Director Michael Cimino, who won Oscars for The Deer Hunter before his Heaven’s Gate wrecked his career, has died.
Cimino directed eight films in his career. His second was the 1978 Vietnam War masterpiece The Deer Hunter, which won five Academy Awards, including best picture and director; his third was 1980’s Heaven’s Gate, the film that became a code word for showbiz disaster.
When Cimino made a deal with Universal and EMI for the The Deer Hunter in ’78, he had only two screenplay credits, then wrote and directed only one other film, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. Deer Hunter ran behind schedule and over budget, but was a big money-maker at he box office.
Based on its success, United Artists signed him for Heaven’s Gate, a Western based on the Johnson County Wars. It began filming in April ’79 and wrapped 11 months later and in his 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 but ended up costing much more. It was a $44 million loss for UA. Cimino always avoided questions about the disastrous Gate,” and labeled Bach’s book “a work of fiction.”
Almost from the beginning, 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. At various times, United Artists execs considered firing him or pulling the plug, but they didn’t.
Over the years, the film has been re-evaluated several times, with either positive or rapturous reception. Cimino circled many projects that never came to fruition, 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; and bios of Janis Joplin, Legs Diamond and Mafia boss Frank Costello.
Michael Cimino was (probably) 77. His birthday is usually cited as Feb. 3, 1939, though many facts about Cimino’s life, including his birthdate, were clouded in conflicting information.