Michael Cimino, Director of ‘The Deer Hunter’ and ‘Heaven’s Gate,’ Dies at 77


He had already leveraged the intense anticipation surrounding “The Deer Hunter” to reach a deal at United Artists to make a movie from a screenplay he had written, called “The Johnson County War.” It focused on a blood-soaked conflict involving immigrant homesteaders, landed cattle ranchers, mercenaries and United States marshals in 1890s Wyoming.

Mr. Cimino was given a budget of around $12 million and a timetable of about two and a half months to film a feature that the studio, with a schedule full of movies that would be delivered late and over budget, had hoped to have ready in time for Christmas 1979.

Instead, Mr. Cimino’s film — renamed “Heaven’s Gate” — took almost a year and more than $40 million to make. A critical and commercial flop, it entered theaters with a running time of more than three and a half hours and seemed to stand as a cautionary tale of an intemperate director permitted to indulge his every whim by timid executives who all but brought their studio to the ground.

Though the reputations of Mr. Cimino and of “Heaven’s Gate” would improve to varying degrees, the saga surrounding the film ensured that Hollywood’s auteur period was effectively over.

Variety, the industry trade publication, has cautioned that, where Mr. Cimino is concerned, many facts about his life are “shrouded in conflicting information.” Several sources give his birth date as Feb. 3, 1939.

He was raised on Long Island and attended Michigan State University, where, he said, according to a Vanity Fair profile, he earned a bachelor of arts degree in less than three years. He went on to study at Yale, he said, where he earned a bachelor of fine arts degree in 1961 and a graduate degree two years later.

After directing television commercials in New York, he moved to Los Angeles to work as a screenwriter. He contributed to the scripts of the 1972 science-fiction film “Silent Running” and of “Magnum Force,” the 1973 action movie that starred Clint Eastwood in his second outing as the homicide detective Dirty Harry.

His first effort as a feature director was “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot,” the 1974 comic crime caper starring Mr. Eastwood and Jeff Bridges as a pair of mismatched criminals.

Mr. Cimino, who wrote the script, worked quickly — Mr. Eastwood was said to have never wanted to do more than three takes of any scene — and the movie was a hit, earning Mr. Bridges an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor.

“The Deer Hunter” drew widespread praise. Vincent Canby, in The New York Times, called it “a big, awkward, crazily ambitious, sometimes breathtaking motion picture that comes as close to being a popular epic as any movie about this country since ‘The Godfather.’ ”

Photo

A scene from Heaven’s Gate, filmed in Wyoming. It took almost a year and more than $40 million to make.

Credit
MGM, via Photofest

But Mr. Cimino was criticized as having played fast and loose with factual details, both in the film and in his personal biography. Though Mr. Cimino suggested in a 1978 Times interview that he joined the Army in 1968 and was assigned as a medic to a Green Beret unit training in Texas, it emerged that he had enlisted in the Army Reserve in 1962, spending about six months on active duty, mostly at Fort Dix in New Jersey.

His making of “Heaven’s Gate” would quickly reduce these other controversies to mere footnotes.

According to the memoir “Final Cut,” written by Steven Bach, a former United Artists executive who played a crucial role in courting him, Mr. Cimino “was five days behind schedule and spent $900,000 for a minute and a half of usable film.” And that was after just first six days of shooting “Heaven’s Gate” in Montana.

“A week later,” Mr. Bach wrote, “he was 10 days and 15 pages behind. He had by then exposed two hours of film, less than three minutes of which he was willing to approve, at a rough cost of a million dollars per usable minute.”

Mr. Bach added: “The handwriting was on the wall from the beginning, and, even to the most denial-devoted insider, spelled ‘catastrophe.’ ”

Mr. Cimino went on to direct four more feature films: “Year of the Dragon” (1985), “The Sicilian” (1987), “Desperate Hours” (1990) and “The Sunchaser” (1996). He also contributed a short film to a 2007 anthology, “To Each His Own Cinema,” celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Cannes Film Festival.

In a 2010 interview with Vanity Fair, he expressed hope that “Heaven’s Gate” would eventually be regarded as a masterpiece.

“Nobody lives without making mistakes,” Mr. Cimino said. “I never second-guess myself.”

He added: “You can’t look back. I don’t believe in defeat. Everybody has bumps, but as Count Basie said, ‘It’s not how you handle the hills, it’s how you handle the valleys.’”

When “Heaven’s Gate” received a Criterion release on DVD and Blu-ray and presented at the New York Film Festival in 2013, Manohla Dargis, reviewing it for The Times, suggested that a range of reactions was possible.

“The film’s scope, natural backdrops, massive sets, complex choreography and cinematography are seductive, at times stunning, and if you like watching swirling people and cameras, you may love it,” Ms. Dargis wrote.

She continued: “If you insist on strong narratives, white hats and black, uniform performances, audible dialogue and a happy ending, well, you will have history and consensus on your side.”

Mr. Cimino’s survivors include a nephew, T. Rafael Cimino, a screenwriter and producer, and several cousins.

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