Michael Cimino's "The Sicilian" is sinking faster than a body dumped in the Strait of Messina.
The much-publicized, much-maligned movie--adapted from Mario Puzo's best seller about the post-World War II Sicilian bandit Salvatore Giuliano--opened in 370 American theaters Oct. 23 and deflected the slings and arrows of outraged critics to gross a strong $1.7 million in its first weekend.
Once paying customers got a whiff of this thing, however, it was all over. Business dropped so quickly on "The Sicilian" that by the third weekend, it had lost half of its theaters and trailed 17 other movies on the weekend box-office chart. If you want to see how bad this film is, you'd better hurry.
But like Cimino's "Heaven's Gate," the financial debacle that brought down United Artists and urged such people as Dino De Laurentiis and David Begelman to give Cimino more work, "The Sicilian" will continue in the news.
The director's version of the film--30 minutes longer than the expurgated American release--has just opened in Paris, and though it was eviscerated by some critics there (L'Express called it a "misfired, Manichean and anachronistic film" that "attains heights of ridicule") others are hailing it as one more in a series of Cimino masterpieces.
"As always," wrote Le Figaro's Claude Baigneres, "Cimino goes beyond . . . anecdote with a sort of inspired genius."
There was an American critic in the opening Paris audience too. F. X. Feeney, who writes for L.A. Weekly, said he felt so betrayed by the publicity surrounding the release of "Heaven's Gate" that he flew to Paris--at his own expense--to catch Cimino's version of "The Sicilian" firsthand.
"I had trouble with the shortened version of 'Heaven's Gate,' " Feeney said. "I even wrote about it from that angle. When I saw the long version, I realized my love for Cimino's work was well invested. It taught me not to trust (the studio cut) of 'The Sicilian.' "
Feeney's trip (his estimated costs: $1,500) may mark him as film criticism's most conspicuous consumer, but he said it was money well spent. In the current issue of L.A. Weekly, Feeney compares the long and short versions of "The Sicilian," itemizing the cut scenes, lines of dialogue and other offenses, and concludes that the 20th Century Fox version is "a masterpiece of executive sabotage."
Feeney's body count includes three major sequences eliminated, four major scenes, and about 100 lines of dialogue. Christopher Lambert's critically ridiculed performance in the title role was debauched by the editing, Feeney said, and besides having much of her role cut, German actress Barbara Sukowa had her dialogue dubbed by someone "who sounds like a stewardess."
Feeney did not call Cimino's version a masterwork, but only because he thought it might undermine the specifics of his review.
"Yes, I do consider it a masterpiece," Feeney said. "I think it is a work of genius. But those words are such debased currency among critics that I resisted using them."
Although he doesn't quite agree with Feeney that Cimino's version is a masterpiece, novelist and sometime critic Gore Vidal would like the world to know that he wrote most of it. Vidal has filed a lawsuit against the Writers Guild of America, seeking to rescind the WGA's ruling that gave Steve Shagan sole screen credit for writing "The Sicilian."
Vidal, in a telephone interview from his villa on the western coast of Italy, said he has seen Cimino's version of "The Sicilian" and would be happy to have his name on it.
"It is a lovely movie," Vidal said. "There are things wrong with it, but there are things wrong with every movie."
Vidal said he hasn't seen the American cut, but from what he has heard and read, he said it's clear the producers, in trying to come up with a conventional gangster movie, sabotaged the material he and Cimino had created.
"It was never meant to be realistic," he said. "It was meant to be a fairy tale, a fantasy about Giuliano . . . We decided to leave the realism to the Italians. It's their country, their character. We wanted to do something legendary."
Vidal said that Cimino came to his house in Italy in March, 1986 with a script that Cimino, not Shagan, had written.
"He said, 'I've come for a polish job,' " Vidal recalled. "I said, 'You better go to Lourdes if you think that's what it needs.' "
Vidal said he knew Cimino had worked with another writer before, but he did not see Shagan's script until the film was in production.
"He (Shagan) was totally unknown to me," Vidal said. "I started all over again. I had been in Italy at the time of Giuliano in '48 and '49 and I knew what sources to go to."
Vidal said he wrote several drafts of "The Sicilian" and spent time in the editing room with Cimino preparing the version now showing on the Champs-Elysees.
Last December, a three-person Writers Guild arbitration panel ruled that Vidal's contributions to the final film were not sufficient to warrant co-screenwriter credit with Shagan. Vidal filed a lawsuit and intends to be the first writer in 47 years to take on the guild in federal court.
Vidal won the first round of his suit Tuesday when Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Miriam Vogel reversed her previous ruling that the WGA did not have to disclose to Vidal the names of the three arbiters on "The Sicilian." The judge stayed her order to allow WGA lawyers time to appeal.
In a statement released after Tuesday's court ruling, the WGA said that writers and companies "agree in advance to be bound by the guild's credit determination" and to not seek redress in court.
Vidal said he is taking the case "all the way."
"I stand to make nothing (from a credit)," he said. "If my name is on the picture, I get no more money. I have no percentage, nothing. I am doing it out of a sense of justice for all writers subject to (the guild). It's expensive, but it's worthwhile. I don't know why I'm being so noble."
Vidal jokingly suggested a compromise, that he be given sole screen credit for the Cimino version and that Shagan get sole credit for the American version.
"That would seem to be sufficient punishment for Mr. Shagan to be given full credit for the mess now on the screen in the U.S."