The mercurial Michael Cimino dies at age 77

Christopher Walken in Michael Cimino's masterpiece 'The Deer Hunter'
Christopher Walken in Michael Cimino’s masterpiece ‘The Deer Hunter’

Director/writer Michael Cimino has died at the age of 77.  He directed seven feature films (and one segment in 2007’s To Each His Own Cinema) and is best known for two of them.  1978’s The Deer Hunter and the major box-office disaster Heaven’s Gate in 1980.  The former earned him two Academy Awards (Best Director and Best Picture) while the latter was considered to be both a commercial and critical failure.

He received a BFA and MFA and spent six months in the Army Reserve as a medic during that period.  After a time working as a director of commercials in New York City, he moved to Los Angeles in the early 1970s, hoping to become a screenwriter.  His first credit was for co-writing the vastly underrated Silent Running.  He then wrote a spec script titled Thunderbolt and Lightfoot which came to the attention of Clint Eastwood.  Eastwood was so impressed that he bought the script, gave Cimino the chance to direct the film; and also hired him to co-write Magnum Force.

Clint Eastwood in 'Thunderbolt and Lightfoot'
Clint Eastwood in ‘Thunderbolt and Lightfoot’

Starring Eastwood and Jeff Bridges, with George Kennedy and Geoffrey Lewis, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot was an imaginative heist flick, with Eastwood playing a bank robber known as Thunderbolt for using a cannon to blast open vaults.  It was the 17th highest grossing 1974 film at the box office and was very well received by critics and audiences alike.  It was Cimino’s work on this film that led him to the helm of 1978’s The Deer Hunter.

Robert DeNiro in 'The Deer Hunter'
Robert DeNiro in ‘The Deer Hunter’

The first major motion picture released after the end of the Vietnam War to be critical of that war, The Deer Hunter was blessed with an incredible cast.  Robert DeNiro, Christopher Walken, John Cazale, Meryl Streep, John Savage and George Dzundza played Pennsylvania residents, with DeNiro, Walken and Savage on their way to Vietnam.  Praised by most critics, vilified by some and rife with controversy over its violence (especially the Russian Roulette scenes), it remains one of the best Vietnam War films ever made.  Aside from its Best Director and Best Picture Oscars, Christopher Walken received the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work in the film.

Meryl Streep, John Savage, Rutanya Alda and Robert DeNiro in 'The Deer Hunter'
Meryl Streep, John Savage, Rutanya Alda and Robert DeNiro in ‘The Deer Hunter’

Cimino went from this masterpiece to a dog of a film titled Heaven’s Gate which was released in 1980.  Starring Walken, Kris Kristofferson, John Hurt, Isabelle Huppert and Sam Waterston, the film was originally given a budget of just under $12 million.  Final cost was over $40 million and when it was finally given a wide release it could only generate around $3 million at the box office.  Cimino’s first cut of the film shown to United Artists executives was 325 minutes long.  He said at the time that this was only 15 to 20 minutes longer than what he intended to release.  A 219 minute cut of the film was premiered in New York and received almost universal derision.  UA shelved it and the final cut that was released was 149 minutes.

Kris Kristofferson in 'Heaven's Gate'
Kris Kristofferson in ‘Heaven’s Gate’

Michael Cimino’s next time up at bat as a director came five years later, with the big-screen adaptation of a Robert Daley novel.  Year of the Dragon.  One of three Daley novels to be made into feature films it starred Mickey Rourke, John Lone, Ariane and Dennis Dun.  The story is that of an NYPD captain who is reassigned to Chinatown who gets involved in an affair with a TV news reporter while he is trying to break up one of the triads.  While the reviews of the movie were mixed, it did earn five Razzie nominations.

His next three films, The Sicilian, Desperate Hours and Sunchaser were all bombs at the box office.  That was the end of his directorial career for the most part.  The list of projects that Michael Cimino was attached to or actually took part in is actually as long as his actual credits.  He worked for a time on 1984’s Footloose.  He wrote a biography of Janis Joplin that was titled Pearl and at one point he was supposed to direct 1979’s The Rose.  He tried and failed to make big-screen versions of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and Fyodor Doystoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.  He signed on to direct The Pope of Greenwich Village but left the project before shooting started.

He kept on writing and his first novel was published in 2001.  He avoided interviews like the plague in the wake of Heaven’s Gate’s failure.  The cause of his passing has not yet been determined.

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