On June 2, 2016, director Michael Cimino passed away at the age of 77 in Los Angeles, California. While his later career was met with several problems, he received early acclaim as part of the New Hollywood system on films such as Thunderbolt and Lightfoot as well as the Best Picture winner The Deer Hunter. He was known for his perfectionist style of film making, often focusing disillusionment caused by the American Dream. Still, his 1979 tale of the Vietnam War remains one of the greatest looks not only at the war, but of the traumatic results of dealing with such overpowering violence. His filmography may be small, but what he produced spoke volumes, and for that he will be missed.
Cimino was born on February 3, 1939 in New York City, New York. His father was a music publisher for big bands and claimed to have been disappointed in his son's choice to go into film. Still, the young Cimino had a career that included a graphic arts degree from Yale as well as various experience working for the humor magazine as well as small documentaries. Still, Michael was considered to have a visual eye, but was occasionally made fun of for being slow and meticulous. He got his start on Madison Avenue as a commercials director, most famously on a 1967 United Airlines commercial featuring the song "Take Me Away."
He always considered himself to be a director first. He went so far as to claim that he only began writing scripts in 1971 as a way to get to directing. He was too poor to buy or adapt books, so he made his own stories. Even after a few dozen scripts and the success of The Deer Hunter in 1979, he claimed that he wasn't really a writer. Still, Clint Eastwood saw something in the young writer's work when they worked together on Thunderbolt and Lightfoot and Eastwood was impressed with him enough on the script to let him rewrite the Dirty Harry sequel Magnum Force. Cimino claims to owe his entire career to Eastwood, of whom gave him a chance when nobody else did.
The Deer Hunter may have been a success, but it was also arguably when things began to turn for Cimino. Having unprecedented success and control, he promised himself to only do films that he wanted. He was considered to be controlling and rude along with being considered at times brilliant. He would later pick fights with Coming Home star Jane Fonda over her film's inauthentic portrayal of Vietnam War vets. Still, it was the start of Cimino also smudging information about himself. He most famously lied about his age, once leading a reporter to say that he was 35 but looked months shy of 40. Cimino's military status was also flubbed, as he claimed that The Deer Hunter was biographical. The reality is that he was in the military for nine months, but never left the country. It wasn't entirely clear who this guy was, and it would only become vaguer.
Despite Cimino's ongoing controversies with Fonda, his one boast is that he got two Oscars for The Deer Hunter where she only received one. The film drew controversy at the time thanks to its Russian roulette scene. It also had a few detractors that suggested that it was too manipulative and surface level. There were some who argued that they would even take back their Oscar votes. Still he won Best Director and Best Picture for the film.
The awards were presented by a variety of people. Ali McGraw and Francis Ford Coppola presented Best Director, which saw The Godfather filmmaker suggest that the 80's was going to be a new and exciting time that made the Industrial Revolution look small. John Wayne presented Best Picture, giving a patriotic preamble to the award. Cimino's speeches weren't necessarily memorable, as he mostly did the familiar thanks and gratitude to his cast and crew. It was a humble moment, and one that was only tarnished again by ego, as producer Michael Deeley claimed to have hated working with Cimino and that his Oscar was perfect, save for the director's name being engraved on the statue.
With more success thrown his way, Cimino embarked on a western with roller skating called Heaven's Gate. The film played into his meticulousness, as he even waited for the clouds to be at the right angle and had sets rebuilt because of small imperfections. Speaking as The Deer Hunter went over budget and still paid off, there was still hope for this young auteur to deliver. However, things only got worse and soon he was responsible for bankrupting United Artist and bringing an end to the New Hollywood era. The film was a failure for a variety of reasons, including a much maligned edited down version that failed to receive acclaim. The film inspired a book by Steven Bach called "Final Cut" that chronicled the production's many, many flaws that set the bar for Hollywood studio disasters.
It was also the turning point for Cimino. He would never have a successful film again and famously refused to give interviews for the next 10 years because of Heaven's Gate. While assessment of the film has changed thanks to a released version of the intended original cut, his career never had a noteworthy title again. Even Year of the Dragon - which saw him paired with writer Oliver Stone (whose own Vietnam War film Platoon was famously delayed because of The Deer Hunter) - saw him earn more Razzies than Oscars. Considering his reputation, he would never recover and would only direct four more films - none of which were box office hits.
Cimino would publish literature, including 2001's "Big Jane." However, his later career was damaged and many began to reassess his reputation as a whole. Heaven's Gate made many reconsider the value of The Deer Hunter. Despite this, directors like Quentin Tarantino are ardent fans who even claim that Year of the Dragon is vastly underrated. While he would earn honors and have some redemption at points, he never recovered even as Heaven's Gate evolved into a cult classic. Still, he remains a divisive figure because of his personality, and it's hard to not see that as both his best attribute and downfall. At his best, he made wonderful, beautiful art. At his worst, he pissed off Hollywood elite like Jane Fonda. He was an artist through and through, doing things that pushed ambition into exciting places. The only question now is if his career will be reassessed as a whole now that he's passed on.