Michael Cimino

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Michael Cimino (b. 3 February 1939 New York City) is an Academy Award winning film writer, producer and director who achieved his greatest success with The Deer Hunter (1978) but whose Hollywood career was subsequently curtailed after the critically panned and financially disastrous Heaven’s Gate (1980), which hastened the demise of the film studio that released it, United Artists. His films are distinguished by intricately designed widescreen photography and detailed art direction. In recent years a critical reappraisal of Heaven’s Gate has taken place, especially in France, where Cimino was awarded the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres in 2001.

Early years in Hollywood

A graduate of Yale University, Cimino broke into the entertainment business by directing commercials and writing screenplays. His first significant Hollywood assignment was co-writer of Silent Running (1972), a science fiction film directed by Douglas Trumbull. Cimino then co-wrote, with John Milius, Magnum Force (1973), the sequel to the successful Dirty Harry. Clint Eastwood was so impressed by Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, a script that Cimino had written on spec, that Eastwood allowed Cimino to direct the film, which Eastwood’s Malpaso film company produced. The success of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), which gave co-star Jeff Bridges an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor, led to a British film company, EMI Films, to finance The Deer Hunter, which was released by Universal Studios. In the Director’s Commentary to the Year of the Dragon DVD, Cimino states emphatically more than once, “I owe everything to Clint.”

The Deer Hunter

One of the first films distributed by an American studio to deal with the harsh reality of the Vietnam War, The Deer Hunter (1978) beat Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (which had started filming earlier) to the cinemas, and was a financial and critical success, winning five Academy Awards, including two for Cimino, for Best Director and Best Picture. However, Cimino has repeatedly stated, including in the Director's Commentary for the U.K. edition of The Deer Hunter DVD, that the film is not about Vietnam per se, but about ordinary people dealing with extraordinary situations. "There's no political agenda in the movie," Cimino explained in an interview. "It's not even about the Vietnam war. This is a movie about people. It's a story of a group of friends."[1]

Heaven's Gate

Just prior to the release of The Deer Hunter, United Artists, one of Hollywood’s oldest studios, made a deal with Cimino to direct The Johnson County War, from Cimino’s own script, and the production budget was set at $7.8 million.[2] The film was a western based loosely on a historical incident that took place in Wyoming in 1892: a gang of gunmen were hired by wealthy ranch owners to kill a number of alleged cattle rustlers, and the U.S. Cavalry was subsequently called in to rescue the gunmen from an armed militia of small landowners. Throughout 1979 Cimino shot the film, now called Heaven’s Gate, largely in Kalispell, Montana, and his painstaking perfectionism resulted in a lengthy shooting schedule that resulted in 1.3 million feet of film shot and printed, about 220 hours’ worth. By the time the film was ready for release, the production cost had skyrocketed well past $40 million, making Heaven’s Gate one of the most expensive films ever made up to that time. [3] Heaven’s Gate, in a three hour and thirty-nine minute version, complete with musical prelude and intermission, premiered in New York City on November 18, 1980. The next day, film critic Vincent Canby in the New York Times described the film as “an unqualified disaster.” The exaggerated hostility of Canby’s review was merciless: “Heaven's Gate fails so completely that you might suspect Mr. Cimino sold his soul to the Devil to obtain the success of The Deer Hunter, and the Devil has just come around to collect.” [4] On the basis of that one review, Cimino withdrew the film from circulation and re-edited it down to two and a half hours. This shorter verson opened on April 24, 1981 and the reviews in the major press, while lukewarm, found aspects of Heaven’s Gate to praise (particularly the cinematography), but the public, perhaps swayed by the months of bad media chatter around the film, stayed away, and the film grossed just under $3.5 million in the United States, a resounding flop.[5] In May 1981, Transamerica, the corporation that owned United Artists, sold the bankrupt movie studio to MGM.

Heaven’s Gate received one Academy Award nomination, for Best Art Direction, which it lost to Raiders of the Lost Ark. The failure of Heaven's Gate was a watershed moment in Hollywood, when studio executives began to curtail the artistic freedom of film directors. "Heaven's Gate undercut all of us," recalled Martin Scorsese. "It was a time when the studios were outraged that the cost of movies was going up so rapidly, that directors . . . had all the control. So they took the control back." [6] At the time of its release and re-release, Heaven's Gate had become much more famous as a Hollywood-behind-the-scenes debacle than as a film, and it is still sometimes referred to as a byword for filmmaking excess.

Later years

After Heaven's Gate Cimino was never again able to initiate a film project on his own. Producer Dino De Laurentiis hired Cimino to direct Year of the Dragon, and Cimino adapted Robert Daley's novel with Oliver Stone. Cimino was friends with Stanley Kubrick, who, though famously reclusive, attended the U.K. premiere of Year of the Dragon in 1985.[7] But Cimino would be unable to emulate his early successes. Year of the Dragon, along with The Sicilian (1987), Desperate Hours (1990) and Sunchaser (1996) all fared poorly at the box office.

Cimino wrote a novel called Big Jane, which was translated into French and published by Gallimard, France's most distinguished publishing house, in 2001.


as screenwriter

Silent Running (1972) (co-writer)

Magnum Force (1973) (co-writer)

as director

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974) (also writer)

The Deer Hunter (1978) (also co-writer)

Heaven’s Gate (1980) (also writer)

Year of the Dragon (1985) (also co-writer)

The Sicilian (1987)

Desperate Hours (1990)

Sunchaser (1996)

  1. http://www.threemonkeysonline.com/article_michael_cimino_deer_hunter_heavens_gate.htm
  2. Bach, Steven, Final Cut (London: Faber and Faber, 1985), p. 137.
  3. Ibid., p. 281-2.
  4. Vincent Canby, “'Heaven’s Gate', A Western by Cimino”, New York Times, November 19, 1980, [1]
  5. Bach, p. 399-400; Box Office Mojo, [2]
  6. Biskind, Peter. Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (London: Bloomsbury, 1998), p. 401.
  7. According to Cimino in his DVD commentary for the film.