In all the obits on Michael Cimino, who died Saturday at age 77, most talked about his career trajectory from boom – 1978 Best Picture and Director Oscar winner The Deer Hunter – to bust – 1980 United Artists killer Heaven’s Gate. And while few filmmakers fell off the Hollywood mountain quite as quickly and dramatically as Cimino, the fact that he had that one big “boom” should not be underestimated.
If you can write off the rest of Cimino’s cinematic output after those two works (one famous, one infamous), you can NOT write off a man who was capable of making a movie as emotionally profound, gut-wrenching and meaningful still as The Deer Hunter, one that actually almost never even played in the Oscar game that year. Reportedly, Universal, the film’s distributor, thought it had a big three hour bomb on its hands after a disastrous Detroit sneak preview, even toying briefly with the idea of slashing the movie (fortunately that didn’t happen). I never interviewed Cimino, never met him, never even saw him in person. I didn’t even think much about him until hearing of his death yesterday. When The Deer Hunter was released I was writing kids comedy shows for local Los Angeles TV stations. But I distinctly recall seeing the then-largely unknown movie, about Pennsylvania steelworkers whose lives were changed forever by the Vietnam war, at the now-defunct National Theatre in Westwood, where it played exclusively for a limited late December two week Oscar qualifying engagement.
I was absolutely speechless when it came out. Most movies today I can’t remember a month later, but I can still recall the emotional power and what I felt after leaving that theatre. It was unlike any other movie I had seen in years. For this I have to thank Cimino, but also the late Allan Carr. That’s right, Allan Carr. It was well known in Hollywood circles at the time, and it should be remembered now, that the man responsible for turning the movie into something that would eventually gather nine Oscar nominations and five wins was none other than Allan Carr. The flamboyant manager-turned-producer would later be known for his own brand of massive bombs, such as the abysmal Can’t Stop The Music and Where The Boys Are Now, and for producing in 1989 the most vilified Oscars show in history (you might recall Rob Lowe singing with Snow White?). But in late ’78 Carr was riding high, having earlier that year given Paramount Grease, the biggest movie musical box office hit of all time.
Carr somehow owed a favor to Barry Spikings, one of the producers on The Deer Hunter who, according to Robert Hofler’s excellent Carr biography “Party Animals,” was desperate to turn around the fate of his movie. Spikings arranged to show it to a reluctant Carr for ideas, making him essentially the “first Oscar Consultant,” as Hofler quoted Universal honcho Thom Mount decades later. Blown away by the film, Carr basically took over the marketing campaign and did the unheard of stunt of putting it on TV, on L.A.’s then-eccentric Z Channel, before it even opened in theaters. He then convinced the studio to release it in one theater each in LA and NY for a year end two-week Oscar qualifying engagement before being pulled to await the Academy’s nomination announcement in January. All of this is in many ways kind of standard operating procedure, but then it was unchartered territory.
The Z Channel ploy was especially interesting as that fledgling cable channel had a small but crucial local audience, hundreds of them Oscar voters, and was given great credit for Annie Hall’s Best Picture win the year before as that Woody Allen classic was one of the first instances of “screeners” by making the movie available to Z Channel subscribers (and voters) even as it was still in theaters. That success didn’t go unnoticed by Carr, and his similar effort with The Deer Hunter saw it become an Oscar-winning legend that also racked up acting nominations for Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep (her first of 19 noms), as well as a Best Supporting Actor win for Christopher Walken, who gave special credit afterwards to Carr.
The film defeated a formidable list of Best Picture nominees that included another Vietnam-themed film Coming Home, Warren Beatty’s smash Heaven Can Wait, Midnight Express, and An Unmarried Woman. That it happened at all that late in the season that year is because of Carr, and his belief in the Oscar possibilities of the film in a campaign that also gained traction with the Golden Globes and several critics groups, who gave Cimino their Best Director prize. How ironic it was that John Wayne, star of The Green Berets and a prominent Vietnam war supporter, would be presenting the Best Picture Oscar to The Deer Hunter at that April 9, 1979 Academy Award ceremony. Wayne would die of cancer just two months later.
Before Harvey Weinstein became the architect of the modern Oscar campaign, The Deer Hunter led the way. The Academy Awards, and the way of winning them, was demonstrably changed. It would however be the last time Cimino himself was ever recognized by the Academy (he also shared a Deer Hunter Best Original Screenplay nomination but that award went to Coming Home). His only film made before The Deer Hunter, 1974’s engaging Thunderbolt And Lightfoot, did earn Jeff Bridges a Supporting Actor nomination, and the notorious Heaven’s Gate debacle somehow managed a single Art Direction nomination. His subsequent features Year Of The Dragon (1985), The Sicilian (1987), Desperate Hours (1990) and Sunchaser (1996) were all forgettable, and never even brought him close to the Oscars in any way again. In terms of Academy Awards lore, Cimino was a shooting star, a one hit wonder, but when that hit was an all-timer like The Deer Hunter attention must be paid.