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R.I.P. Michael Cimino: What Hollywood Can Still Learn From Its Most Epic Flop

R.I.P. Michael Cimino: What Hollywood Can Still Learn From Its Most Epic Flop: United Artists / MGM

United Artists / MGM

Director Michael Cimino died over the weekend. Around the same time, director Steven Spielberg’s $140 million screen version of Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s book The BFG expired at the box office. So did the $180 million Legend of Tarzan. Unless overseas audiences turn up en masse, those two movies cost their studios a sea of red ink. How are Cimino’s death and two big summer movie disappointments related?

First, some backstory. In 1978 at 39, Michael Cimino became Hollywood’s hottest hot shot when he unleashed his second film, The Deer Hunter: a gut-churning, brilliantly acted saga of blue-collar Pennsylvanians profoundly altered by the Vietnam War. The movie elicited raves and turned a big profit, and Cimino took home Oscars for directing and co-producing the lacerating, deeply personal, 3-hour Best Picture winner. Alongside Martin Scorsese, Francis Coppola, William Friedkin and Robert Altman, Cimino became a recipient of Hollywood’s tidal wave of benevolence toward offbeat, highly personal moviemakers.

The way had been paved in the previous decade by director Arthur Penn with Bonnie and Clyde and Dennis Hopper with Easy Rider. Visionary, uncompromising filmmakers parlayed critical and box-office cachet into a level of creative freedom and autonomy that hadn’t been given to directors since way back in the 1920s and briefly in the ‘40s, to fellow enfant terrible Orson Welles.

Cimino followed up The Deer Hunter with Heaven’s Gate, a gargantuan, nearly four-hour Western art film about a bloody, real-life battle over an obscure land rights dispute. Budgeted at $7.5 million, the production climbed to $44 million as maverick Cimino, his contract giving him financial carte blanche, commissioned massive, intricately detailed sets—only to have many of them completely rebuilt. His crowd scenes ballooned from 100 extras to 500 and, in his quest for perfection, he put cast members Christopher Walken, Kris Kristofferson, Jeff Bridges and others through endless retakes. When he couldn’t find the right location for a major battle sequence, he ordered workers to build an entire irrigation system under acres of prairie land. As he put it, “If you don’t get it right, what’s the point?”

Heaven’s Gate opened, a full year later than Cimino had promised the studio, surrounded by rancid advance publicity that hinted at an ego run amok and a production riddled with internal battles, drug use and profligate waste. Critics gleefully spit-roasted Cimino and his movie, typified by The New York Times’ Vincent Canby, who declared it “an unqualified disaster.” Audiences shunned the poetic, wayward, languorously gorgeous epic. Taking in less than $5 million in box-office receipts, the film sank an entire film studio and got Cimino branded, fairly or unfairly, an uncontrollable, possibly certifiable megalomaniac.

Thrown into director’s jail without a key, he made only four subsequent features, none of which helped regain his reputation or clout. Heaven’s Gate became a symbol, a warning, a parable of the eternal struggle of Artist vs. Suits, and an excuse for studio bosses and bean counters to keep wild-eyed visionaries under heel. In the intervening decades, a restored version of Heaven’s Gate has prompted a major critical rehabilitation and some now consider it to be a masterwork. But as the old Hollywood saying goes, “You can’t cash a masterwork at the bank.” The damage was done.

Since then, we’ve had decades of big-budget, big-tent blockbusters and franchises, some of them as iconic as Star Wars, Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jurassic Park and Iron Man. We’ve also had massive-scale flops, lots of them genre flicks, lots of them would-be franchises, including Pan, Fantastic Four, Tomorrowland, Seventh Son, Green Lantern, The 13th Warrior, The Wolfman, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Adventures of Pluto Nash, Battlefield Earth, Peter Pan, R.I.P.D., John Carter, The Lone Ranger, on and on—movies that could have been made by any one of a dozen different directors.

What we rarely get since Heaven’s Gate are those swing-for-fences, idiosyncratic movies financed by major studios. When they do turn up—see Birdman and The Revenant directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, or Cloud Atlas and Jupiter Ascending directed by Lily and Lana Wachowski, There Will Be Blood, The Master and Inherent Vice directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, or Black Swan or Noah directed by Darren Aronofsky—they’re sometimes brilliant and unforgettable, sometimes less so. Sometimes they make a buck, sometimes not. But none of these could be mistaken for generic, committee-approved, pre-sold, pre-tested “product” that could have been made by just anyone. These days, that feels like a revolutionary act.

We suspect that Michael Cimino, who tried unsuccessfully for well over a decade to launch a film based on Andre Malraux’ novel Man’s Fate, might have agreed.

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