The life of film director Michael Cimino could have been a film in itself having reached two extremes with the success of his brilliant film ‘The Deer Hunter he was then pilloried for his follow up, the notorious, ‘Heavens Gate’ and became something of a recluse fiercely protecting his privacy.
Born in New York City to a music publisher father and a clothing designer mother he went on to study painting architecture and art history at Yale. An intelligent man he went onto become a commercials director and even in those tiny slices of consumerism he established a reputation for perfectionism. Moving to LA in the early 70’s he started writing and earned a writing credit on the sci- fi film ‘Silent Running’. With its success he continued to write but it soon became clear to him that he needed A list stars to get his scripts made and having written ‘Thunderbolt and Lightfoot’ in 6 weeks he managed to persuade Clint Eastwood to star who got on so well with the writer that he arranged for him to direct the heist movie. The script was out of kilter with his following films due to the humorous script – something that would never raise its head again in his subsequent films.
His next film was to be the one to really make his name. It was the 5 time Oscar winning Vietnam film ‘The Deer Hunter’ starring Robert De Niro , newcomers Meryl Streep &Christopher Walken and John Cazale, who was suffering from terminal bone cancer which Cimino managed to hide from the studio – filming all his scenes before Cazale tragically passed away. The film was not without controversy often being accused of being right wing and its scenes of Russian roulette were gruelling. Nonetheless it won him Oscars for Best Film and Best Director and it gave him carte blanche with the studio United Artists . It was a decision the studio would regret as having been founded in 1919 by Charlie Chaplin amongst others the financial freedom given to the director bought about the downfall of the studio as the budget went wildly over the top.
Stories about the making of the film have become synonymous with Hollywood indulgence. The script had been rejected by studios before ‘The Deer Hunter’s success as being too expensive but with Oscars under his arm it now became viable but very early things were going wrong. After just 6 days of shooting the film was already five days over schedule. Spending was profligate and the $11m budget ballooned to $44m. Accusations of onset tantrums and even allegations of animal cruelty plagued the production. Almost 1,3 million feet of film was shot and the film’s original cut was 325 minutes which was cut down to 219minutes with a further 70 minutes cut after critics at the time savaged it. Financially the film was a disaster earning only $4m and it ended with United Artsist being sold to MGM.
It was also the end of any meaningful films from him directing only four more films including the vaguely racist Yar of the Dragon with Mickey Rourke in 1985 follwed by 1987’s The Sicilian, 1990’s Desperate Hours with Anthony Hopkins and 1996’s Sunchaser – all immediately forgettable.
After this he effectively became a recluse and the stories about him began to circulate most notably that he was undergoing gender realignment based purely on the change in his appearance due to extensive plastic surgery making him almost unrecognisable and the allegation was refuted by him at an address he gave in Cannes in2007. ‘Heavens Gate’ was always ripe for reassessment though and in 2012 a new 216minute cut of the was released to a certain degree of acclaim especially from the French critics and their love of the auteur theory.
He remained extremely private about his private life and he added to this with uncorroborated stories that The Deer Hunter was based on his own experiences in Vietnam with some saying he’d never served there. What is known is that despite saying he had a college age daughter he actually left no one when he died at 77 years of age.