Michael Cimino’s recent death at the age of 77 is a reminder of a bygone age in cinema, that brief period in the 1970s when film directors ran the show. There was a narrow space of time between the collapse of the old Hollywood studio system and the rise of the international conglomerates when movies got to be truly exciting and original. Fresh ideas, new techniques, bold and controversial stories were exciting audiences across the country. And Michael Cimino was one of the artists at the forefront of that era.
Cimino first broke into the Hollywood scene as a screenwriter. He co-wrote the bleak 1971 sci-fi film Silent Running, and the 1973 Dirty Harry sequel Magnum Force. His work left a lasting impression on Clint Eastwood, and he put Cimino in the director’s chair for his 1974 bank heist film, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. The film was a hit and Cimino became a hot commodity.
Cimino spent all his career capital on a big gamble for his next project, The Deer Hunter. By 1978, there had been very few major Hollywood films that touched on the subject of the Vietnam War, and none of them in the gritty way that Cimino intended. The war was still a sensitive topic for many Americans, and its psychological wounds still fresh in the American mind.
Cimino’s story of hard-drinking steel workers who enlist to fight in Southeast Asia revealed the Vietnam War like audiences had never seen – savage and violent, uncompromising and sad, thought-provoking and haunting.
The film was a huge success at the box office, and it won five Oscars, including Best Picture, and Best Director. It also opened the door for all the Vietnam War films that followed: Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Born on the Fourth of July and so forth. None of those films might have come to pass if Cimino had not been bold enough to break new ground.
The bitter irony of Michael Cimino’s career is that while he was one of the maverick directors who made the cinema of the 1970s great, he was also one of the reasons that the maverick era came to an end.
Heaven’s Gate, Cimino’s sprawling epic of the 1890s Johnson County War in Wyoming, has been considered the quintessential box office bomb. Although the film was obnoxiously long – the director’s cut tapped out at five hours – it wasn’t necessarily a bad movie. But rumors of production troubles, endless reshoots, and a skyrocketing budget doomed the film to failure before it was even released.
Heaven’s Gate came to symbolize the worst excesses of a director-run Hollywood regime. In the eyes of the men who ran the studios, giving directors free reign on the set created huge cost overruns, rambling narratives, and films that could not be sold to large audiences. Cimino became Public Enemy Number One for the studio suits, and when his magnum opus inadvertently led to the collapse of United Artists, he was ostracized from Hollywood, and shortly thereafter, the era of the maverick director came to an end.
Michael Cimino made only a handful of films after Heaven’s Gate, with only 1984’s Year of the Dragon approaching any level of critical or box office success. He retreated from the public eye, and rumors about his life and work circulated unchecked in Hollywood.
Now that Cimino is gone, perhaps he can be appreciated for possessing an uncompromising artistic vision that helped America begin its healing process over the Vietnam War, and for treading into uncharted artistic waters. Few film directors are attached simultaneously to some of the greatest and most notorious motion pictures. Michael Cimino has that distinction, but he also has the distinction of being a filmmaker that comes along only once in a generation.
BTW: In case you want to know more, Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls is a great chronicle of 1970s Hollywood. Give it a look; it is a fun and breezy read.