cimino only enjoyed critical acclaim and commercial success with his second film, the Vietnam War epic The Deer Hunter (1978). But his third, the western Heaven's Gate (1980), was delivered so far over budget that when it failed it practically bankrupted the studio, ruined Cimino's career, shifted power from writer-director back to executives and the size became the epitome of directing film.
But the two films were closer in spirit than their reception would suggest. Both were compelling, beautifully photographed, three-hour stories that, in Cimino's words, shared an interest in "the heroism of ordinary people in the face of extraordinary challenges" that was "the glory of America."
They differed in their immediacy and intensity. Nineteenth-century Wyoming may have been closer to home, but Vietnam has etched itself into contemporary consciousness. While the endless landscape of Heaven's Gate proved just that, The Deer Hunter forced its audience into emotional surrender with its searing scenes of Russian roulette.
Though both films bore the uncompromising stamp of their obsessive writer-director, The Deer Hunter was almost a great film and big enough to bear its flaws. It was, in the words of one critic, "one of the few American films that understands the state of outrage and error within American hope."
But there's a fine line between single-minded artistic integrity and self-destructive narcissism, and Heaven's Gate crossed that line. Excessive, often incomprehensible and just plain boring for many, it became a cautionary tale.
Cimino continued to write screenplays, but struggled to get funding and was therefore limited to modest feature films, on which he served as director-for-hire. That his lifelong goal was to adapt Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, the story of an architect willing to destroy his creations rather than betray his vision, was an irony highlighted by every journalist he granted an interview .
Michael Cimino was born on February 3, 1939 (although this date has been disputed) in New York. He claimed he was born in 1943, but university records suggest an earlier date. He grew up on Long Island and attended Westbury High School.
As a precocious child, he was estranged from his father, a music publisher, his mother — who told a reporter in 1979 that she didn't realize he was famous until his name was a clue in the New York Times crossword — and his siblings.
He studied architecture at Yale before joining the Army Reserve and doing basic training in Texas. After seemingly failing to be accepted into the Green Berets - a subject on which he was opaque during the release of The Deer Hunter - he took acting and directing lessons from Lee Strasberg, the master of the "Method," and directed industrial films , before turning to filmmaking for commercials.
In 1971, he moved to Hollywood and co-wrote Silent Running (1973), a sci-fi film with a green twist about the last forests on Earth preserved in space. He also co-wrote Magnum Force (1972), the sequel to Clint Eastwood's cult classic Dirty Harry, in which the San Francisco cop is a lone beacon of truth, justice, and a great deal of dead bodies.
Impressed, Eastwood agreed to star in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), a caper film in which a gang of crooks band together for one last heist. Despite critical acclaim, Cimino was unable to secure another post in the director's chair.
He wrote an adaptation of Frederick Forsyth's The Dogs of War, attempted to adapt Crime and Punishment, and began his long run on The Fountainhead, but nothing made it to screens under his direction.
Eventually, EMI offered him the story of a US soldier who stayed in Vietnam after the war and played Russian roulette. After being offered a theme and a central metaphor, Cimino wrapped his own story around the idea. The Deer Hunter starred Robert De Niro and was about three Pennsylvania steelworkers who were sent to Vietnam.
Sharing his interest between the war and the friends left behind, Cimino's loving portrayal of life in a steel city allowed for a symphonic shift in tone as the action moved to Vietnam, where the horror was as overwhelming as it was historically inaccurate.
The first Vietnam film to open so soon after the shameful defeat was controversial. Jane Fonda called it "the Pentagon version of war," while Cimino has been variously accused of being racist, fascist, and small-minded.
But no one could doubt its visual beauty, the strength of its performances, its power of movement, or its portrayal of trampled American idealism trying to move on. Despite its length, it dominated the 1979 Oscars - winning five, including Best Director and Best Picture - and became the cultural event of the year.
Heaven's Gate was an event for several reasons. The tale of immigrants helped by noble cowboys in 1880s Wyoming, the film was poorly cast, poorly written (by Cimino), lacking in pace and unable to relate its violence to broader moral concerns.
The real story was the cost, the selfishness behind it, and the pathology of a director at war with a timid studio. At around $40 million — five times budget — it grossed barely a tenth of that at the box office, hastening United Artists' demise.
They (the studio) were in part the architects of their own misfortune. After giving in to Cimino's obsession - on one occasion he reshot Christopher Walken 36 times while taking off his hat - they ended the film by withdrawing its release after a disastrous preview.
Jeff Bridges, one of the stars, recalled, "The audience sat stunned for three and a half hours. After that we had this horrible, stuttering applause.” The New York Times called it “an absolute disaster”.
It was five years before he returned with Year of the Dragon. A screenplay by Oliver Stone pitted Mickey Rourke's Vietnam veterans, the Asia-hating cop, against John Lone's Chinese triad boss, and in the ensuing turf war, violence was the only winner. It did nothing to revitalize Cimino's reputation.
1987's Sicilian was adapted from Mario Puzo's novel and portrayed the mafia in the old country. It received a lukewarm reception. Three years later, Desperate Hours, a remake of a crime classic, again starring Mickey Rourke, left critics and audiences unmoved.
Finally, Sunchaser (1996), starring Woody Harrelson, was a road movie that dealt with the director's favorite subject - redemption in the great expanses of America. It went straight into the video. These films seemed shallow, as if Cimino had lost the will to grapple with cinematic possibilities.
He still pursued projects vigorously - for years he strove to adapt André Malraux's novel Man's Fate about the failed 1927 uprising in Shanghai - and wrote many screenplays that went unseen. He published a novel in France and was made Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres, of which he was very proud.
However, his frustration was obvious and perhaps justified. According to his Oscar-winning cameraman, he had triedVilmos Zsigmond, “to make a perfect film. He overdid it. But they shouldn't have killed him for it.” For his part, Cimino reflects, “It took me a long time to say, 'I'm proud of this film. I couldn't have done better. No excuses. No regret.' "
He became a prickly recluse on his Hamptons estate, only occasionally venturing out to anger his colleagues, United Artists, Hollywood and particularly Steven Bach, the UA exec whose book Final Cut morbidly portrayed the Heaven's Gate debacle Wisely revealed (and corresponding to Cimino, unreliable) detail.
A short, messy-haired man wearing high-heeled cowboy boots, a Stetson, and sunglasses. He is said to have undergone a gender reassignment surgery in the late 1990s. He had not. As his friend, the film critic FX Feeney, observed: “You speak of an internationally known perfectionist. If he can't look like Catherine Deneuve, forget it."
He never married.
Michael Cimino, born February 3, 1939, died July 2, 2016