Probably one of Hollywood's biggest real-life Greek tragedies, Michael Cimino (February 3, 1939 July 2, 2016) was an American film director, screenwriter and producer. He was best known for directing, producing and co-writing the commercially successful Academy Award-winning film The Deer Hunter (1978), and for following it two years later by writing and directing the infamous critical and financial failure Heaven's Gate (1980).
After a successful run as a director of television commercials, he moved into feature film in the early 1970s. He began as a co-writer for the films Silent Running and Magnum Force. He then made his debut as a director with Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, which he had also written the script for. He then directed The Deer Hunter, an epic and gritty film about three American steelworkers who participate in The Vietnam War. Despite some delays and cost overruns, the film was a critical and commercial success. The Deer Hunter earned five Academy Awards and Cimino gained a reputation for being one of the up-and-coming directors in Hollywood. Cimino was ambitious and the embodiment of The Perfectionist. His style favored making an Epic Movie with leisurely pacing and an emphasis on the visuals.
But Cimino's career fell even quicker than it rose. His next film, Heaven's Gate, was fraught with troubled production on a far greater scale. The press picked up stories of Cimino's hyper-perfectionist directing style. Allegedly, he delayed filming on one day until a cloud formation he liked matched what he wanted, ordered the buildings on each side of the set of the town's main street to be torn down and rebuilt three feet back from where they were because the street looked too narrow, even after one crew member pointed out that it would be easier and cheaper to just tear one side down and rebuild it six feet back, and took 36 takes of Christopher Walken taking off his hat. After a messy release that was nearly a year overdue, the film was a critical and commercial flop. It was a Creator Killer for both Cimino and United Artists and a Genre-Killer for both The Western (at least, for its classic era) and particularly the New Hollywood era. Never again would studios give directors so much control over the filming process.
In the next 16 years, Cimino directed four further films, but his career was punch drunk from Heaven's Gate. He was also hired to direct Footloose but was fired after four months for demanding a script rewrite. He was keen to make the film more epic in scope, but the producers feared a repeat of Heaven's Gate, and he eventually retired from directing in 1996. He had many unrealised ambitions (enough to have its own article on Wikipedia, which we'd link if it didn't have an apostrophe in the URL), including interest in adapting Crime and Punishment and The Fountainhead; some of these plans stretched into the final years of his life, long after his retirement. In later years, Heaven's Gate underwent a partial rehabilitation among critics. In 2012, Cimino attended the premiere of a well-received new edit of Heaven's gate at the Venice Film Festival. This edit was subsequently released on home video to much better reviews. However, Cimino's career would never see a revival; despite his continuing ambitions of returning to the director's chair he would die in 2016, remembered primarily as the man who killed the New Hollywood era and as the biggest cautionary tale against hubris in the film industry.
- Silent Running (1972) - writer
- Magnum Force (1973) - writer
- Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974) - director, writer
- The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) - script supervisor
- The Deer Hunter (1978) - director, writer, producer
- Heaven's Gate (1980) - director, writer
- Year of the Dragon (1985) - director, writer
- The Sicilian (1987) - director
- Desperate Hours (1990) - director
- Sunchaser (1996) - director, producer
Tropes common to Cimino and his works include:
- Artistic License History: Both The Deer Hunter and Heaven's Gate haves examples of it. Heaven's Gate takes only the vaguest framework of the Johnson County War, and there's a lot of very intense debate about the kind of POW conditions depicted in The Deer Hunter, and there aren't any confirmed cases of Russian Roulette being played in that context.
- Auteur License: Got it after Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. Cemented it with The Deer Hunter. Promptly lost it with Heaven's Gate.
- Ensemble Cast:
- Heaven's Gate, which features Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, John Hurt, Sam Waterston, Isabella Huppert, Brad Dourif, Jeff Bridges, Mickey Rourke and Willem Dafoe, among others.
- Downplayed with The Deer Hunter. The film stars Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep and John Cazale, all big names today, but at the time, Oscar winner De Niro was the only one of the cast with any real star power - John Cazale, while well-known for roles in The Godfather, The Godfather Part II and Dog Day Afternoon, was hardly a box office draw; Christopher Walken had played in mostly bit-parts up to that point; and Meryl Streep only had two credited roles before The Deer Hunter. However, given the film's success, this doubles as a Star-Making Role for Streep and Walken, both of whom were nominated for Oscars for their performances (and the latter winning).
- Epic Movie: Both The Deer Hunter and Heaven's Gate apply, the latter moreso.
- Oscar Bait:
- The Deer Hunter was the Trope Maker. The producers, realizing that a dark and psychological three-hour examination of the horrors of the Vietnam War probably wouldn't do that well in a year dominated by comparatively fun blockbusters like Grease and Superman, released it in select Los Angeles and New York theaters in late 1978. Once it was nominated for several Oscars, winning five (including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actor for Christopher Walken), they capitalized on the Oscar buzz by expanding it to a wide release, and it became the 9th highest-grossing movie of 1978.
- Heaven's Gate really should have been this. Should.