Death of an auteur

I just wanted to note the passing of one of the most distinctive and controversial directors the film industry has ever known.

Michael Cimino is both known as the academy award winning director of hit films such as Thunderbolt and Lightfoot and Deer Hunter and also known as the director and primary force behind the disastrous Heaven’s Gate. A film that was famously over-budget, panned by audiences and supposedly led to the destruction of United Artists. Until then one of the more successful studios of the ’70s.

Cimino’s third film after two very successful productions, Heaven’s Gate was supposed to be a relatively modest 12 million budgeted western about the Johnson County War of the 1890s. It ended up costing over 45 million and was months overdue. The hastily assembled initial cuts bombed spectacularly and the final release even more so. Fallout from this costly disaster caused UA’s parent company Transamerica Corporation to dump the studio and get out of the film business altogether.

Michael Cimino’s reputation also suffered a blow so severe that his career never really recovered. While he did work steadily through the 1980s and 90s, it was never work at the level of his first two films.

While it has been popular to blame Cimino for the failure of the film, I believe that the studio should share at least some of the blame, if not the majority. UA essentially gave Cimino a blank check to do what he wanted with the picture. Hoping for a 3rd success after his previous films. They gave a high budget, no limit production to a talented, but young director and did little to follow up on what was going on with the film. This lack of oversight is inexcusable, since out of control productions aren’t anything new in the industry. The earliest I can thing of is Erich Von Stroheim’s Greed in 1924, which had almost the same arc into disaster.

This also followed a pattern of risk taking by the studio through the late 1970s. UA had also spent 34 million to produce Moonraker the year before, double the budget of the previous Bond film. Moonraker turned out to be one of the more controversial and critically panned James Bond films.

Michael Cimino’s reputation has been somewhat restored in the last few years with a 2013 re-release of a director’s cut version of Heaven’s Gate. I haven’t seen it myself, so I can’t really comment. But the response seems to be more positive than the first release.



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