Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Nothing But the Best: "The Deer Hunter" (1978)

Scene from The Deer Hunter
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

The Deer Hunter
Release Date: February 23, 1979
Director: Michael Cimino
Written By: Deric Washburn (Screenplay), Michael Cimino & Deric Washburn & Louis Garfinkle & Quinn K Redeker (Story)
Starring: Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Cazale
Genre: Drama, War
Running Time: 183 minutes

Oscar Wins: 5
-Best Picture
-Best Director
-Best Supporting Actor (Christopher Walken)
-Best Sound
-Best Editing

Oscar Nominations: 4
-Best Actor (Robert De Niro)
-Best Supporting Actress (Meryl Streep)
-Best Original Screenplay
-Best Cinematography

Other Best Picture Nominees

-Coming Home
-Heaven Can Wait
-Midnight Express
-An Unmarried Woman

And the winner is...

While there have been many films about the Vietnam War, there are few that features an emotional resonance as strong as director Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter. Along with being one of the first films to be critical about the war, it was rich with immediate controversy thanks to a Russian Roulette scene as well as the vague use of "God Bless America" at the tail end of the film. While the filmmakers claim that it wasn't intended to be an entirely accurate depiction of war, it definitely helps to paint an overwhelmingly unique experience of humanity in the face of struggles. With a series of great performances and a career best by Cimino, the power of The Deer Hunter is one that may be rich with controversy, but still manages to serve as an overwhelming experience, for better or worse.

In order to understand where The Deer Hunter came from, one must start with Las Vegas. No, really. There was a screenplay floating around in 1968 called "The Man Who Came to Play," written by Louis Garfinkle and Quinn Redeker. It followed the journey of men who went to Las Vegas to play Russian Roulette. Producer Michael Deeley was infatuated with it, but found that it missed a potential hook that would make it great. As a result, the screenplay kicked around for several years until Deeley saw Thunderbolt and Lightfoot: a crime film by young up and comer Cimino. With the help of Deric Washburn, they helped to turn the script into one focusing around the Vietnam War. While hypothetically not the same story, it was difficult to not give the original writers credit for a variety of reasons. Still, Washburn received sole credit with the others receiving story by credits. This is heavily debated, as Cimino claims that deserved far more credit for the screenplay than he received.

To complain about Cimino's overwhelming control is an understatement. In the annuls of The Deer Hunter history, he takes a lot of credit for the work - even claiming that he solely edited the film. At every turn, he was shown to be meticulous and controlling in ways that were also a tad condescending. This would carry over into the release and promotion of the film, which were filled with a series of problematic stories. This included the studio showing test audiences two cuts: a 2.5 hour version, and a 3 hour version. Cimino was said to have bribed the projectionist to interrupt the shorter cut (his least favored) in order for him to release the film he wanted. Considering that he was so anal about detail that he removed leaves from trees, painted them orange, and then attached them back to make the wedding scene look like the Fall season; one could easily see why his career wouldn't be the most sustainable thing imaginable.

The casting began with Robert De Niro, whom the studio believed that they needed in order to draw an audience. Considering that De Niro had played a veteran twice before in Hi Mom! and Taxi Driver, it seemed fitting - especially with his intimidating stature. John Cazale and partner Meryl Streep weren't too far behind. However, Cazale was sick and considered uninsurable when filming started. This caused problems with the financing, though the studio wasn't aware until afterwards. The crew threatened to drop the production until Streep threatened to walk. De Niro decided to donate money in order to cover Cazale's insurance. Cazale, whose scenes were shot first for this reason, would die after production wrapped. Speaking as Streep's character was so thin that she improvised her own lines, there's a lot of ways that the film could've gone differently. The cast watched newsreels of the war as well as carried pictures of each other as kids in order to create a sense of bonding. Cimino was also said to have carried around pictures of veterans while writing the script in order to feel the appropriate aura.

One of the film's noteworthy achievements was being the first film about the United States' involvement in the Vietnam War to be shot in Thailand. Among other things, there were no sets used in the film. De Niro and Christopher Walken would do their own stunts, such as falling 30 feet from a helicopter. At one point they were so worn out by the production that the reactions to everyone slapping each other began to have genuine reactions. One actor complained about being in a river with rats, yelling at Cimino about it. Luckily, both Cimino and De Niro's character shared a first name of Michael, so the scene was able to be used. In the famous Russian Roulette scene, it was decided that they would have one bullet in the gun for emphasis. However, they were smart enough to remove the bullet before the dangerous moments.

The film cost $13 million to make before getting to post-production. Cimino wanted to use Dolby noise-reduction software. As a result, he spent days editing the sound and post-production ended up coming close to five months. Add that to the six months that it took to shoot the film, and it comes across as a labor of love, or self-indulgence. By the time that a final cut came, it was 3.5 hours. It was encouraged to cut it down. However, Cimino became annoyed when it was suggested that the editing be done in the wedding sequence. It was why he manipulated test audiences to prefer the 3 hour cut. Even then, the studios were convinced that they would lose money due to less daily showings. Of course, just to drive the point home a little further, the film was released in December of 1978 on two screens to a short run in order to create buzz. The film wouldn't get a legitimate release until after the following year's Academy Awards. The studio believed they had a dud on their hands, but were later persuaded to give it a chance.

While the film had positive buzz, it also had to deal with a variety of controversies. Beyond the typical complaints of it being emotionally manipulative, there were those that found its depiction of the war to be inaccurate and offensive. At the Berlin Film Festival, many groups walked out, including Russian jury members that inspired many others to walk out and two to quit the jury entirely. Also fellow Vietnam War film Coming Home saw Jane Fonda protest, though some believed it was more to emphasize her film. Cimino would later claim that he intended the film to be controversial. However, it got so bad that The Oscars ceremony was met with its own struggle. Protesters were reported to have thrown rocks at limos carrying The Deer Hunter cast and crew. Along with this was several injured and arrested after clashing with police officers. De Niro was so scared of the potential backlash that he stayed at home in New York to avoid being close to any conflict. Speaking as there's still conflict regarding the screenplay credit, it was both a relief and unfortunate that all four writers got an Oscar, with Washburn being annoyed at Cimino for being friendly after initially putting him down for terrible writing.

The film's legacy is hard to really discuss in light of what Cimino did afterwards. While the clues were already prevalent that he was a difficult person to work with, Heaven's Gate marked a cultural shift in which he went from being an acclaimed director to scum of the Earth. To summarize, Heaven's Gate went over budget and suffered many production setbacks as well as ending with a film that had a 90 minute battle sequence and clocked in originally at around 5 hours. It bankrupted the studio and marked the end of the New Hollywood era. In a way, it was Cimino getting his comeuppance. However, the opinion of The Deer Hunter shifted with this, with many reconsidering its genius. Considering that Cimino faded into extreme obscurity after Heaven's Gate, it was easy to see how many people would put up with a passionate man who stomped over other people's credit on his projects. While The Deer Hunter has thankfully found its way back to being assessed as a singular work and not an omen, there's still a sense that Cimino deserved his eventual failure, if just to course correct his ego.

The Deer Hunter is a long and engrossing epic the likes of which haven't been seen too often since. While it had a problematic production and featured several controversial scenes, the resulting product created one of the most distinct and provocative depictions of the war up to that point. With great performances by De Niro, Walken, and Streep, it's an example of what singular visions can do, as well as serving as cautionary tales for those with big egos. What remains long after the controversy is a film willing to challenge the concepts of humanity, creating a vision that is powerful and likely to leave some sort of mark on the audience. It may not have the surrealism of Apocalypse Now or the confrontational nature of Platoon, but it does have a heart that is more earnest at its core. It's about the struggles of man in the face of failure, and that is enough to warrant its shady yet worthy legacy.

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