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New Book Reappraises Director Michael Cimino’s Career and Life

The Hollywood Reporter
The Hollywood Reporter
 2022-03-29
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“I think failure is more interesting than success,” Charles Elton says of his decision to undertake an investigation into, and reappraisal of, the life and work of director Michael Cimino in the new biography Cimino: The Deer Hunter, Heaven’s Gate and the Price of a Vision (Abrams Press, $28). “Success is kind of inspirational, but failure is instructive.”

Cimino’s success — best director and best picture Oscar wins for 1978’s Vietnam War drama The Deer Hunter — was short-lived when the disastrous release of his 1980 Western Heaven’s Gate turned him into a poster boy for directorial excess. Although he went on to shoot four more (now largely forgotten) films, he spent the last 20 years of his life in self-imposed isolation at his home in the Hollywood Hills, emerging only to attend European film festivals, where he burnished his reputation as a misunderstood auteur. He died in 2016 at age 77; no cause of death was disclosed. (The year prior, THR’ s Seth Abramovitch conducted an extensive interview with Cimino.)

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“I had always thought, having a gut feeling, that Cimino had been treated really unfairly,” says the London-based Elton, a literary agent turned executive producer at England’s ITV. Not that, as his book amply documents, Cimino didn’t provide his naysayers with ammunition: He frequently lied about his age and his background and was estranged from his middle-class Long Island family for years at a time; he often attempted to grab screenwriting credits he hadn’t earned; and he made few efforts to work with the studio executives who tried to rein in his ambitions.

“I was trying to work out why Cimino was treated so much more badly than other people who had done the same things,” Elton explains. “This is my hypothesis, I guess: He was an outsider. I think Hollywood is kinder to its own. Cimino was always an outsider. He was neither in that tradition of directors who are great storytellers, consummate technicians like George Stevens or William Wyler or George Cukor, or coming further up-to-date Sydney Pollack or Alan Pakula — wonderful directors, but they essentially bought into Hollywood; they bought into the system, whereas Cimino never did get the system, so he certainly wasn’t one of them. Nor was he one of the movie brats, like Hal Ashby and [Robert] Altman and all those people. He wasn’t even a great movie buff. He was someone who had the world in his hands and let it slip away.”

The 1985 book Final Cut — an account of the making of the $44 million Heaven’s Gate by United Artists executive Steven Bach — also cemented Cimino’s reputation as an irresponsible spendthrift. But, says Elton, “I don’t think it’s a serious film book. It’s somebody with axes to grind.” This new book sets out to correct the record. For example, though it’s now commonly believed that Heaven’s Gate bankrupted the studio, Elton notes that United Artists actually managed a modest $22 million profit in 1980.

“All the things that he’s accused of, I’m not saying he didn’t do them, but other people did them, too,” Elton argues. “For example, Darling Lili , that Blake Edwards movie, in 1970, the budget was $20 million, maybe even more. In inflation terms, in 1980, that’s $50 million. It lost a fortune. But Blake Edwards still worked. So what I’ve tried to do is put Cimino in a context that Hollywood is a battleground. Directors can be extremely difficult. And also there’s no reason why a famous movie director, artist, why should they be nice? Do you think Picasso was nice? So I was interested in all the things that are said about Cimino, how an untruth becomes a myth becomes a fact.”

While Elton’s book first appears structured as a conventional biography, it ultimately plays more like a mystery novel, as the author interrogates various witnesses in search of the Rosebud that offers a key to Cimino’s hidden life.

“Cimino’s world was a very strange world,” Elton says. “Particularly, since he invented everything. He invented his past. So the people I met — there were an awful lot of odd people in the Cimino diaspora — there were three types. There were those who told the truth. There were those who lied. And there were those who thought they were telling the truth, but they weren’t.”

Traveling to Kalispell, Montana, where Heaven’s Gate was filmed, Elton put an ad in a local paper to see if any locals remembered the shoot and was surprised to get about 50 responses. “I had the best time in Kalispell talking to those people,” he says. “I realized how much people loved working for Cimino, who could be demanding and difficult. In L.A., the perception was that he was [ Apocalypse Now’ s] Colonel Kurtz up-river and he had gone mad. But being in Kalispell, people said to me, ‘We had such a good time.’ So I was able to come up with things that went against the myth.”

Elton also spent time with a number of Cimino’s co-workers, like Penny Shaw, his editorial assistant on Heaven’s Gate . “She sat with Cimino in the cutting room for more than a year, seven days a week,” he says. “In a sense, that was one of the advantages in coming from the industry myself: I knew that [people like that] were gold dust.”

A major key to unlocking the tale was winning the qualified cooperation of Joann Carelli, Cimino’s producer on Heaven’s Gate , who stood loyally, and sometimes mysteriously, beside him throughout his life. “The one thing I thought was that I wouldn’t do the book unless I could find Joann Carelli,” he adds. “And I explain very clearly in the book what precisely Joann gave me and didn’t give me. She was so crucial to Cimino as a person, as an artist, and as a human being.”

One mystery that remained was the physical transformation Cimino underwent late in life, all while denying rumors of plastic surgery. Ultimately, Elton chooses not to supply definitive answers, although he does offer up a revealing interview with a Torrance wig shop owner, who testifies that Cimino, using the name “Nikki” and adopting a female persona, visited her regularly, striking up a tender, 15-year friendship. “I made a conscious decision not to editorialize about it,” he says. “People must make their own minds up.”

A version of this story first appeared in the March 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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