Director Michael Cimino leaves lasting, controversial legacy

The director Michael Cimino in Italy during the '70s.

The film industry is one that many people attempt to pierce but few find success. Even fewer manage to sustain careers in such a vastly competitive business. Fewer still manage to do so and win such prestigious awards as Oscars or BATFAs. However, one man succeeded in all of the above, then followed up by destroying his career and taking down an entire movie studio in the process.

Controversial filmmaker Michael Cimino racked up an impressive resume in commercial work on the East Coast before making his way to Hollywood at the dawn of the 1970s. Cimino, who passed away in July 2016 at age 77, co-wrote high-profile projects, including the science-fiction thriller Silent Running and an action-packed Magnum Force. He landed his first directing gig with 1974’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. While that film was successful, nothing could prepare Cimino for the acclaim that his next production would thrust upon him. Showered with Academy Awards (including Best Picture), 1978’s The Deer Hunter, catapulted Cimino to a new level of recognition and Hollywood clout.

The only event quicker than Cimino’s rise, however, was his spectacular fall from grace with his 1980 film Heaven’s Gate. Beset with production problems (mainly due to Cimino’s enormous ego), bad press, and a disastrous theatrical run, the film became famous as a colossal box-office and critical dud. The aftermath included United Artists studio selling to MGM and studios revoking full creative control from film directors.  

While Cimino subsequently directed four additional films, he was never able to fully resurrect his career.  None of his later efforts were hits, and the recognition he received came mainly in the form of Golden “Razzie” Raspberry Awards, with critics calling his earlier success “a pure fluke.” Did Cimino deserve to be permanently designated to this artistic purgatory? Was Heaven’s Gate deserving of the torrents of scathing reviews that were hurled upon it? Surprisingly, audiences have warmed to the film in the decades since its original release, considering it a lost classic. Was a gifted artist’s career unfairly tainted by one out-of-hand production? Could Cimino have delivered  more masterpieces had he been given the opportunity? Although fans will never get the chance to find out, Cimino left a slim catalog, complete with considerable visual and storytelling talent.

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974)

Having previously worked as a screenwriter, Cimino had a chance to direct with Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, the story of an unlikely friendship between veteran bank robber “Thunderbolt” (Clint Eastwood) and young, thrill-seeking “Lightfoot” (Jeff Bridges). The result is an impressively taut little road/crime thriller. From the opening moments, it’s clear that Cimino not only knows how to tell a story, but to tell it economically.

Virtually everything in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot serves a purpose, be it action or words. The many well-staged chase sequences are not merely loud, dumb noise, but drive the narrative forward. The beautiful setups are not contrived, but yield logical—and humorous—results. The cast brings Cimino’s dynamic characters to life, earning Bridges an Academy Award nomination. The late George Kennedy (from The Naked Gun series) and Geoffrey Lewis are also impressive in supporting roles.

Surprisingly, Cimino almost did not direct Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. Apparently, Clint Eastwood was originally slated to direct the film. It was only after reading Cimino’s script that an impressed Eastwood offered him the chance to take the reins as a solo screenwriter and a director.  

The Deer Hunter (1978)

The Deer Hunter tells the moving story of “Mike” (Robert De Niro), “Nick” (Christopher Walken) and “Steve” (John Savage), three workers from the steel mill town of Clairton, Pennsylvania.  The film consists of three very distinct segments. The first details the trio’s celebration of Steve’s wedding in 1967 as they prepare ship off to fight in Vietnam.  The second chapter outlines the group’s horrifying experiences during the war.  Depicted in great detail is a traumatizing ordeal in which the trio are taken prisoner by North Vietnamese soldiers. Forced to play Russian roulette, they manage to barely escape. The third and final act examines the damage the war has done to each of their lives.

The moderate success of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot had put Michael Cimino on Hollywood’s radar. Yet, Cimino decided to only pursue projects he truly desired to make. The result was a powerful, sprawling epic, set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War. The winner of five Academy Awards, including one for Cimino’s direction, The Deer Hunter has been consistently lauded as a masterpiece.

With the help of writers Deric Washburn, Louis Garfinkle and Quinn Reddecker, Cimino delivered a thought-provoking story of a community and the ways it can be shattered by horrific events. Accuracy of the film’s Vietnam sequences have been questioned, however, it makes for effective, suspenseful filmmaking, telling a story about personal trials characters can face. Cimino made every minute of the three-hour film count, taking the time to intimately flesh out the friendships and individual traits of the main characters. Each is given a distinctive personality, and equally believable camaraderie.

De Niro, Walken and Streep give standout performances, with Walken winning an Academy Award for his performance as sensitive, introverted Nick. His nuanced portrayal paints a tragic picture of a peaceful man, destroyed by an abhorrent war.

Cimino developed an undeniable visual flair displayed throughout the entire film. If anyone got snubbed at the Academy Awards, it was the late cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond who worked with Cimino to create breathtaking sequences. Whether capturing the mists of Pennsylvanian Appalachia or the humidity of Vietnam (using Thailand a stand-in), Zsigmond and Cimino’s attention to detail help to further realize this beautiful piece of drama.  

Heaven’s Gate (1980)

This epic western dramatizes a series of historical feuds in Johnson, Wyoming, in the late 19th century. Collectively known as “The Johnson County War,” the conflicts stemmed from the area’s wealthy cattle barons trying to crack down on the town’s large influx of poor immigrants whom they suspected of stealing animals to feed their families.  

Heaven’s Gate depicts an uncompromisingly gritty tale, in which the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, led by “Frank Canton” (an unusually evil Sam Waterston), draw up a list of 125 suspected cattle thieves and hire an armed posse to assassinate them. At the center of the conflict is Johnson’s wealthy, but sympathetic, Marshal “Jim Averill” (Kris Kristofferson) who warns the residents of the impending invasion. Averill soon discovers his lover, bordello owner “Ella Watson” (Isabelle Huppert), is among the targets, as she accepts stolen cattle as payment. Further complicating matters is Ella’s other suitor, gunslinger “Nate Champion” (Christopher Walken), who turns out to be one of the Associations hired mercenaries.

The film is perhaps best known for its troubled production and equally disastrous release.  Having attained a new level of respect after The Deer Hunter’s success, Cimino was given complete creative carte blanche by the film’s studio United Artists, a privilege that he royally abused. During the shoot he drew attention for a series of egomaniacal escapades (threatening memos, more than quadrupling the film’s original budget, turning in a five-hour cut, installing an armed security guard in front of the editing room, etc.). Critics eviscerated Heaven’s Gate, securing it a place alongside Cleopatra, Ishtar, and Gigli as one of the biggest flops ever.

Inflated ego aside, Cimino showed he still had the chops to write and film a good story with this extremely ambitious western. Rather than the traditional romantic vision of the west, Cimino went for something far darker: a bleak parable of the elite versus the working man. The theme of class warfare and bigotry are as timeless and effective as ever, as we watch the sadistic ruling class target an entire community of people who are just trying to survive. Reuniting with Cimino was Deer Hunter cinematographer Zsigmond, who had won an Oscar for his work on Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and had been nominated for The Deer Hunter. In Heaven’s Gate, Zsigmond created a dusty, sepia color palate that transports the viewer back to a world of the past. Stunning vistas of the Western Rockies abound throughout.  Further contributing to the film’s beauty is the phenomenal production design, for which an entire living, functioning western town was built. These factors help to further immerse us into the extremely detailed world Cimino constructed. Unfortunately, these factors also increased production costs.

For the large cast of characters, Cimino assembled an outstanding group including: Jeff Bridges, John Hurt, Brad Dourif, Mickey Rourke, Richard Masur, Terry O’Quinn, Geoffrey Lewis, and Tom Noonan to name a few. Kris Kristofferson is impressive as flawed anti-hero, a selfish alcoholic who struggles to kick himself into action. Christopher Walken (fresh off his Oscar-Winning turn in The Deer Hunter) is even better as the enigmatic gunslinger, Nate Champion. French actress Isabelle Huppert, in one of her rare American outings, is not merely an object of affection or an unintelligent piece of eye candy, but a strong—and genuinely conflicted—woman caught in the middle of a love triangle.  

The stormy production stories on Heaven’s Gate clouded judgment of the engaging film. Whether his behavior was justifiable or not, Cimino poured his heart and soul into making a Western unlike any that had come before. Ultimately, the fallout from the film’s initial flop included irreparable damage to Cimino’s career. Thankfully, in recent years Heaven’s Gate has benefited from a reassessment, gaining respect in some circles.

Year of the Dragon (1985)

New York City Police Captain/Vietnam veteran, “Stanley White” (Mickey Rourke), is about to declare war on the crime organizations that dominate Chinatown. With the help of TV journalist “Tracy Tzu” (Ariane Koizumi), White begins fearlessly piercing the various outlets of the Chinese mafia.  s White begins stuffing police precincts with thugs, he creates a nemesis for himself in the ambitious, ruthless young gangster “Joey Tai” (John Lone). Using brute force, Tai has been quickly gaining influence within the Chinese mafia, and White is getting in his way. But White proves just as ruthless and will stop at nothing to bring Tai down, even as he alienates and endangers those around him.

Adapted from Robert Daley’s novel Year of the Dragon, Cimino sought a return to the crime genre with this nasty, neo-noir crime thriller. Without a single likeable character in the film (both the protagonist and antagonist are equally dark, destroying anybody or anything that stands in their way), it shows a tragic study of one man’s dangerous obsession.  

Cimino and Mickey Rourke tackle a main character so few filmmakers would touch, a selfish bigot with a relentless pursuit to cripple the Chinese mafia. John Lone turns in a very effective performance as White’s criminal counterpart Joey Tai. Unfortunately, the film is marred by a less-than-stellar supporting cast. Raymond J. Barry and Caroline Kava do what they can as Stanley’s colleague and estranged wife, but suffer from underwritten roles.

While a notable drop in quality from Cimino’s previous efforts, Year of the Dragon is still serviceable crime thriller.  Excellent camera work and lighting from the late cinematographer Alex Thomson give this film a colorful, seedy look which immerses viewers into the dangerous underworld of White and Tai. Although not an easy film to watch, Year of the Dragon is worth watching for Cimino’s ability to avoid genre clichés. Unfortunately, the film represents the last gasp of air Cimino had, before being resigned to lower-budget projects for the remainder of his career.

© Jarrod Emerson (2/1/17) FF2 Media

Photo: Michael Cimino on set of films The Deer Hunter, Heaven’s Gate, and The Year of the Dragon; Clint Eastwood in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot

Photo Credits: Getty Images, Universal Pictures; EMI Films Ltd., United Artists; The Criterion Collection, MGM; Dino De Laurentiis Company

Tags: action-thriller, Clint Eastwood, FF2 Media, Heaven's Gate, Jarrod Emerson, Jeff Bridges, Michael Cimino, science fiction, The Deer Hunter, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, Year of the Dragon

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