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The career of film director Michael Cimino supports the timeworn adage that success has many fathers but failure is an orphan. Though there is little disagreement among his many collaborators regarding the genesis of Cimino's notorious box office flops - among them Heaven's Gate (1980) and his 1990 remake of The Desperate Hours (1955) - the backstory of his multiple Academy Award-winning The Deer Hunter (1978) remains clouded in mystery and no small amount of acrimony. Undisputed is that the project began with a spec screenplay titled The Man Who Came to Play, which was being shopped around Hollywood in 1968 by its authors, independent writer-producer Louis Garfinkle (I Bury the Living, 1958) and character actor Quinn Redeker (a familiar face for cult film fans due to his jocular heroic turns in Spider Baby  and The Three Stooges Meet Hercules, 1962). Garfinkle and Redeker's tale involved a cynical Viet Nam veteran reduced by bitterness and psychological trauma to playing Russian Roulette... for a living. With the war in Southeast Asia considered taboo subject matter for films, the property was passed hot potato style for years, landing ultimately at Universal with producer Michael Deeley, who offered it to Cimino.
A graduate of Yale University and the Madison Avenue advertising game, Cimino signed with the William Morris Agency in Hollywood, where his first credit came for chipping in on the screenplay for Douglas Trumbull's Silent Running (1972). Ambitious to a fault, Cimino began crafting an original script tailored to the talents and taste of William Morris client Clint Eastwood. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974) would come to involve Jeff Bridges in a road picture/crime caper centered on the love-hate relationship between a career criminal and a young drifter. Though Eastwood loved the script, Cimino held fast for the right to direct. Helping to seal the deal was his offer to rewrite John Milius' patchy screenplay for Magnum Force (1973), Eastwood's cash-in sequel to Don Siegel's searing policier Dirty Harry (1971). Though the follow-up left critics unimpressed, Magnum Force out-grossed the original by an appreciable margin, insuring a green light for Thunderbolt and Lightfoot with Cimino at the helm. Clashing in temperament and artistic vision, Eastwood and Cimino nonetheless turned in another winner. If the gate for Thunderbolt and Lightfoot failed to measure up to that of Magnum Force, Hollywood (and the critics) remained impressed.
Seeing the potential in The Man Who Came to Play, Cimino hired his Silent Running co-writer Deric Washburn to craft a screenplay that set the tale more firmly within the Viet Nam conflict. By Washburn's account (disputed by Cimino), he and Cimino established plot particulars over three days at the Sunset Marquis in Los Angeles, after which Washburn was given three weeks to bang out the balance; Cimino then (allegedly) took delivery of the script, added his own name, and fired Washburn. According to Cimino, a booze-addled Washburn delivered a nonsensical script that required extensive rewrites. Ultimately, the Writer's Guild awarded Washburn a sole screenplay byline, with Cimino, Redeker and Garfinkle sharing original story credit. Casting The Deer Hunter proved easier, with the acquisition of Robert De Niro to play the troubled vet protagonist sparking a veritable domino effect within the New York theatre world, resulting in the participation of Meryl Streep, John Cazale, and Christopher Walken. Cast as longtime friends, the actors kept childhood pictures of one another in their pockets during filming to promote a sense of continuity and camaraderie.
Eschewing even the suggestion of shooting on the studio backlot, Cimino trucked his cast and crew over four states (West Virginia, Ohio, Washington State, and Pennsylvania) and to Thailand, which stood in for Viet Nam. (The river seen in the film was the River Kwai, setting for Pierre Boulle's World War II novel Bridge over the River Kwai and David Lean's film adaptation Bridge on the River Kwai, 1957.) Russian immigrants hired as extras during the prolonged wedding and reception scene were told by production assistants to supply their own prop wedding gifts to ensure a degree of regional authenticity; misunderstanding the condition of their employment, most of the extras brought actual gifts, including silverware sets and bone china, but were rewarded with actual liquor during filming. An Ohio storefront mocked up to the tune of $25,000 to serve as the character's local watering hole was later converted into an actual saloon for local steel workers. Cimino's mania for realism leached beyond the director's chair, with star De Niro demanding the use of real bullets during the film's controversial Russian Roulette scene.
Going over-budget and over-schedule, Cimino brought The Deer Hunter home at a cost of $13,000,000 (with another $2,000,000 rung up for publicity and distribution). Handed 600,000 feet of printed film, editor Peter Zinner cut the picture down to a more manageable (and salable) 18,000 - only to be fired by an incensed Cimino for his efforts. Through the intercession of veteran film editor Verna Fields, then head of Universal's postproduction department, Cimino was persuaded to compromise and The Deer Hunter was greeted with near universal acclaim upon its limited release in December 1978, timed to ensure its eligibility for the Academy Awards. By the time The Deer Hunter was put into general release in February 1979, it was the recipient of nine Oscar® nominations, of which it won five, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor for Christopher Walken. Another win came for Editing and a seemingly grateful Cimino kissed Peter Zinner at the April 1979 presentation of the Academy Awards at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion - though he later sniped to The New York Observer: "Zinner was a moron - I cut The Deer Hunter."
Lauded, condemned, debated, and respected, The Deer Hunter emerged as the (arguably) finest offering in a spate of Viet Nam films that emerged at the end of the decade, among them Hal Ashby's Coming Home (1978), Milos Forman's Hair (1979), Sidney J. Furie's The Boys in Company C (1978), and Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979). Though he was poised to follow The Deer Hunter by directing Robert De Niro in The King of Comedy (1983), he withdrew from the project to direct Heaven's Gate, leaving the abandoned project to Martin Scorsese. Notorious for overspending and unbridled hubris, Cimino's subsequent films (Year of the Dragon , The Sicilian , The Sunchaser ) were met with alternating hostility and indifference, while the projects he turned down, abandoned, or missed out on (The Pope of Greenwich Village , Footloose , a Janis Joplin biopic, an adaptation of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead) went to other directors or remain unrealized. In 1996, The Deer Hunter was included by the Library of Congress in the National Film Registry for its aesthetic, cultural, and historic significance.
by Richard Harland Smith
Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock-n-Roll Generation Saved Hollywood by Peter Biskind (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 1998)
Clint Eastwood: The Life and Legend by Patrick McGilligan (St. Martin's Press, 1999)