The Good, The Bad & The Badass: Michael Cimino

Last Updated on July 31, 2021

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’s own Paul Shirey’s write-up of it).


His Five Best Films


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.


About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.