Orson Wells, John Huston, John Ford, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan….
The director of the Deer Hunter (1978), who immediately after hoisting the Academy Award for Best Director began work on dismantling a major movie studio by staring production on the Heaven’s Gate (1980)…the greatest Hollywood flop of all time.
The Deer Hunter, Cimino’s magnum opus, is without question one of the great American films. That is if we can call it a “film”. It’s more like a fever dream. Characters drunk as shit drive from Pennsylvania to Washington state, shoot a deer, and drive back…all within 48 hours. Robert DeNiro torches a guy. And the three main characters are forced by a bunch of racist caricatures to play Russian Roulette. It’s an undeniably powerful film that accurately captures the American psyche post-Vietnam.
With the success of the Deer Hunter, Cimino had carte blanche in Hollywood to do whatever he wanted. He chose Heaven’s Gate, produced by United Artists, a story about an obscure dispute in Wyoming in the 1800s and staring a hot, Hot, HOT Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, and Isabella Huppert (John Hurt’s hot too I guess). It was to be the greatest western of all time, solidifying Michael Cimino as one of the great auteurs.
When production started, problems instantly arose. Doing his best Kubrick impression, Cimino demanded take after take from his actors. He’d delay production to get the perfect shot of the Montana landscape where the film was shot, or demand that sets be torn down and rebuilt to exact specifications. He’d also charge the studio absurdly high rent to film on land that he allegedly owned (respect). The budget soared and United Artist was getting nervous.
Was it all worth it?
Heaven’s Gate infamously flopped. Critics hated it. And it financially ruined United Artists (the James Bond franchise, arguably their most lucrative property at the time, would ultimately bail them out).
Despite attempts by internet and European critics to say it’s secretly a “masterpiece” 40 years after its release, Heaven’s Gate simply…doesn’t…work. The film looks like shit (sorry Vilmos Zsigmond fans), scenes go on longer than they should, and obviously Michael Cimino was feeling himself a little too much. If wasting money and being pretentious is an art form, then yes, Heaven’s Gate is a masterpiece.
Michael Cimino changed Hollywood. Gone were the days when auteurs ruled Hollywood. It wasn’t until John Landis killed three people (later acquitted) on the set of the Twilight Zone that Hollywood finally put the kibosh on artistic freedom.
Cimino would go on to direct some crap in 1980s, but his legacy was secure. That’s not worth nothin’, and I believe that’s worth honoring.
Michael Cimino passed away in 2016.
While I regard The Deer Hunter to be his finest work, one can’t forget the time Cimino, horribly disfigured by plastic surgery, roasted and mocked the entire crowd at Locarno Film Festival.