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The Good, The Bad & The Badass: Michael Cimino

07.04.2016
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Last week, we took a look at the career of every-man actor, Bill Pullman. This week we step back behind the camera to examine the work of a director who struggled to live down a certain degree of infamy...
Michael Cimino
michael cimino robert de niro the deer hunter

Director Michael Cimino, who died this weekend at age seventy-seven, deserves to be a household name along with his seventies contemporaries, like Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese, and Francis Ford Coppola. One of the auteurs to emerge from 1970’s “New Hollywood”, Cimino, for a few years anyways, was considered one of the great directors of his era. Like many other top-helmers from that time, including Peter Bogdanovich, William Friedkin, and even Coppola himself, Cimino flamed out spectacularly - more out of the industry’s perception of his hubris rather than the fact that the movies he was churning out were actually bad.

christopher waken michael cimino heaven's gate

While winning the Oscar for THE DEER HUNTER in 1978 gave him carte-blanche, Cimino paid a heavy price when his follow-up, HEAVEN’S GATE, was such a huge critical and financial failure that it brought down a studio - United Artists. His career never recovered, especially once the stories from the set made their way into an exceedingly nasty account of the production, ‘Final Cut”, by former UA exec Steven Bach.

mickey rourke year of the dragon

Still, Cimino kept plugging away, and in 1985 he put out YEAR OF THE DRAGON, a spectacular gangland saga set in New York City’s Chinatown. A technical marvel, most of the movie was shot on a sound-stage, fooling even Bronx-born Stanley Kubrick, who attended the premiere (according to the IMDB). Brought-in on-time and on-budget, the movie did little to redeem Cimino in the eyes of Hollywood once it turned out to be a financial disappointment (although it was never a flop). Inexplicably nominated for a slew of Razzies, despite mostly good reviews, Cimino’s career went into a nosedive, with his follow-up, THE SICILIAN - starring Christopher Lambert - being butchered by its American distributor, and his two movies after that - DESPERATE HOURS & THE SUNCHASER barely getting released at all.

His Best Work
michael cimino robert de niro the deer hunter meryl streep

One of the adverse effects of HEAVEN’S GATE’s failure was that many started re-appraising THE DEER HUNTER, wondering if it really deserved the unanimous acclaim it received in 1978. While not Cimino’s first movie (he toiled as a writer before directing the atypical Clint Eastwood vehicle THUNDERBOLT & LIGHTFOOT), THE DEER HUNTER put him on the map and even thirty-eight years later, it stands as one of the classics of its era. The directing is masterful, with the movie kicking-off with a nearly hour-long, bravura wedding celebration that gives way to the exceedingly grim, violent, chaotic second act set in a nightmare version of Vietnam. In my opinion, THE DEER HUNTER has career-best performances by stars Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken, not to mention amazing supporting roles for John Savage, Meryl Streep and John Cazale, who died towards the end of filming. Anyone who’s serious about cinema needs to know this movie inside-out, and it’s one I try to re-watch at least semi-annually.

His Most Overrated Work
mickey rourke kelly lynch desprate hours

It’s hard to say anything from Cimino is overrated, as his oeuvre following HEAVEN’S GATE has been savaged by the press, irregardless of its quality. Cimino does have his defenders though, and I’m certainly one - although even I can’t quite explain what went wrong with his horrible remake of the Humphrey Bogart classic, DESPERATE HOURS. Starring Mickey Rourke and Anthony Hopkins, this melodramatic, thrill-less thriller is only entertaining in a “so bad it’s good” kind-of way, with Rourke going hilariously awry in his performance, although I suspect the blame for this falls more on Cimino.

His Most Underrated Film
heaven's gate kris kristofferson isabelle hupert

While I prefer the similarly underrated YEAR OF THE DRAGON, Cimino’s HEAVEN’S GATE ranks among the most unfairly bashed movies of all time. Upon watching it for the first time on the recent Criterion re-release, I was amazed at the fact that no one was able to recognize the obvious artistry at work back in 1980, with some amazing set-pieces by Cimino, gorgeous cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond, and another great performance by Cimino muse Christopher Walken, who plays a sympathetic hired killer, who battles aristocratic Marshall Kris Kristofferson for the heart of a french prostitute (Isabelle Huppert) against the backdrop of the infamous Johnson County War from the 1890’s. Luckily, the movie’s stock has risen somewhat, thanks mostly to an influential documentary, Z CHANNEL, the Criterion re-release, and Cimino’s own tenacity in defending the film on Twitter following its revival.

His Best Scene

While any of the Russian Roulette scenes from THE DEER HUNTER would have been an obvious choice, rather than go with that I’ve decided to highlight a scene from YEAR OF THE DRAGON. Here, an impossibly young Mickey Rourke (unrecognizable at thirty-three), as NYC cop Stanley White, has his Chinatown dinner interrupted by John Lone’s hired killers, who murder dozens while Rourke tries to fight back. It’s a brief but harrowing sequence, and if you haven’t seen the whole movie, it’ll give you a nice taste as to how solid an action/drama this really is (also check out JoBlo.com’s own Paul Shirey’s write-up of it).

 
His Five Best Films

5. THE SICILIAN
4. HEAVEN’S GATE
3. THUNDERBOLT & LIGHTFOOT
2. YEAR OF THE DRAGON
1. THE DEER HUNTER

Up Next

Hopefully Criterion will continue to spotlight Cimino’s work, with THUNDERBOLT & LIGHTFOOT, THE DEER HUNTER and YEAR OF THE DRAGON all well worthy of Blu-ray upgrades. Until then, I hope this column will encourage our readers to dig into Cimino’s divisive but impressive filmography.

Source: JoBlo.com

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2:39PM on 07/11/2016

To me, Michael Cimino isone of the great tragedies of American film

Right up there with Francis Ford Coppola. I really do think The Deer Hunter deserves every bit of praise it receives, I tink it is hands down the second best Vietnam film ever made beating out Platoon and Full Metal Jacket (and I'm just about the biggest Kubrick fan you will even meet). Heaven's Gate polarizes me a bit, much of it is good, but so much of it is also unnecessary. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is much better than it could have been and beats out much of Eastwood's film of the era
Right up there with Francis Ford Coppola. I really do think The Deer Hunter deserves every bit of praise it receives, I tink it is hands down the second best Vietnam film ever made beating out Platoon and Full Metal Jacket (and I'm just about the biggest Kubrick fan you will even meet). Heaven's Gate polarizes me a bit, much of it is good, but so much of it is also unnecessary. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is much better than it could have been and beats out much of Eastwood's film of the era (probably his 4thor 5th best of the 70's). I think that Year of the Dragon is a pretty decent action pic but not much more, and his career majorly tanked afterward and never even came close to recovering. It's jut baffling how someone who had the vision to make The Deer Hunter or Heaven's Gate could make such disposable garbage afterward (although I guess small budgeted prestige pics weren't really en vogue in the 80's and early 90's the way they are now). A few directors, like Scorsese and Spielberg earn a (near) continual stream of critical praise throughout their career. Many, like Sidney Lumet, hit a career peak and then continue to do steady, solid work for decades afterward. Others like De Palma or Michael Mann see a gradual tapering off to their critical appeal and man, then there's the Ciminos where it really seems like the bulb burned out right after it had finally finished warming up.
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10:24AM on 07/04/2016
I tried to find the interview I read a few months back but couldn't. I remember thinking reading it that I kind of understood why he couldn't find a job. Other than the fact that he just couldn't take care of a budget (the real reason Heaven's Gate hurt him, not the poor reviews), the guy's personality seemed difficult to take. I wouldn't have liked to work with him and apparently, a lot of people felt the same. Sometimes, it's that simple.
I tried to find the interview I read a few months back but couldn't. I remember thinking reading it that I kind of understood why he couldn't find a job. Other than the fact that he just couldn't take care of a budget (the real reason Heaven's Gate hurt him, not the poor reviews), the guy's personality seemed difficult to take. I wouldn't have liked to work with him and apparently, a lot of people felt the same. Sometimes, it's that simple.
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9:31AM on 07/04/2016

The Sunchaser is a hidden gem

a great movie nobody saw...
the Deer Hunter is my fav, and I still have to Watch the DC of Heaven's Gate...
VAYA CON DIOS
a great movie nobody saw...
the Deer Hunter is my fav, and I still have to Watch the DC of Heaven's Gate...
VAYA CON DIOS
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2:41PM on 07/11/2016
I'd strongly disagree with that, but that's the beauty of the site, we've all got our different opinions and don't have to agree.
I'd strongly disagree with that, but that's the beauty of the site, we've all got our different opinions and don't have to agree.
9:15AM on 07/04/2016

RIP

I remember watching "The Deer Hunter" on a Friday afternoon and I couldn't stop thinking about all weekend. It was incredibly powerful and the only movie since then to make me feel like that.
I remember watching "The Deer Hunter" on a Friday afternoon and I couldn't stop thinking about all weekend. It was incredibly powerful and the only movie since then to make me feel like that.
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8:25AM on 07/04/2016
Great director. As flawed as Heaven's Gate is, it's one of those movies that studios aren't making anymore. My favorite movie of his is Thunderbolt And Lightfoot. It really is a 70s movie and Jeff Bridges at his best.
Great director. As flawed as Heaven's Gate is, it's one of those movies that studios aren't making anymore. My favorite movie of his is Thunderbolt And Lightfoot. It really is a 70s movie and Jeff Bridges at his best.
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7:20AM on 07/04/2016
Final Cut was an amazing read.
I saw the 5 hour cut of Heaven's Gate a few years back as part of a festival, it was an experience. I personally think its a good movie.
Final Cut was an amazing read.
I saw the 5 hour cut of Heaven's Gate a few years back as part of a festival, it was an experience. I personally think its a good movie.
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