Michael Cimino was eulogised in much the same way he was reviewed during his lifetime, with a double-barrelled critique aimed at both hubris and excess. Americans jumped to dismiss him as Europe's darling who received his just desserts. He was the man who brought down United Artists single-handed, who presided over the greatest financial flop ever, the movie whose failure also signaled the end of the 'movie brat' generation which revolutionised Hollywood in the Sixties and Seventies. He was the director who wasted his promise on Heaven's Gate after the huge success of the 'first' Vietnam movie, The Deer Hunter, the man who lived out a bizarre surgically-altered life in self-imposed exile in France for the twenty years since his last movie took in exactly $21,000 at the U.S. box office. Or about the cost of one day's lunch on Heaven's Gate.
Yet the shorthand conceals some deeper truths. Cimino had the misfortune of having his epitaph already written, by Stephen Bach's Final Cut, an entertaining book about the profligacy involved in the making of Heaven's Gate, and Cimino played unerringly into the script Bach had written. But Final Cut is a story as much of the death of the studio system due to the abrogation of producing power and control as it is of one director's explosion of self-indulgent ego. Far from being an aberration, Heaven's Gate was part of a continuum in Hollywood; Eric von Stroheim's silent Greed writ large. It exists alongside films like Cleopatra, Ishtar, Gigli and Waterworld, except its expectations and its pretensions were greater than any of those. Especially Gigli. The finished product, when viewed in one of the two-hour 'restored' versions, is an almost-epic western, spoiled by its longeurs: most notably the roller-skating, derivative of John Ford's dancing scenes, but trapped in Cimino's, not the story's, needs. It owes much to Vilmos Zsigmund's cinematography, some of the greatest ever done on westerns. But if Heaven's Gate were part of a continuum of Hollywood Excess, it's also a part of revisionist cycle of westerns broadly about class struggle: Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid; Altman's McCabe and Mrs Miller; Leone's Once Upon A Time In The West. All those films, however, foregrounded personal stories. In contrast, Cimino above all else seemed to be absorbing Bernardo Betrolucci's 1900; Heaven's Gate thus foregrounds the dialectic. This helps explain why European critics adored Heaven's Gate as much as most American critics hated it. That and his insistence on casting the wonderful Isabelle Huppert, for reasons one can easily guess at (and wonder about the United Artists executives who told Cimino 'she looks like a potato'.
In The Stunt Man, released two years after The Deer Hunter, Peter O'Toole plays Eli Cross, an ego-maniacal director making a World War I movie, whose anti-war 'statement' seems, to its writer, being drowned in farce. He tells his writer, played by Allen Goorwitz, “I know a man who made an anti-war movie, a good one. When it was shown in his home town, army enlistment went up six hundred percent.” Eli Cross might well be describing The Deer Hunter. It won Oscars, it made money, it was loved. Only after Heaven's Gate it received some re-assessment: Peter Biskind called Cimino our first fascist director, though Pauline Kael had already bestowed that title on Don Siegel after Dirty Harry. The Deer Hunter's most gripping scenes were those in Vietnam, the famous Russian roulette games organised by a sadistic enemy, in a strange inversion of the infamous 'Saigon Execution' photo. The Deer Hunter was one of three movies in 1978 which dealt more with the effects of Vietnam on America than with the war itself. It beat out Coming Home for the Oscars, while Who'll Stop The Rain (aka Dog Soldiers), probably the most acute of the bunch, fell by the wayside. Cimino's message seemed to be reassuring the faith Americans had in their own myths and dreams; combined with that Forties' war movie sense of racial propaganda in making the Viet Cong sadistic gamblers, The Deer Hunter lent itself to criticism from the left. In that sense, Heaven's Gate might be seen to be exploding the critiques of what Cimino would always insist was his anti-war vision.
At the time though, it seemed like the kind of movie someone who allegedly pretended to be a Vietnam vet might make. It was soon contrasted with Oliver Stone, a real Vietnam grunt, and his Platoon. Ironically, Stone and Cimino found their careers intertwined: Cimino had passed on directing Stone's script of Midnight Express; later he wanted to direct Born On The Fourth of July, with Al Pacino in the lead role, but the studios wouldn't go for that. Eventually Stone and Tom Cruise (in his best performance) got it done. Cimino then brought Stone in to write Year Of The Dragon, based on Robert Daley's dense novel of New York City corruption: between Stone, Cimino and star Mickey Rourke it became a troubling tale of one racist's journey to find redemption through the love of an Asian TV reporter. It's Cimino's Chinatown; Quentin Tarantino adores its drive, especially the final shoot-out between Rourke and John Lone, the Oriental villain. He also admired its only partial coherence; which other critics found less appealing; it flopped.
Two years later Cimino filmed Mario Puzo's The Sicilian. Audiences expecting a gangster story got a badly-acted film about pre-Corleone banditti which paled in comparison to its obvious influence, Francesco Rosi's Salvatore Giuliano. The film prompted a legal battle over the right to final cut. Although Cimino had it written into his contract, in court he tried to hide a letter from producer Dino DiLaurentis which had voided that specific part of the deal.
Following The Sicilian and an ill-fated remake of The Desperate Hours, American critics breathed a sigh of relief, perhaps, that Cimino's long-term project with James Toback and Rourke (what could possibly go wrong?) about the gangster Frank Costello, never came to fruition; nor did his version of the Legs Diamond story. He moved to France and wrote a novel. European critics waited for Cimino's versions of Malraux's Mans Fate (fascinating when considered in terms of the controversial treatment of Asians in The Deer Hunter and Year Of The Dragon); or The Fountainhead or Crime and Punishment. Some who've seen the scripts claim they are brilliant and, inevitably, way too long.
Then pictures emerged of Cimino after cosmetic surgery, no longer the pudgy Italian-American but a waif-like Mediterranean, eerily similar to Michael Jackson or the athlete Bruce Jenner's transformations. Jenner, of course, has since transitioned to Caitlyn; when rumours of his own sex-change surfaced Cimino denied them forcefully, both at Cannes when the latest final version of Heaven's Gate premiered and last year in a rare interview with the Hollywood Reporter.
But such talk of sexuality ought to be taken in the context of what may be Cimino's finest film, his first, Thunderbolt & Lightfoot. He had helped write Magnum Force, and Clint Eastwood, impressed with the original script of Thunderbolt & Lightfoot, offered him the chance to direct it, with Eastwood and his company Malpaso producing.
It's a taut but offbeat script, directed tightly. It opens with Bridges confessing he may not be 'man enough' because he's got a wooden leg, while a priestly Clint delivers a sermon before turning and running from a hit man. It's part road movie, with incredibly wacky monologues by Bill McKinney and Dub Taylor lighting up the highway, but mostly it's a dissection of the buddy film as romantic comedy. Clint and Jeff Bridges are the eponymous buddies; Bridges (Lightfoot) is a drifter who hooks up with Clint's Thunderbolt, a bank robber who's being pursued by two ex-partners who believe he ripped them off after their last heist. The plot requires them to make a big score together, and the caper requires Bridges to dress in drag and go to the drive-in movies as Clint's date. This enrages the film's other buddy pair, Leary (George Kennedy) and Goody (Geoffrey Lewis), whose characters are revealed by their names: Leary leering at Bridges with a barely restrained combination of lust and hate alongside generation-gap resentment; Goody (or goodwife, as the Puritans would have it) suffering in silence. Robin Wood famously analysed the cross-cutting of the robbery scene as love-making, climaxing as Bridges removes a pistol from the rear of his woman's panties while Eastwood, having got his 20mm armour-piercing cannon erect, more force than any Magnum, lets it explode into the vault. You may recall similar seduction imagery in the British 'thriller' Sexy Beast many years later.
What a difference control makes. With Clint calling the production shots, T&L was made for $4 million, and returned $25 million. Like many Hollywood wunderkinder, all Cimino may have needed was a producer to do what producers at their best are supposed to do. But few producers are Clint Eastwood. In that 2015 interview Cimino spoke of himself in a way that suggested, in different circumstances, his career might have been far different. 'I'm sort of an accidental filmmaker, you know,' said the art student turned commercial director turned scripter turned director. 'I come to it by accident. I sort of bumped into it. And then the results have been what you've seen, for better or worse'.