Remembering Michael Cimino: a short career that burned bright

Remembering the chequered career of Deer Hunter director Michael Cimino

Director Michael Cimino, left, talks with actor Robert De Niro, center wearing beret, during a break in filming of The Deer Hunter. AP Photo / Neal Ulevich
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One of the famous teachings by ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu is “the flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long.” The statement, perhaps, best encapsulates the career of American director Michael Cimino who passed away on June 2 at the age of 77.

He made a total of seven films in a feature directing career spanning 22 years (1974-1996), but it is two films in particular that will forever define his career - and for wildly different reasons.

His 1978 epic war drama The Deer Hunter, only his second movie, catapulted him into the Hollywood big league of his era.

The movie was a watershed; it was the first successful movie to discuss the Vietnam War at a time when the campaign was still something of a taboo in American culture.

The US’ defeat in Asia had left a nation confused, damaged and the consensus of the studios was that the public was in no need of any reminders.

Cimino’s masterpiece proved them wrong by some distance. Despite the movie’s controversial subject, and a not-entirely-box-office-friendly 183-minute running time, it was a hit with audiences and critics alike.

Stand out performances from Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and Meryl Streep helped it to gross $49M domestically on a $15M budget. The movie claimed five Oscars - out of nine nominations - including Best Picture and Best Director.

The movie opened the floodgates for Hollywood's later obsession with damning anti war films with an array of future classics such as Platoon (1986), Full Metal Jacket (1987) and First Blood (1982).

With his success granting him Hollywood darling status, Cimino received virtual carte blanche artistic freedom by the studio United Artists for his next feature Heavens Gate.

The 1980 western went down in Hollywood folklore as the film that brought down the studio; release over budget, over deadline, and critically mauled the virtually bankrupt United Artists was sold to MGM shortly after release.

In hindsight, all the warning signs of a potential disaster was there. Cimino negotiated himself a contract that removed the usual penalties for its ballooning budget – the movie eventually cost $45M against an intended $7.5M purse. It took only $3.5M in theatres.

Cimino had also insisted on a totally closed set, so studio execs had no idea how much he was spending, or what was being produced until he handed over his original five-hour, 25-minute cut.

Then was Cimino’s insistence on casting the unknown French actress Isabelle Huppert in one of the lead roles, who barely spoke English, reportedly because he was reportedly besotted with her – the studio wanted proven box office winners such as Jane Fonda or Diane Keaton.

In a meagre win, United Artist managed to slim the film down to 3 hours 39 minutes by its premiere, but the reviewers still hated it.

A further 70 minutes was cut for general release, but that didn’t stop its downwards spiral.

The Heavens Gate debacle is now viewed by the industry a cautionary tale about the dangers of overindulgence of directorial divas, and financial profligacy by studios.

The film also became a reference point to big budget failures; when Kevin Costner was in the process of shooting his similarly over-budget turkey, 1997's The Postman, there was a gag doing the rounds of the industry that he was in the process of delivering "Kevin's Gate".

Cimino would manage to make four more films, but nowhere near the same scale, and nothing particularly successful. His final film, 1996's Sunchasers, would gross just $21,500 and that, to all ends and purposes, was the end of a career.