Michael Cimino: The Deer Hunter, Heaven’s Gate and the Price of a Vision Charles Elton Abrams Press, €19.99
Michael Cimino was one of the most fascinating figures in Hollywood history. Few directors have burned so brightly and burned out so quickly. A former advertising executive turned filmmaker, he quickly became one of the most respected auteur filmmakers in the world as his second feature film The deer hunter (1978), a three-hour film about three steelworkers whose lives are changed by the Vietnam War, was a huge box office hit worldwide and won three Oscars. his successor gate of heaven (1980), an epic western starring Kris Kristofferson, was a critical and commercial disaster and became a byword for expensive Hollywood flops.
Cimino’s reputation never recovered. He was subsequently fired from the film Unbound – which became a huge hit – and he spent his semi-recluse years with rumors that he was transgender fueled by his dramatically changed appearance.
In his biography of Cimino, The Deer Hunter, Heaven’s Gate and the Price of a VisionProducer and novelist Charles Elton tells the story of Cimino’s life primarily through the tortuous production processes of the films for which he was known.
Elton paints a portrait of a self-mythologizing and selfish figure, “a compulsive borrower” who, interestingly given later rumours, was “fixated on the nature of masculinity in his life and work”.
He shunned his family, faked his Vietnam service (he said, “I have this insane feeling that I was there”), made up his age, and boasted about his love of cars and “one beautiful model after another—sometimes three.” He was always opaque about his private life, and until the end of his life the exact nature of his relationship with his right-hand man, Joann Carelli — who calls Elton Cimino’s “shadow government” — was never clear, Elton says.
Carelli worked as a producer the deer hunter, but she was perhaps one of the few people involved with the film with whom Cimino had anything like a harmonious relationship. He struggled with studio executives whom he viewed as stuffy bean counters, disposed of the writer, and was generally a pain in the neck to work with. But it paid off as the film touched a cultural chord in an America grappling with ambivalence
Elton rightly points out that the acclaim for the film was not quite as universal as recalled, citing a contemporary review in village voice He called it “massively vague, tiresomely elliptical, and mysteriously hysterical” — which might appeal to anyone struggling to get through the film’s three hours.
video of the day
Elton is not stingy with that sprawling horror that was the production of Cimino’s sequel, gate of heaven, whom everyone from studio executives to crew members to local residents walked away and slandered; With no appropriate penalties for overspending, Cimino literally felt like he had been given a blank check and took advantage of that freedom. When the film was made, Kris Kristofferson said, “It was like having a loved one murdered by you and then blaming you for the murder.”
An usher described the premiere as “morticians at a funeral.” The primary blame lay with Cimino, Elton writes, but it was perhaps unfair that he lost so much on a flop while others had box office disasters that were comparable, if not of the same magnitude.
Elton may view his subject’s shortcomings with a cold eye, but ultimately he feels that Cimino got a bad deal in the court of public opinion. He points out that the accusations from critics trying to outdo each other with their barbs are often “petty and irrelevant” (eg.
He rejects that gate of heaven bankrupted the studio; it is a sad postscript of the film that the critical processing as a masterpiece came too late for the director.
Cimino’s crude deal extended to speculation about his looks and gender identity, suggests Elton, citing the Wachowski sisters (directors of The Matrix) whose transitions have been handled respectfully. For years before Cimino’s death, there were rumors that he was transgender – fueled by his apparent fondness for cosmetic surgery – but the director dismissed them in an interview with vanity fair 2010 as gossip coming from “that crazy girl I was hanging out with”.
But the rumors didn’t go away and Cimino’s performance seemed to speak for itself. Elton interviews a woman, Valerie Driscoll, who knew Cimino as “Nikki,” addressed the director with feminine pronouns, and helped him transform into a woman. Driscoll describes Cimino in the book as “the most beautiful woman I have ever seen”.
Elton compares Cimino to the wizard in The Wizard of Oz, which presented itself in different forms to different people. But the difference, says Elton, is that in Cimino’s case, “the character behind the curtain wasn’t a scaled down version of him. It was just another one that he didn’t want to show that came close to the final draft that he never quite got through.”
The problem is that without Cimino to interview, and with Carelli, who knew him best and swore not to tell Elton (although she met with him and appears to have confirmed or denied some parts of the story), it’s incomplete clear that Elton also pulled the final draft.
Film buffs will love this bio and Elton brings Cimino’s ailing legend to life, but to me the various strands of myth and conjecture never fully coalesce into a clear portrait of their subject.
Cimino emerges from all of this as a still enigmatic character, and the most satisfying parts of this book are about his films and their making, rather than about him.
https://www.independent.ie/entertainment/books/book-reviews/tarnished-legend-of-hollywood-director-michael-cimino-gleams-in-this-biography-for-movie-buffs-41511028.html Hollywood director Michael Cimino’s ailing legend shines in this bio for movie fans