Book Review: Remembering a Bomb and trying to make sense of the guy who made it — “Cimino: The Deer Hunter, Heaven’s Gate and the Price of Vision”

Here’s a book that stopped me short when I saw it on the shelves.

“Michael Cimino? Who even gives him a passing thought any more?”

He’s remembered for making a Vietnam epic and then the quintessential, megalomaniacal Hollywood bomb, for which he was all but consigned to the cinema scrapheap for the rest of his life.

With the passage of time, “The Deer Hunter” has fallen, and not just in my estimation, down the list of “great” Vietnam movies. And “Heaven’s Gate” was probably never as bad as the blast of early reviews branded it — just overlong. The recut of it, which I reviewed as a baby critic, made sense, made great use of the stunningly-detailed sets, costumes and Western vistas, and played. It’s still frustrating, still gorgeous and in no way deserves a place on the pantheon of the Best Westerns Ever. It wasn’t even the best of its era. Walter Hill’s “The Long Riders” was just as epic, just as period-perfect, almost as gorgeous, riveting and it practically zips by.

Charles Elton, A Brit who used to run a talent agency representing screenwriters and directors, booked some travel time to visit locations and the landmarks of the late writer-director’s life. He tracked down a lot of people who worked for Cimino, some of whom have never been interviewed before, and tries to find a fresh take on a filmmaker who went from directing Kodak TV commercials to Eastwood’s “Thunderbolt & Lightfoot” to “The Deer Hunter” to “Heaven’s Gate.”

Contrary to memory, Cimino wasn’t permanently exiled after his debacle all but broke United Artists (Elton says “No,” but the cause and effect were obvious. MGM bought out UA right after the debacle.) and all but ended the age of the auteur director. He made a fairly racist Chinese mobs in America movie, “Year of the Dragon,” a mob bomb “The Sicilian,” a pedestrian remake of “The Desperate Hours” and a Woody Harrelson thriller few saw, “The Sunchaser.”

Basically, the public, academia and critics had enough to go on to reconsider the perhaps over-praised “Deer Hunter,” reconsider the over-criticized “Heaven’s Gate,” and figure out that maybe he was never all that, at either extreme, and move on.

Europe and some critics may have “rediscovered” and reassessed “Heaven’s Gate.” The film is the same fascinating artifact it always was, detailed to death, dull at times and disheartening in its “honesty” of the showing the way the rich escape consequences and endure.

The last reissue of “Heaven’s Gate” for DVD removed the smokey, hazy amber tint the movie was bathed in for decades. That helped. But “masterpiece?” Come on.

The book paints a sometimes worshipful portrait of a guy Elton lets us see as a profligate poseur, a credit thief and a pathological liar.

Elton notes the “post-Cimino” Hollywood that this flop left in its wake, corporate, mostly soulless and auteur-free. But he is hellbent on exonerating the most infamous cause of that shift — the megalomanic and the messy movie he made that lost a fortune.

Elton’s book makes an interesting counterpoint to ex-UA exec Steven Bach’s “Final Cut” dissection of “Heaven’s Gate,” highlighting that contrary to myth, cast and crew considered that staggeringly-long shoot a “happy set,” even if they wore out their welcome in Kalispell, Montana and environs.

Elton doesn’t sugarcoat the primrose path that led the Oscar-winning Cimino into the “my way is the ONLY way” power trip that “Heaven’s Gate” became, a movie that cost four times what Cimino estimated it would and that ran over five hours in the first “final” cut he showed the studio.

Shades of Von Stroheim, Kubrick and others who just got carried away, bullying studio execs into succumbing to their “vision.”

But Elton doesn’t get close to Cimino the man. He lied about his age and military service, even burnished his Ivy League credentials, disconnected from family, claimed to have left a long trail of “girlfriends,” with his sometime producer and biggest fan, former agent and perhaps lover Joann Carelli, being the only one of those Elton actually met.

The elusive Carelli is the great “get” here. She’s still defending Cimino, still has a hard time saying a discouraging word about “Heaven’s Gate.”

But aside from insinuations, Elton never comes right out and says “Cimino was gay.” He quotes from a single source who has the confirmation Hollywood started gossiping about. The man lied about just about everything, perhaps the womanizing showboat — even in his young TV commercial directing day, he drove a Rolls Royce and kept it (in New York) –was lying about that, too.

We never figure out how he was able to bully supposedly hardnosed execs into getting his way. Eastwood didn’t stand for it, but everyone else did. Why? A short, sunglassed, chinless lump nicknamed “Buddha” whenever he piled on the pounds on a set, Jon Lovitz could have played Cimino had anyone chosen to make a movie about the making of “Heaven’s Gate” in the ’80s or ’90s.

UA accountant Leo Katz summed up Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate” tantrum-tossing bullying’s effect, but not why it worked.

“We seem to be in the unironic and paradoxical position of not trusting the gentleman with our more and therefor insisting that he take more.”

The only real surprises in “Cimino” are the accounts of the “happy” “Heaven’s Gate” set. Elton’s read on a vindictive press going after the film because magazines and newspapers were denied access are as off as his many stumbles in trying to characterize this or that piece of Western lore or detail re: “Heaven’s Gate.” The man’s British and just hasn’t seen enough Westerns. And while the one freelancer under-cover “report from the set” story that ran in a few major newspapers may have marked the movie, the fact that the film came in a year late probably colored more people’s preconceptions.

And let’s face it. The first public screenings of “Gate” had a botched sound mix (Cimino’s fault) and a stunningly long three and a half hour-plus run time to go with dialogue that was largely incoherent. That’s where the film was tagged “disaster,” and that’s when the “This guy belongs up there with Scorsese, Coppola and DePalma” hype ended. For good.

Still, if you’ve not read any of the earlier books on Cimino’s howitzer-in-the-foot debacle, Elton’s done everyone the favor of shortening that experience and summing it up, even if he doesn’t know what barbed wire was used for or the difference between a “pitching post” and what horses are actually tied to.

“Cimino: The Deer Hunter, Heaven’s Gate and the Price of a Vision,” by Charles Elton. 348 pages, inc. index, $28. Abrams Press.

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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1 Response to Book Review: Remembering a Bomb and trying to make sense of the guy who made it — “Cimino: The Deer Hunter, Heaven’s Gate and the Price of Vision”

  1. nina920 says:

    I suspect the “happy” set was because of all the cocaine and other drugs. What I heard from UA execs at the time (after the premier) was that drug dealer was given an associate producer credit… Don’t know that person’s name but people at UA said that the set was awash with free drugs for anyone who wanted to partake. It was a way to keep the peace on set.
    Another point on Cimino. I hated The Deer Hunter and never considered it to be worthy of any pantheon of Vietnam War films. Such revisionism and fakery. Very similar to what I thought about Heaven’s Gate.

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