The life of controversial film director Michael Cimino, who died July 2 at the age of 77 (there was some question about his actual age), would make a pretty fascinating movie. Most movie buffs and critics would probably agree that Cimino would not have been a good choice to direct it.
Cimino directed the 1978 Vietnam War epic “The Deer Hunter,” which won an Oscar for best picture and won him an Oscar for best director. In 1980, he directed “Heaven’s Gate,” generally considered one of the most spectacular and expensive bombs in Hollywood history.
The two films — he also directed “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot,” starring Clint Eastwood, and several expensive failures after “Heaven’s Gate,” like “Year of the Dragon” and “The Sicilian” — serve as extreme bookends to his career and point straight toward The End. Friends had been unable to reach him in his Los Angeles home and police found him dead.
The New York native started out as a screenwriter. “Thunderbolt” appealed to Eastwood and he allowed Cimino to direct it. But with “The Deer Hunter,” Cimino reached a controversial apex, making a big, long, star-filled movie that attempted to define the impact of Vietnam on the American soul, no less.
Containing stirring, almost wordless sequences that portrayed an industrialized Midwestern town, it starred Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and an ethereally beautiful Meryl Streep. It also included a shockingly violent Russian roulette sequence that, while harrowing, seemed misplaced.
After the dazzling success of “Deer Hunter,” Cimino was allowed complete control by the United Artists studio over his next project, “Heaven’s Gate,” an attempt at the ultimate Western epic, defining a capitalist-labor-farmer struggle with hired guns in trench coats. It starred Walken again, opposite the reluctant hero Kris Kristofferson, all beard and blue eyes.
The film took forever to make, ran over budget by a country mile or ten, almost bankrupted the studio and was a commercial and critical flop from which Cimino never fully recovered. It was an astonishing rags-to-riches-to-rags story, the big splash followed by the big drowning. It was also a legend.
Although “Heaven’s Gate” had its moments, it never rose to the level of coherence. The remainder of his films also failed to gain the kind of acclaim of his magnum opus. “Year of the Dragon,” “The Sicilian” and a remake of “Desperate Hours” were all particularly violent films, not without interest, with flashes of his visual tropes and inclinations.
Hollywood veterans who worked with Cimino generally dissed him after the fact, but he had a few admirers, notably Quentin Tarantino of “Reservoir Dogs,” “Pulp Fiction” and “Inglorious Bastards” fame. As anyone familiar with those films would recognize, Tarantino admired Cimino’s gift for grand vistas, visual sequences and violence, especially that Russian roulette scene.
Cimino’s life and career lie somewhere between a cautionary tale and a “Citizen Kane” saga. Mystery surrounds him, not just about his age. He seemed to disappear from view in his last years. He lived alone. There were no survivors. The cause of death is, for now, unknown.