Michael Cimino, the multiple Oscar-winning director-producer of The Deer Hunter whose career later became an infamous cautionary tale after the failure of his 1980 Western epic Heaven’s Gate has died, according to reports from friends. He was 77. The news was made public by Theirry Fremaux, director of the Cannes Film Festival, who tweeted that he “died peacefully, surrounded by his family and the two women who loved him.”
Cimino gained fame in the 1970s as part of the wave of groundbreaking filmmakers dubbed “New Hollywood” who popularized the director as the driving creative force behind filmmaking and along the way created some of the most important films ever made. Cimino’s primary contribution to this era was his second feature film, the 1978 war drama The Deer Hunter, a scathing look at the decline of America’s industrial working class and the severe cultural fallout of the Vietnam War.
Starring Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Savage, John Cazale (in his final role), Meryl Streep, and George Dzundza, the film made a tremendous impact on subsequent filmmaking and popular culture, not least of all for its iconic, highly controversial depiction of Russian roulette that has been alluded to and outright parodied in numerous subsequent works. It was a critical and financial success, earning $49 million on its $15 million budget, and went on to receive nine Oscar nominations, winning five of them including Best Director (Cimino), Best Supporting Actor (Walken), and Best Picture.
“Our work together is something I will always remember. He will be missed,” said Robert De Niro about Cimino on Saturday.
Following the success of The Deer Hunter, Cimino was given carte blanche by United Artists to make his next movie, the epic western Heaven’s Gate, based on Wyoming’s Johnson County war of the 1890s. Featuring a cast that included Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, Isabelle Huppert, Jeff Bridges, John Hurt, Sam Waterston, Brad Dourif, Joseph Cotten, Geoffrey Lewis, David Mansfield, Richard Masur, Terry O’Quinn, Mickey Rourke, and the film debut of Willem Dafoe, the film’s production quickly derailed. Shooting fell behind schedule, Cimino became known for obsessive behavior on set, and by the end of production the budget had ballooned to $44 million.
UA considered firing him from the film at one point and in post production, Cimino retaliated by locking studio executives out of the editing room and refusing to show them the film until he had decided on a final cut. His first print ran more than five hours long, though after resistance from the studio Cimino cut it down to 3 hours and 39 minutes. Released in 1980, the film was a disaster for United Artists. Panned by critics, it flopped hard, earning $3.5 million before disappearing from theaters, leading to the near-collapse of United Artists (it was ultimately sold off to MGM), and destroying Cimino’s reputation.
Heaven’s Gate subsequently became a symbol for the excesses of the New Hollywood era and helped bring it to an end. Already stung by several flops from Director-driven productions in the late 70s, Studios began to emphasize high concept blockbuster filmmaking and exert tighter controls on film budgets. The film’s failure also led to a sharp decline in the production of westerns, and Cimino’s career never recovered from the blow. He directed just four other films – Year of the Dragon, The Sicilian, Desperate Hours, and Sunchaser.
Despite those setbacks, Heaven’s Gate was later reassessed by critics and Cimino’s peers, and Cimino lived to see his reputation as one of the 70s most important filmmakers restored to a degree. Heaven’s Gate was re-released as a 216 minute director’s cut in 2012 to great acclaim at the 69th Venice Film Festival, which also marked Cimino’s last public appearance. On hand then to accept a lifetime achievement award as well as premiere his new director’s cut, he reflected on his fame and infamy, saying at the time that “Being infamous is not fun. It becomes a weird occupation in and of itself.”