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From Boom to Bust: RIP Michael Cimino

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Michael Cimino directs Robert De Niro in 1978's The Deer Hunter.

Hollywood is a cruel mistress, one minute nibbling seductively on your hear, the next biting it off. Few people know that better than Michael Cimino, who in a matter of two movies saw both the heights and depths of the movie machine.

News broke this week that Cimino had died at age 77, leaving behind him a legacy of contrasts. On the one hand he created the massive awards, critical and box office hit The Deer Hunter, today perhaps best known for its insane Russian Roulette scene.

This was only Cimino’s second film, the first being 1974’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, at the behest of his friend Clint Eastwood. As a sophomore effort, The Deer Hunter exceeded all expectations (though to be fair, Cimino’s debut movie got Jeff Bridges his first Oscar nomination, so it was a good film).

The movie took five Academy Awards in 1978, including a Best Supporting statue for Christopher Walken and Best Director for Cimino. But it was also a controversial movie, firstly for the above scene, but also because Cimino and a co-producer might have stolen the script from someone else. Later investigations also suggest Cimino’s claims that the film is very autobiographical may have been false.

Nonetheless, he hit movie gold and as such was allowed to tackle a much larger project: Heaven’s Gate.

Here it all goes to pieces.

Heaven’s Gate accomplished several things. First, it destroyed Kris Kristofferson’s career as a leading man. Second, it pretty much bankrupted United Artists. Third, it was one of the greatest movie flops in history. Luckily a mad cult would use the same name in the Nineties and then kill themselves, but it took a long time for the world to forget that Heaven’s Gate cost a staggering $44 million in 1980 ($120 million in today’s money), yet made only $3.5 million.

The wildly ambitious Western with a big cast, big set and huge scope would collapse in a fantastic fashion. The movie was too long for the studio’s liking and it saw major recuts that ultimately stopped the film making any sense.

Years later a director’s cut would restore some of the film’s intended glory and give it a new reputation. But it was too late for Cimino, who never made anything remotely as big or impressive as his first three films. He went into the movie wilderness, releasing a handful of unremarkable films up to the middle 90s, then mainly silence.

Not for a lack of trying: Cimino would spend 4 months at the head of Footloose, the surprise hit that made Kevin Bacon a household name. Alas, his demands for sets and ambitious budgets eventually saw him get the boot.This would become a rather typical story in the rest of his career.

Still, Cimino can be remembered for one other thing: The Deer Hunter, which ironically Universal thought would be a terrific bomb, ended up changing the way Academy Awards are campaigned for.

Last Updated: July 4, 2016

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