“If you don’t get it right, what’s the point?”
Michael Cimino was the last great independent director in the Hollywood reality of the 80’s big budget movies, and that is the reason why here at ECU we have chosen him for this Friday’s spotlight.
Overcoming this initial provocation, Michale Cimino can be considered without any doubts one of the most controversial directors of the American history. Born on February 3rd in 1939 in New York City, Cimino was regarded as an “enfant-priodige” at school but at the same time as a rebel, getting often into fights, spending time with delinquents and coming home drunk. He graduated in only three years with honours at Michigan State University and he was described in the 1959 yearbook as having tastes that included blondes, Thelonious Monk, Chico Hamilton, Mort Sahl, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright, and “drinking, preferably vodka”. He got his major in Painting at Yale University, and after the gradation he started working in Manhattan for an advertising company becoming a star director of television. He moved then to Los Angeles, where he started writing screenplays before of becoming a director.
His first movie Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), stars Clint Eastwood, who was impressed by his skills as a screenwriter and his attention to detail. The film talks about a Korean War veteran named “Thunderbolt” who takes under his wings a young drifter named “Lightfoot”, played by Jeff Bridges. When Thunderbolt’s old partners try to find him, he and Lightfoot try to convince them to make one last big heist at Montana Armored. The movie was a huge box office success, giving to Cimino the chance to shoot an even bigger movie, The Deer Hunter (1979), where he was the director, co-producer and co-writer.
The Deer Hunter is a movie about a trio of Russian-American steelworkers and their service in the Vietnam War. The film stars Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Savage, John Cazale, Meryl Streep, and George Dzundza. It is considered one of the greatest American film of all time and it won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director for Michael Cimino, and Best Supporting Actor for Christopher Walken. In 1996, The Deer Hunter was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. Thanks to this movie and to scenes of the film as the Russian roulette one, Michael Cimino started to be considered as one of the best director in Hollywood and potentially of the world.
After the Deer Hunter and thanks to the credit earned with this movie, in 1980 Cimino was determined to realize “the best movie ever”. The initial budget for this new project was of 7 million dollars and was provided by the United Artists, the historical production company created by Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith and D. Fairbanks. The movie is based on the Johnson County War, it portrays a fictional dispute between land barons and European immigrants in Wyoming in the 1890s. The cast includes Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, Isabelle Huppert, Jeff Bridges, John Hurt, Sam Waterston, Brad Dourif, Joseph Cotten, Geoffrey Lewis, David Mansfield, Richard Masur, Terry O’Quinn, Mickey Rourke, and Willem Defoe in his first film role. Although the initial budget, the extreme Cimino’s meticulousness, his pursuit of the perfection and the dream of realizing the best movie ever pushed the film in a vortex of problems and crazy expenses that make the expenses increase until 44 million dollars. According to Cimino every scene had to be a canvases, harmonious in its construction and breath-taking for its beauty. The result was that the Hollywood’s distribution and production companies boycotted the movie, in order to create a new “virtuous circle” where the economics principles would have lead the realization of the movie more than the creative vision, often irrational, of a director. From this moment, in Hollywood, the final cut of the movie was made by the producer and not anymore by the director.
Heaven’s Gate was a total flop at the box office thanks to a dramatic distribution strategy and is still considered as the biggest box office bomb of all time. Because of the great expenses and the ridiculous incomes the movie took the United Artist production company to bankruptcy, “sucking” the most famous production company of the history. After Heaven’s Gate, the career of Michael Cimino was irremediably compromised, and he had huge difficulties in realizing any other movie.
For directing an other film he had to wait until the 1985, when he realized the Year of the Dragon starring Mickey Rourke. This film, sharply criticized by the American critics, had a small budget and it was realized in unpleasant conditions by Cimino. After the Year of the Dragon, he realized The Sicilian in 1987 that was another failure.In 1990, he decided to direct a remake of Desperate Hours, the Humphrey Bogart’s movie, starring again Mickey Rourke and Anthony Hopkins. The film was another box-office disappointment, grossing less than $3 million.
The last feature-length film of Cimino was Sunchaser starring Woody Harrelson and Jon Seda. The film, a great story about illness, travel and a search for a life’s sense was nominated for the Palme d’Or at that year’s Cannes Film Festival, but was once more ostracized by the American critics and was only realised to video.
Michael Cimino has always had an independent attitude in the creation of his movies, even if he has collaborated with the main Hollywood’s production companies taking to bankruptcy one of them. He is considered one of the worst director ever as well as one of the best, and many reviews have been written on his movies, some of them terrible (“he has realized the worst film ever”) and some of them enthusiastic (“he has realized absolute masterpieces ” “Cimino suffered one of the greatest injustices of cinematic history”). In any case, in ECU we really enjoy the independent way of thinking and the people that follow their dreams risking everything for them, even if the result could be a spectacular failure. The pursuit of a vision and of the perfection is dangerous, but “If you don’t get it right, what’s the point?”