Oscar Directors: Cimino, Michael–Winner (The Deer Hunter) Dies at 77

Michael Cimino, the 1978 Oscar winning director and a producer of The Deer Hunter, has died. He was believed to be 77.

Cannes Film Fest director Thierry Fremaux tweeted the news Saturday, writing that Cimino died in peace surrounded by those close to him and the two women who loved him.

His birthday is usually cited as February 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.

He them made his second, and best, film, the 1978 Vietnam War epic, The Deer Hunter, which won five Academy Awards, including best picture and director.

In 1980. he directed Heaven’s Gate, the film that became synonymous with big failure, though in later years, it was reevaluated.

The rise and fall of Cimino, and or many, it served as a cautionary tale for Hollywood, about the conflict between artistry and commerce, with all kinds of battles between creative people, studio executives, 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.

Deer 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 9 Oscars and won 5, including best director for Cimino and best picture.

United Artists then 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 like Chaplin, Billy Wilder and Woody Allen.

In 1978, a new UA 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. So they contractually gave him control over the production.

Heaven’s Gate started shooting in April 1979 and wrapped 11 months later, in March 1980. In his best-selling 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 this 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 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, 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.

Almost from the beginning, “Heaven’s Gate” was the subject of criticism and speculation. Cimino was such a perfectionist that Hollywood told tales of him halting filming so an outdoor set could be rebuilt to have a wider sidewalk, and waiting endlessly for the clouds to create the right formation before filming. The story, possibly apocryphal, was that on the sixth day of shooting, it was already five days behind schedule. Aside from complaints of  self-indulgence, there were claims of animal cruelty.

At various times, UA execs considered firing him (but relented, fearing a backlash and citing the actors’ support of him) or  pulling the plug. But they were impressed with the footage — “as if David Lean were directing a Western,” the execs said of what they’d seen, in justification — and they didn’t want a huge writedown with nothing to show for it, so the film was completed.

In the next few years, there were four cuts of the film, of varying lengths. Three months after wrapping, Cimino had a print that ran 325 minutes (i.e., five hours, 25 minutes), with Cimino announcing that it needed to lose 15 minutes. However, it was trimmed to 219 minutes by the time it premiered in New York on Nov. 19, 1980. The audience and critical reaction were negative, so UA pulled the film and re-released it in April 1981 at 149 minutes. It earned less than $4 million. United Artists was sold to Kirk Kerkorian and MGM; at a Cannes screening of “Heaven’s Gate,” Cimino denied that his film was responsible. UA honcho Norbert Auerbach said tactfully that if the film didn’t force previous owner Transamerica to exit show business, “Heaven’s Gate” certainly didn’t discourage that move. The company never regained its stature.

In 1985 Bach, who was senior VP and head of worldwide production for UA at the time, wrote “Final Cut,” a withering account of the film. Bach cited studio execs, including himself, for culpability, and questioned how artists are expected to learn “discipline and responsibility” in an age of conglomerates. He notes that it was a time of turbulence in the film biz, and within three years of “Heaven’s Gate,” every major company changed management. But Bach clearly portrays Cimino as the villain, for giving priority to his artistic vision over budget considerations, and for his refusal to deal with studio executives.

Over the years, the film has been re-evaluated several times, with either positive or rapturous reception. A new director’s cut, running 216 minutes, debuted in fall 2012 at the Venice Film Festival.

Although he directed a few films in the decades after “Heaven’s Gate,” Cimino kept a low profile, and plastic surgery made him almost unrecognizable. He resurfaced at the Cannes Film Festival for a screening of his 1996 film “Sunchaser.” He appeared at Cannes again in 2007 for his final film venture, a three-minute contribution to the multi-director anthology “Chacun son gout.” He obliquely addressed the rumor that he was transitioning into a woman, saying there were many false rumors about him, part of a “personal assassination”; he said if a detractor wants to prevent a person from working, the next best thing is to “destroy them personally.”

Cimino worked on many projects that never materialized, including a life of Dostoevsky developed with Raymond Carver; adaptations of “Crime and Punishment,” Truman Capote’s “Handcarved Coffins,” Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead” and Andre Malraux’s “Man’s Fate.”

He was interested in making bios of Janis Joplin, Legs Diamond and Mafia boss Frank Costello. He also circled many projects that eventually were directed by others, including “The Bounty,” “Footloose,” “The Pope of Greenwich Village” and “Born on the Fourth of July.”