Hollywood is full of lives used as cautionary tales. The rise and fall of indulgent actors and naive starlets are all used as fables to warn of the hazards that can befall myopic movie-makers. Few of these fables feature a director’s tragic fall from grace, but when tales are told of the perils of personal film-making and ballooning budgets, one name invariably comes up: Michael Cimino.
Undeniably talented, with a classic Oscar®-winner under his belt, Cimino’s excesses in the making of the phenomenally unsuccessful Heaven’s Gate (1980) nearly bankrupted United Artists and sent the director’s career into a tailspin from which he never really recovered.
Michael Cimino was born in New York City on November 16, 1943 (though other sources place it as 1938). Whatever his age, he did go on to earn both a Bachelors (1961) and Masters of Fine Arts (1963) from Yale University. He studied architecture and dramatic art, and later filmed advertisements and wrote scripts, including co-writing Clint Eastwood vehicle Magnum Force in 1973. Producer/director/actor Eastwood took the neophyte under his wing and Cimino was given the opportunity to write and direct Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974) for the star.
Cimino’s biggest success came with The Deer Hunter (1978), a wrenching drama about Vietnam and its impact on a group of friends. The film won Academy Awards® for Best Film and Best Director. (Christopher Walken also won for Best Supporting Actor.) Impressed, United Artists gave Cimino carte blanche on his next project: the over-long, over-indulgent, and financially disastrous Heaven’s Gate (1980). His subsequent films, Year of the Dragon (1985) with Mickey Rourke, The Sicilian (1987), and Desperate Hours (again with Rourke) were not been box office successes. (Cimino was also criticized for making a hero of The Sicilian’s titular real-life criminal, Salvatore Guiliano.)
Cimino’s last film was 1996’s Sunchaser starring Woody Harrelson, although in the last few years of his life, Cimino died in July this year, he was working on an adaptation of André Malraux’s 1933 novel Man’s Fate.
Though Cimino has joined the ranks of Erich Von Stroheim and other directors punished for their perceived megalomaniacal approach to film-making, audiences are still left with The Deer Hunter, a moving movie classic — and a valuable cautionary tale about art and commerce.