Michael Cimino, Oscar-winning director of ‘Heaven’s Gate’ and ‘Deer Hunter,’ dies at 77

Michael Cimino arrives at the Hotel Excelsior during the 69th Venice International Film Festival.
(Gareth Cattermole / Getty Images)
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Michael Cimino, a writer-director whose career saw the highs of winning two Oscars for his 1978 picture “The Deer Hunter” and the lows of 1980’s infamous “Heaven’s Gate,” has died in Los Angeles at age 77. The cause of death was not immediately known.

His career can be seen as a case study and cautionary fable, one of the ultimate tales from the now venerated era of 1970s Hollywood, in which bracing films of deep emotional currents were made with all the resources of major studios. “Heaven’s Gate,” rightly or not, would become symbolic of the sort of excess and unchecked ego that the modern business of moviemaking would work to rein in.

Born in New York, Cimino graduated from Yale with a degree in art. He began his career making commercials, and after moving to Los Angeles went on to share screenwriting credits on 1971’s ecological science-fiction film “Silent Running” and 1973’s Dirty Harry sequel “Magnum Force.”


His feature debut as a director would be with 1974’s “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot,” which starred Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges. A counterculture-influenced blend of heist picture, road movie and buddy comedy, it earned Bridges an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor.

It was Cimino’s second film, 1978’s “The Deer Hunter” which established him as one of the most vibrant voices of the moment with a story that captured the impact of the Vietnam war on the lives of small-town Americans.

The cast featured Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, Christopher Walken, John Savage and John Cazale in a story of a group of friends from an industrial Pennsylvania town and how their lives are torn apart by the Vietnam war, both for those sent overseas and those who stayed behind. Scenes in which Walken plays Russian Roulette in Southeast Asia became instantly iconic, symbolic of the maddening pressures that set upon men at war.

“The Deer Hunter” would garner nine Oscar nominations and win five awards, including statues for Cimino for best director and best picture. Cimino would also win directing prizes for the film from the Golden Globes, the Directors Guild, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and others.

The success of “The Deer Hunter” set the stage for Cimino’s ambitious “Heaven’s Gate,” starring Kris Kristofferson, Isabelle Huppert, John Hurt, Sam Waterston and Walken in a tale that pits immigrant homesteaders against powerful cattle barons in late 1800s Wyoming. The film’s troubled production and skyrocketing costs were covered relentlessly in the press.


Initially budgeted at $11.5 million, the film’s budget would spiral to more than $35 million, and its release was delayed a full year as Cimino sifted his way through millions of feet of footage. The film’s fate seemed sealed even before it opened to ruinous reviews and became a notorious box office disaster. Steven Bach, a former executive at United Artists, the studio behind the film, would go on to publish a making-of account as the 1985 book “Final Cut: Dreams and Disaster in the Making of ‘Heaven’s Gate.’”

It would be a long five years until Cimino released another movie, 1985’s “Year of the Dragon.” Starring Mickey Rourke as a New York City cop battling Chinese gangs, the film came under criticism for its depictions of the Chinese immigrant community.

In a 1985 consideration of Cimino following the release of “Year of the Dragon,” Times critic Charles Champlin summed up the filmmaker as someone struggling to come to terms with his own message, grasping for what he wanted to say amidst the swirling, lavish visuals he was able to put onscreen.

“Cimino may yet make the film he absolutely wants to make,” Champlin wrote. “Few film makers have greater abilities to construct arresting images and to carry the viewer along on tides of action. But films that do what Cimino seems to want them to do are meldings of style and substance, disciplined and coherent.”

After “Dragon,” Cimino would make three more features, 1987’s Mario Puzo adaptation “The Sicilian,” starring Christopher Lambert, 1990’s “Desperate Hours,” which reunited him with Rourke, and his final feature 1996’s “Sunchaser,” starring Woody Harrelson. In the subsequent years he continued to write and published a number of books in France.

A 2012 restoration and subsequent re-release of “Heaven’s Gate” allowed Cimino to see his masterwork undergo a critical reevaluation. In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter published early in 2015, Cimino expressed happiness that the film was being seen anew and accepted at last by audiences for its sweeping intimacy and audacious vision of the American West.


Yet, a headstrong iconoclast to the very end, Cimino added, “I never needed vindication. I knew what I had done.”


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