“What people are so desperately looking for now is somebody who stands for something,” said Michael Cimino.
And what do most people in Hollywood think Michael Cimino stands for? He is, of course, the director of The Deer Hunter , the first great Vietnam War movie. He is also the Last Auteur, the Man Who Brought Down United Artists, the director of Heaven’s Gate , one of the biggest disasters in the history of the movies. Most of all, they see the enfant terrible , now in middle age.
What does Mr. Cimino say he stands for? Uncompromising artistry, love of country, and integrity. The new patriotism has galvanized Hollywood: War movies are back, and Mr. Cimino likes to make them. He feels vindicated that this autumn, citizens everywhere were singing “God Bless America,” the anthem his characters sang at the end of The Deer Hunter . He has just published his first novel, Big Jane , about a young woman who grows up on Long Island in the 50’s, sees America from the back of a motorcycle and fights in the Korean War.
Now Mr. Cimino is trying to raise money to make a bloody three-hour adaptation of Man’s Fate , André Malraux’s dense, heady novel about the squelched 1927 Communist uprising in Shanghai. “There was never a better time to try to do Man’s Fate ,” he said, “because Man’s Fate is what it’s all about right now. It’s about the nature of love, of friendship, the nature of honor and dignity. How fragile and important all of those things are in a time of crisis.”
Mr. Cimino has never taken the easy path. Martha De Laurentiis, who with her husband Dino helped produce Mr. Cimino’s films Year of the Dragon and Desperate Hours , read his script for Man’s Fate and passed on it. “If you edit it down, it could be a very tight, beautiful, sensational movie,” she said, “but violent, and ultimately a subject matter that I don’t think America is that interested in.”
Last year’s re-release of Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now was bittersweet: Such a brave, dark and personal film would never get financed today. Instead, what passes for a serious war film is Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down , with its sublime footage of beautiful young men in action and helicopters cruising at magic hour, and bizarrely inappropriate rock tunes to make the unremitting carnage more palatable. Michael Cimino is not-could never be-a Jerry Bruckheimer kind of director. His style is painterly and deliberate, and he’s not interested in whipping up the special effects that MTV-bred audiences expect.
He is also, at 62, the latest French reclamation project. And why not? They love Jerry Lewis; they love Mickey Rourke. So how surprising is it, really, that the French also love Michael Cimino?
“I’m just tickled; I really haven’t come down yet. The stars must be falling into place,” Mr. Cimino said last August, sitting in his favorite breakfast hangout, Duke’s on Sunset Boulevard, a few days after he was informed that the French Minister of Culture would bestow on him the country’s ” Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres ” award for his filmmaking and writing. He would be honored in Paris in September, at the same time that Big Jane , translated into French, was being published by the prestigious house of Gallimard.
“If you look on the wall, there is a pyramid,” Mr. Cimino said, pointing a french fry at a series of framed portraits behind the bar. “There’s Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison. If you follow a diagonal line, you come to Michael Cimino-right above the white cups, in the black frame. And then if you go across the base of the pyramid, you come to Jimi Hendrix. It’s a pyramid of American myth.”
Hmmm … which of these people is not like the others? Mr. Cimino’s contribution to the culture is in serious need of some updating-and his hope is that Big Jane will start the process. “Not only did Malraux have Gallimard as his publisher, he also won this award, as did Flaubert and Gide and James Joyce and Faulkner and Styron and Jackson Pollock. These people are my heroes!”
All of those artists had disasters, but none had Heaven’s Gate , so proceed carefully if you’re going to ask about it. “Would you ask Picasso to explain Guernica ?” Mr. Cimino demanded, with a straight face. “Would you ask Nabokov to explain Lolita ? Would you ask Tolstoy about War and Peace ? No, you wouldn’t dare. It’s like an old love affair, tired and worn out. People have tried to talk to me about it, and I’ve said it’s all up on the screen. It’s tired and tiring.”
Just like one of his visually daring, deeply flawed cinematic epics, my time with Michael Cimino would end badly-with a one-sided shouting match outside a Los Angeles restaurant. Along the way, though, I got a good, long look at the man who has intrigued, puzzled and appalled Hollywood ever since Heaven’s Gate , the bloody epic western which flopped so spectacularly that it toppled United Artists and shifted power in the film business away from the auteurs and back to the studios. Originally budgeted at $7.5 million, the film cost $36 million-a tremendous sum in 1980-and grossed only $1.5 million at the box office.
Yet Mr. Cimino is unapologetic, and then some, about the movie whose name has become a synonym for financial disaster. “I had to really discipline myself not to let-you know, it’s like women who are rape victims: Some of them become professional victims for the rest of their lives,” he said. “It took me a long time before I was able to say, ‘I’m proud of that movie.’ And I am proud of it. I could not have made it any better than I made it. No excuses, and no regrets.”
Yet the trauma of Heaven’s Gate and its aftermath may not have left Mr. Cimino entirely unchanged. Or so Gore Vidal wondered a while back when he called his former collaborator, for whom he did an uncredited polish on the script for The Sicilian.
“Michael,” Mr. Vidal said, “I just read in the newspaper that you had a sex change.”
At 62, Mr. Cimino looks like a cross between a cowboy hipster and your great-aunt Bessie. He teeters around in jeans and high-heeled boots with lifts fitted inside. His hair is grayish red and eggbeater-bouffant even when pulled back into a ponytail; his round face is ruddy and baby-smooth-too smooth to be natural at his age. His hands and arms are delicate and hairless. He smells girlishly good. It can’t be denied: Mr. Cimino is a macho dude with an aura to his manner and style that is disconcertingly feminine.
“I read in some trades that he had decided to become a woman,” said Kris Kristofferson, a loyal pal to Mr. Cimino even though starring in Heaven’s Gate hurt his career. “So we had dinner, just to see if I could recognize him. He seemed in good spirits.” Was he wearing a dress? “No-which was comforting.”
“I roared with laughter,” said film critic F.X. Feeney, when one inquiring mind called to ask him if the story was true. “I know him well enough to know it’s never going to happen. You are talking about an internationally renowned perfectionist. If he can’t come out looking like Catherine Deneuve, forget it.”
“Last time I saw him, it looked like he had a hair implant,” said John Milius, with whom Mr. Cimino co-wrote Magnum Force for Clint Eastwood. “His hair went straight out in front of him. I can’t imagine concerning yourself with your appearance to that degree, especially for a man.”
Mr. Cimino himself seemed unruffled and even slightly amused by the rumors. He said that when Mr. Vidal called him, “I said, ‘Oh, really? My doctors are going to be very surprised when I go to take a physical for the next movie. It’s going to be a big shock.'” For the record, Mr. Cimino said that he has not had-and has no plans to have-a sex change; nor is he a cross-dresser. “They’ve said everything about me that they could: racist, Marxist, rightist, homophobic, sex change-I don’t know what else they could come up with.”
Mr. Cimino began shooting Heaven’s Gate in April 1979, just one month after he took home his Oscars, for best picture and best director, for The Deer Hunter . His producer was his girlfriend Joann Carelli, with whom he’s had a more than 30-year on-again-off-again relationship, and whom he refers to today as “my partner.” She hired and then fell in love with the film’s composer, David Mansfield, eventually marrying him.
Ms. Carelli and Mr. Cimino battled during the filming of Heaven’s Gate , though she was powerless to curb his excesses. “Michael had these people so spooked that no one dared to tell him to go shit in a hat,” said David Field, executives heading United Artist’s at the time . “They were all headed off a cliff as fast as they could go.” But the pace of his filmmaking was killingly slow: Mr. Cimino walked around the set adjusting the hats of his cowboy extras, filmed 53 takes of Mr. Kristofferson cracking his bullwhip.
“Michael really wanted to make a perfect film,” said Vilmos Zsigmond, the Oscar-winning cinematographer who shot The Deer Hunter and was back to supply the sumptuous imagery in Heaven’s Gate . “He could have made this film for much less. He overdid it; he overcomplicated it. But they should not have killed him for it.”
Today Mr. Cimino calmly explains that the budget quadrupled because the costs of the movie’s authentic costumes and props were underestimated. “We had to go to England to have top hats made,” he said. “We had to make everything. And even at that, the cost was only $32 million [$36 million, according to Steven Bach, the other studio executive heading United Artist’s and later the author of Final Cut , a blow-by-blow account of the Heaven’s Gate debacle]. By today’s standards, that’s nothing. And it’s all on the screen … but nobody knows that, so they print that Cimino put it in his nose in cocaine.”
As the film’s November 1980 release date approached, Mr. Cimino worked feverishly and barred United Artists executives from entering the editing room. “I remember going to the New York premiere,” said Jeff Bridges, one of the film’s stars. “I’m not sure he had seen the movie complete; he was scrambling to put it together.” In the version the New York media elite watched, the sound mix was so poor that much of the dialogue was unintelligible, making it impossible to understand the plot. The audience sat stupefied for three and a half hours. “Afterward, we heard that terrible stuttering applause,” said Mr. Bridges, “and it was that sinking feeling. We tried to tell ourselves, ‘Well, maybe they liked it so much that they are stunned into silence.'”
“An unqualified disaster,” Vincent Canby pronounced the film in The New York Times the next morning. United Artists aborted the release of the picture. “What they did was like taking a Stealth bomber and putting the pilot up there and not filling it with gas,” said Mr. Cimino. “Of course it’s going to crash and burn.” Steven Bach was fired and fled Hollywood. “This man has given me endless grief for his work of fiction,” said Mr. Cimino, referring to Final Cut , “and it should be classified as fiction. He’s made money off my blood, my work, for 20 years.”
It’s not only his enemies that Mr. Cimino is angry with. “I’m not revisiting the past, like Francis Coppola,” he said, “recutting Apocalypse Now 29 times. Why do you think Francis is recutting Apocalypse ? He’s dried up. I’m going forward; he’s going backward.”
As for Oliver Stone, with whom he co-wrote The Year of the Dragon , “Oliver thinks he’s the greatest thing since chopped liver. He’s a great guy, a great writer; we have a great working relationship and I love him. But he’s a better writer than director,” Mr. Cimino said. “He’s incredibly, insanely jealous about the fact that I published a novel. He’s always wanted to be the next Hemingway; he didn’t want to be a director.”
Mr. Cimino is still vexed that editor Peter Zinner won an Academy Award for the film. “He was a moron,” Mr. Cimino said. “I cut Deer Hunter myself.” Mr. Cimino contested screenwriter Deric Washburn’s sole credit on the script for the Writers Guild of America Awards: “In their Nazi wisdom, [they] didn’t give me the credit because I would be producer, director and writer,” he said.
As for Vilmos Zsigmond, whose lush cinematography in both The Deer Hunter and Heaven’s Gate earned accolades, Mr. Cimino said: “Vilmos and all those guys have built themselves up to be bigger than directors. It’s bullshit. Does anyone remember who shot Kubrick’s movies? Do you remember who shot David Lean’s movies? No one remembers who shot Dr. Strangelove or Barry Lyndon .”
Not until 1985 did Hollywood entrust him with another gig. That year, producer Dino De Laurentiis offered to take Mr. Cimino “out of the freezer” and handed him The Year of the Dragon , a violent thriller about the Triad gangs in Chinatown starring Mickey Rourke and John Lone. “With Michael, it’s a 24-hour day,” said Oliver Stone. “He doesn’t really sleep … he’s truly an obsessive personality. He’s the most Napoleonic director I ever worked with.” Mr. Cimino brought the film in on time and on budget.
But his brooding, grandiloquent sensibility had grown ever more out of step with audiences. “Originally I had a notion that all my work put together would be a kind of tapestry of American life,” Mr. Cimino said. It’s not that he hasn’t tried: Over the years he’s attempted to get many big projects off the ground, including The Fountainhead and Crime and Punishment . But the studios haven’t bitten. In today’s marketplace, he’s a dinosaur.
In New York City, Mr. Cimino and Ms. Carelli own adjacent apartments in the U.N. Plaza; hers used to belong to Truman Capote, with whom they were friends. They also share a compound valued at $40 million on the ocean in East Hampton. They are both friendly with Courtney Ross, but mainly avoid the trendy Hollywood crowd. Mr. Cimino rants that the nouveau Hamptoners, including the Ron Perelmans and the Steven Spielbergs, are ruining East Hampton.
“He likes to play it both ways,” said Mr. Milius. Mr. Cimino grew up in Old Westbury, Long Island-“Fitzgerald’s Gold Coast, the fresh green breast of the New World.” His father was a successful music publisher. He attended local schools, where he was regarded as a prodigy, and rebelled against his parents by consorting with lowlifes, getting into fights and coming home drunk.
He went off to Yale. “When my father found out I went into the movie business, he didn’t talk to me for a year,” Mr. Cimino said. His mother once told him after The Deer Hunter that she knew he was famous because his name was in the New York Times crossword puzzle. “Don’t go there,” he said. “We have very bad relations.” How about one of his siblings? “Nothing, nothing, nothing,” he says. In 1962, Mr. Cimino joined the Army Reserve. “I wanted to be a Navy flyer-you know why I couldn’t cut it? I didn’t have a perfect bite. Your teeth have to have a perfect bite because of all the G-forces-you can lop your tongue off. It was a big disappointment.” He trained at Fort Dix, N.J., and had a month of medical training in Texas; later, when publicizing The Deer Hunter , he told a New York Times reporter that he had been “attached” to a Green Beret unit. Mr. Cimino was never called up, but says he helped make classified films on weapons systems.
He received his master’s degree in fine arts from Yale in ’63 and moved to Manhattan. “I met some people who were doing fashion stuff-commercials and stills. And there were all these incredibly beautiful girls,” Mr. Cimino said. “And then, zoom-the next thing I know, overnight, I was directing commercials.” He shot ads for L’Eggs hosiery, Kool cigarettes, Eastman Kodak. He bought a brownstone on 53rd Street. “Do you remember Blow Up ? That was me. I lived that. I had the same car, a Rolls-Royce convertible. And one beautiful model after another-and sometimes three at a time-and I was just having a ball.” (No one that I spoke to from this period can recall Mr. Cimino with so much as one model, but never mind.) He hooked up with Ms. Carelli, then a commercial director’s rep. They began to hatch big plans for the future.
In ’71, Mr. Cimino and Ms. Carelli decided to give Hollywood a try. Mr. Cimino wrote an alternately comic and melodramatic heist movie called Thunderbolt and Lightfoot ; Clint Eastwood wanted to buy it. At first Mr. Eastwood balked at letting Mr. Cimino direct, but he was persuaded by the young man’s confidence. On the set, Mr. Cimino kept things moving swiftly and Mr. Eastwood never interfered. “I knew that the only way I could keep control of the movie was to be ahead of schedule,” said Mr. Cimino.
He co-wrote Silent Running and Magnum Force and developed a Janis Joplin biography. Four years after Thunderbolt , he still hadn’t directed another film. Then EMI approached him with a story they had bought the rights to, which centered on a U.S. soldier who stays in Saigon after the Vietnam War and plays Russian roulette. Mr. Cimino took the premise and wrapped his own story around it, about a group of Russian immigrant steelworkers in Pennsylvania, some of whom go to Vietnam and some of whom stay behind. He sold his pitch to a group of executives, brought in Mr. Washburn to co-write the script, and assembled a cast of young actors that included Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Savage, John Cazale and Meryl Streep.
Mr. Cimino dedicated himself to The Deer Hunter with every ounce of his passion and intensity. For verisimilitude, he chose Thailand for the Vietnam setting, although it would be the first major Hollywood film to shoot there. Conditions were arduous, and the budget nearly doubled from $8 million to $15 million. Obsessive and impatient, Mr. Cimino was aware that he was coming in late with his Vietnam opus; Mr. Coppola had begun working on Apocalypse Now before him.
After bitter battles with Mr. Cimino over the cut, Universal agreed to release a three-hour-and-three-minute version of The Deer Hunter . Given the grim subject matter and the fact that fewer daily showings were possible, the film performed well when it opened in December 1978. The critics effusively greeted the unorthodox pacing, visual virtuosity and moving performances, and proclaimed Michael Cimino a major talent.
Many in left-leaning Hollywood felt that Mr. Cimino was making a right-wing statement about Vietnam, demonizing the Viet Cong by showing them forcing Americans to play Russian roulette, which Mr. Cimino used as metaphor. At a press conference after The Deer Hunter beat out her own Vietnam-aftermath picture, Coming Home , at the Oscars, Jane Fonda called Mr. Cimino’s film a “Pentagon version of the war,” although she admitted she hadn’t seen it. “I’m not a political person,” Mr. Cimino said. “It wasn’t intended to be political. What impressed me and what motivated me was the heroism of ordinary people in the face of extraordinary challenges. That’s been the glory of America.”
Last October, in Los Angeles, Mr. Cimino called one day and asked to meet at the Hamburger Hamlet on Sunset Boulevard. He came clomping into the restaurant, sat down and ceremoniously unwrapped a package. Inside was a lovely, old-fashioned oil portrait he had done of Ms. Carelli as a young woman, painted in a style reminiscent of Mary Cassatt. He had already picked out the frame and planned to surprise her with it on Christmas morning. “This is the way she looked when I met her,” he said, gazing lovingly at her image.
It was to be our last pleasant moment.
He began to expound on Bush’s wise handling of the terrorists, which escalated into a diatribe on the general debasement of our society. Mr. Cimino was also upset to have just learned that the revival of interest in him in France was prompting a translation of Final Cut to be published there. “I’m going to publish this next goddamn novel, and I’m going to publish one after that, and I’m going to get Man’s Fate made and I don’t care who says what. This is a new world, and if people are stuck in the past, it’s their problem, it’s not my problem. I’m living for now and for tomorrow and the future. All that matters now is, are you up to the new world or not? Are you in it, or are you still stuck in the old one? I’m not stuck in the old one.”
In 1978, Mr. Cimino goaded the custodians of the culture when he ended The Deer Hunter with a famously unhip scene of the guys singing “God Bless America” together. “They’ve been running Deer Hunter like crazy on Bravo,” he said. “And here is the whole goddamn Congress singing ‘God Bless America’ on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. I said, ‘Holy shit, this is the ending of the movie.’
“Do you get now, 20 years later, why that was in the movie? Do you get the Russian roulette? Do you understand fucking Heaven’s Gate now? I mean, even in Year of the Dragon , with Mickey Rourke ranting and raving about the Chinks and ‘This is America’ and ‘I’m a Polack’ and-there’s still an expression of love of country in all of these movies.”
It was midnight, the restaurant was closing, and Mr. Cimino wasn’t about to stop talking as we stood on the curb by his car. Earlier in the evening, I’d made mention of his “dark side,” a remark that offended him. He began talking about Afghanistan. “If I was 18, I’d go re-up right now,” he said. “I’d love to kill a bunch of these motherfuckers …. That’s my dark side, O.K.?”
On a chilly evening last fall, the grand salon of the Gallimard publishing house on the rive gauche filled with Paris’ elite. Anouk Aimée arrived in big round sunglasses with her tiny pal, Jeanne Moreau; Isabelle Huppert entered in sneakers and a raincoat; André Malraux’s daughter Florence accepted a glass of champagne. All came to honor the small man in the expensive suit and cowboy boots who stood beaming in the center of the room. French media personality Philippe Labro introduce the recipient of the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres prize, pinning the beribboned gold medal to the lapel of his jacket.
“To be 10,000 miles from home and to be in the presence of so many friends and colleagues and supporters,” said Mr. Cimino, his voice low and tentative, “I feel tonight I’m in the hand of God.” He paused and then proceeded to enumerate the reasons why this prize meant so much to him: “The road has been long and hard, and France has been there all the time. During the long night of lonely hardship, France was always here, in triumph and disaster.” He choked out his last words, struggling to keep his composure: “Blessed France-may she always love me as much as I love her.” He stood straight, his eyes shining with tears, looking as grateful as an abused child who has finally gotten a hug.