Bold director squandered famous reputation

NEW YORK • Michael Cimino, the Oscar-winning film-maker who earned a reputation as one of Hollywood's boldest directors with the haunting 1978 Vietnam War drama The Deer Hunter, and then all but squandered it two years later with Heaven's Gate, died last Saturday. He was 77. Mr Eric Weissmann, a friend and former lawyer of Cimino's, confirmed the death.

He said Cimino's body was found at his home in Los Angeles last Saturday by the police after friends were unable to reach him by phone. The cause of death had yet to be determined, said Mr Weissmann.

The Deer Hunter, just the second feature directed by Cimino, seemed to exemplify a decade's worth of groundbreaking motion pictures by writers and directors who were given wide latitude to fulfil their visions by mainstream studios.

In the tradition of Arthur Penn's Bonnie And Clyde (1967) and Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets (1973), The Deer Hunter cloaked a mood of existential uncertainty beneath layers of violence.

The film, for which Cimino shared a story credit, chronicled a group of friends from a Pennsylvania town whose lives were scarred by their experiences in Vietnam.

The film received nine Oscar nominations and won five, including Best Picture. Cimino, who won the Oscar for Best Director, seemed to have the film industry at his feet and the freedom to do what he wished.

He had already leveraged the intense anticipation surrounding The Deer Hunter to reach a deal at United Artists to make a movie from a screenplay he had written, called The Johnson County War. It focused on a blood-soaked conflict between immigrant homesteaders, landed cattle ranchers, mercenaries and United States marshals in 1890s Wyoming.

He was given about US$12 million and 21/2 months to film a feature that the studio, with a schedule full of movies that were delivered late and overbudget, had hoped to have ready in time for Christmas 1979.

Instead, his film - renamed Heaven's Gate - took almost a year and more than US$40 million to make and was widely panned and a commercial failure.

Although the reputations of Cimino and of Heaven's Gate would improve to varying degrees, the saga surrounding the film ensured that Hollywood's auteur period was effectively over.

Variety, the industry trade publication, has cautioned that, where Cimino is concerned, many facts about his life are "shrouded in conflicting information". Several sources give his birth date as Feb 3, 1939, and he was raised on Long Island.

He attended college at Michigan State University, where, according to a Vanity Fair profile, he said he earned a bachelor of arts degree in less than three years and went on to study at Yale, where he earned a bachelor of fine arts degree in 1961 and a graduate degree two years later.

After directing television commercials in New York, he moved to Los Angeles to work as a screenwriter.

His first effort as a feature director was Thunderbolt And Lightfoot, the 1974 comic crime caper starring Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges as a pair of mismatched criminals.

After Heaven's Gate, Cimino went on to direct four more feature films, including Year Of The Dragon (1985) and The Sicilian (1987).

Mr Weissmann said Cimino left behind no survivors.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 04, 2016, with the headline 'Bold director squandered famous reputation'. Print Edition | Subscribe