Cimino: The Deer Hunter, Heaven’s Gate, and the Price of a Vision by Charles Elton

How do you solve a problem like Michael Cimino? You don’t, you can’t, is the de facto answer offered by a new biography, Cimino: The Deer Hunter, Heaven’s Gate, and the Price of a Vision.

The author, Charles Elton, has ably sifted through the lies, evasions, busted budgets, broken friendships, damaged careers, and lurid press clips that the filmmaker left in his wake across his quarter century in Hollywood. The result is riveting, and yet the protagonist remains frustratingly opaque, not unlike his two biggest pictures: The Deer Hunter and Heaven’s Gate, the first an Oscar-winning triumph (but not without controversy), the other a legendary studio-crippling disaster (though more warmly re-assessed in recent years).

Man and movies alike are hard to look away from, even when you want to, but are also a mess of contradictions and baffling motives. Per Elton’s subtitle, the price tag associated with Cimino is always clear, whether emotional or fiscal; the vision, less so.

This is Elton’s first biography. Heretofore he has been an agent, TV producer, and novelist—not a bad résumé for someone setting out to tell one of Hollywood’s more epic rise-and-fall sagas. He has put in the work, digging through the available source material and interviewing more than 80 of Cimino’s colleagues and family members.

Robert De Niro in The Deer Hunter, 1978.

But Cimino is a hard nut to crack. In interviews, he was prone to both small fibs and tall tales. In private, he was a reflexive compartmentalizer. One writer he collaborated with describes him as “a jitterbug kind of guy … full of human tensions.”

He was egotistical, demanding, sometimes cruel, but also capable of unexpected thoughtfulness and generosity. Most of his relationships, personal and professional, would eventually implode, and while he often bragged about the many women he’d slept with, Elton hasn’t turned up any evidence that he ever had a genuine romantic partner—with the possible exception of Joann Carelli, a close friend and gatekeeper who served as either the credited or de facto producer on his films. But no one in their orbit seems to know the precise nature of their bond, and Carelli, though she spoke to Elton, declined to elaborate.

Even the date of Cimino’s death, in June of 2016, when he was 77, is unknown; he died alone, and it took several days before anyone realized he was gone. The cause was never made public.

Long Island to Los Angeles

After benefiting from an unexceptional middle-class childhood on Long Island, which he later worked hard to obscure, Cimino launched his professional life as a commercial director in New York, then moved to L.A. and began pitching screenplays.

Cimino, De Niro, and Meryl Streep on the set of The Deer Hunter.

His first film as a writer-director was a workman-like Clint Eastwood vehicle, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974). His second time at bat, he swung for the fences, with the brutal Vietnam War epic The Deer Hunter, starring Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and Meryl Streep (in her first significant movie role). An almost unprecedentedly visceral film that left audiences shaking (I know; I was there), it won the Oscars for best picture and director.

At 40, Cimino was too old to be an enfant terrible, but he often acted the part—and claimed he was in his 20s—making him arguably the most envied and resented auteur in town since Orson Welles hit it big with his first film, Citizen Kane.

All of which led to the folie à dust that was Heaven’s Gate, Cimino’s smoky, grimy, nearly four-hour Western—evil capitalist cattlemen versus bighearted immigrant farmers—starring Kris Kristofferson, Isabelle Huppert, and Walken again.

Like Cleopatra before it, and Ishtar and Waterworld to come, the title became shorthand for Hollywood hubris and excess. Since almost no one saw the film on its initial release, it has been fixed in the public imagination by Final Cut, the lacerating, excess-upon-excess account of its making written by Steven Bach.

Jon Voight, Jane Fonda, and Cimino at the 1979 Academy Awards. Voight and Fonda won for Coming Home; Cimino, for The Deer Hunter.

One of the executives at United Artists who oversaw the production, Bach was unable to turn off the money spigot as the budget ballooned from $11.5 million to $40 million ($45 million vs. $137 million, in today’s dollars). Among other acts of profligacy, Cimino would order sets torn down and rebuilt and had an irrigation system installed to get just the right shade of green grass—which he then obscured by processing the film with a dingy yellow, nicotine-stain overlay.

While not disputing the essential accuracy of Bach’s account, Elton defends Cimino’s motives—he just wanted to make a terrific movie!—and labors to place his perfectionism in context: “There were reports of him stopping filming for hours while he waited for clouds to be in the right formation, but that was no different—rightly or wrongly—to how other auteur directors behaved.”

Elton then cites two other famously bloated and excruciating productions with Ahabs at the helm: David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter and Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. It’s like piping up for Hitler’s decision to invade Russia by saying, O.K., sure, but what about Napoleon?

With a running time of three hours and 40 minutes, Heaven’s Gate finally opened in November 1980, almost a year past its intended release date. It earned some of the worst reviews in history. Vincent Canby in The New York Times called it “something quite rare in movies these days—an unqualified disaster.” Roger Ebert: “It is the most scandalous cinematic waste I have ever seen.”

Cimino and Isabelle Huppert on the set of Heaven’s Gate.

At Cimino’s request, U.A. pulled it from release to be recut after it had played a single week in one New York theater. A shorter version, coming in at a not exactly whip-cracking two and a half hours, opened the following spring to marginally less hostile reviews and almost no business—a rare twice-stillborn work. (I recently watched the more or less original version, restored in 2012 and now widely available. It looks amazing—the money for the most part did end up on the screen—and is often engrossing. The problem is Cimino’s screenplay, which strands the three central characters, and the actors playing them, without discernible motivations. Ironically, that’s the one aspect of the production U.A. had the most control over.)

“The movie business did not welcome Cimino back,” Elton writes, his understatement an act of generosity. Meetings dried up. Restaurants no longer had tables. Calls went unreturned. “The telephone is the sharpest sword in Hollywood,” Cimino said at the time.

He nevertheless directed four more films, none particularly successful or ambitious, the last in 1996. In this century, it was his appearance that won him notice. Gaunt and increasingly androgynous-looking, he appeared to have undergone extensive cosmetic surgery.

Cimino at the Grand Lyon Film Festival, 2014.

Journalists and people in Hollywood began speculating that he was transitioning—a rumor Cimino repeatedly disputed, including in a memorable 2002 Vanity Fair profile. (He ascribed his new look to a healthier diet and corrective surgery on his jaw.) But, according to Elton, there was a there there: “The fact that Cimino denied there was any truth to the stories about him did not mean he was in denial to himself. He knew what he was doing, and the gradual reevaluation of his identity turned out to be a brave journey.”

The destination remains clouded, though Elton interviewed a woman who ran a small wig shop in an L.A. suburb whose clientele included men experimenting with gender. She knew Cimino as “Nikki,” who claimed to work as a caregiver in Beverly Hills. The two became friends, and, as the shop owner tells Elton, “I was drawn to her softness, sweetness, and uncharacteristic naivety”—adjectives that had rarely if ever been applied to Michael Cimino. But eventually, as with so many of the director’s relationships, this one blew up. “She found another person to do her makeovers and I became quite useless, I suppose. Disposable.”

Elton begins his book parked outside the locked gates of Cimino’s shuttered home in the Hollywood Hills, evoking the opening shots of Citizen Kane. Inside, he has heard, are piles of mysterious scripts, correspondence, and God knows what else. It’s a tease: Elton never gets inside—literally, and to some extent metaphorically. But he peeks through some fascinating windows.

Bruce Handy is a journalist and the author of Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult