Regardless of anything else, director Michael Cimino would be forever associated with two films - the Oscar-winning epic "The Deer Hunter" (1978) and the financial disaster that was "Heaven's Gate" (1980). After a career in advertising, Cimino came to Hollywood as a screenwriter on "Silent Running" (1971) and "Magnum Force" (1971). The latter introduced him to star Clint Eastwood, whom Cimino directed in his auspicious debut, "Thunderbolt and Lightfoot" (1974). But Cimino staked his claim with the dark and disturbing Vietnam War epic, "The Deer Hunter" (1978), which controversially explored the negative effects of war on the soldiers who fight them. The film drew high praise from all corners while earning Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director. With his newfound clout, Cimino went wild with excess on his next picture, "Heaven's Gate" (1980), an impenetrable - albeit beautifully shot - Western that went over budget by a long shot and brought down United Artists after a meager showing at the box office. Though he was given the chance to direct again, Cimino produced more box office flops with "Year of the Dragon" (1985), "The Sicilian" (1987), "Desperate Hours" (1990) and "Sunchaser" (1996). Adding insult to injury, Cimino was long accused of having undergone a sex change operation due to his increasingly effeminate appearance, an accusation he laughingly denied but was unable to shake. While no one could refute his directing talents, Cimino remained the poster child of Hollywood excess and was seemingly incapable of having mainstream Hollywood take him seriously following his high-profile flop. Michael Cimino was found dead in his home on July 2, 2016.
Allegedly born on Feb. 3, 1939 - Cimino routinely changed his year of birth in interviews to make himself appear younger - in New York City, he was raised in Old Westbury, Long Island by his father, a hard-drinking and womanizing music publisher, and his mother, a costume designer. Cimino grew up in an upper-middle-class home, which allowed him access to a private school education where he was seen as something of a prodigy. But Cimino rebelled against his inclusion into society's upper crust and instead hung around less desirable types, with whom he drank, fought and caused his parents a great many headaches. In 1956, he graduated from Westbury High School and moved on to attend Michigan State University, where he was a member of the weightlifting club, was the art director and managing editor of the school's humor magazine, The Spartan, and earned his bachelor's degree in only three years. Cimino went on to study art and painting at Yale University, while also becoming involved in drama. While still in school, he joined the U.S. Army Reserves for six months with hopes of becoming a Navy flyer, but instead helped make classified films about weapons systems.
After receiving his MFA from Yale in 1963, Cimino worked on Madison Avenue as a commercial director helming ads for clients like Eastman Kodak, Pepsi and United Airlines. It was during this time that he met commercial director Joann Carelli, with whom he engaged in a 30-year on-again, off-again relationship and who later served as a producer on his films. Cimino gained a significant reputation as a director known for the sophisticated camera work and arty filming techniques of his commercials. Meanwhile, in 1971, he tired of Madison Avenue and moved west to Hollywood with Carelli in pursuit of a movie career. He soon earned his first screenwriting credit for co-writing director Douglas Trumbull's ecological sci-fi drama "Silent Running" (1971), starring Bruce Dern. His second screenwriting, Ted Post's "Magnum Force" (1971), introduced him to Clint Eastwood, who readily agreed to play the lead in Cimino's directing debut, "Thunderbolt and Lightfoot" (1974). Cimino's first effort behind the camera drew praise from critics and earned Jeff Bridges a surprising Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. Yet, amidst mostly glowing reviews, some noted that he displayed a noticeable lack of control, an ominous portent of things to come.
On the strength of "Thunderbolt and Lightfoot," Cimino was able to make his career-defining film, "The Deer Hunter" (1978), a dark and moody portrayal of Vietnam War veterans and working-class Americans. The film starred Robert De Niro as a small-town steel worker who is sent to fight in Vietnam with his buddies, only to see their lives indelibly changed. Featuring outstanding performances by a cast that included John Savage, Meryl Streep, John Cazale - who was dying from rare bone cancer during filming - and Christopher Walken in an Oscar-winning turn, "The Deer Hunter" was simultaneously praised for its cinematic achievements and derided for its alleged racist and fascist undertones that stirred audiences deeply and provoked intense controversy, particularly for its infamous scenes of soldiers playing Russian roulette. Though complaints that he manipulated history rang true, Cimino never strove for literal accuracy, while his three-hour epic remained a work of great and disturbing cinematic power, a picture large enough to carry its defects. "The Deer Hunter" was nominated for nine Academy Awards and won five, including Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director.
Hot on the heels of his triumph, Cimino used his newfound cachet to demand carte blanche on his next project, "Heaven's Gate" (1980), a financial and critical disaster of such epic proportions that it actually shuttered a once-prominent studio and lived in infamy as the biggest flop in Hollywood history. "Heaven's Gate" gave new meaning to the word excess, and the miscasting of several principal roles was perhaps the least egregious of its unredeemable flaws. Cimino went ridiculously over budget - spending nearly $44 million after an initial budget of $11.5 million - and made an excessively long 219-minute film that was beautifully shot, but which lacked a coherent plot. He further compounded the awfulness of his script with a totally unwarranted reverence and a drive for perfection that crossed well into the realm of obsession. The narrative line of the Western was virtually non-existent, and featured Kris Kristofferson as a small-town sheriff trying to protect immigrant farmers from wealthy cattle interest. The resulting film was an indulgent mash of unconnected, hopelessly confusing scenes made worse by cacophonous background noises which drowned out the actors' voices. Critics and audiences were in universal agreement as to the film's lack of merit, and United Artists immediately withdrew it from exhibition. Meanwhile, the financial crater left behind swallowed UA into the abyss and the once-proud studio ceased to exist.
Adding insult to injury, Cimino's excess led to a nearly decade-long abhorrence by Hollywood to make Westerns, and only thanks to "Dances With Wolves" (1990) and "Unforgiven" (1992) was the old staple finally revived. Meanwhile, Cimino was persona non grata in the movie business until he was finally given the chance to direct again with "Year of the Dragon" (1985), an underrated crime-action drama starring Mickey Rourke that featured Cimino's typical visual flair, but was lacking in any redemptive value. Even a script from Oliver Stone failed to deliver any narrative punch and the film failed at the box office. Cimino followed with "The Sicilian" (1987), an adaptation of the Mario Puzo novel starring Christopher "Highlander" Lambert that once again proved a failure at the box office. It was around this time that rumors began to circulate that Cimino was in the midst of having a sex change, thanks to his morphing appearance. While always baby-faced, Cimino began developing more feminine features as he grew older, while appearing to have had some form of plastic surgery. While friends and Cimino laughingly denying such accusations, the rumors persisted for years and were inflamed as he grew older. Still, there was never any confirmation and the idea never rose above the level of rumor.
Meanwhile, Cimino struggled to regain his footing as a director, but, in fact never had another hit movie again. After "The Sicilian," he directed the psychological thriller, "Desperate Hours" (1990), which starred Rourke as the ringleader of three hardcore criminals who take over a suburban household occupied by an unhappily married couple (Mimi Rogers and Anthony Hopkins). Remade and updated from William Wyler's 1955 original, the film failed to add anything new to the original conceit and once again became another commercial failure for the director. Cimino waited six years to direct "Sunchaser" (1996), a character-driven thriller about a young gangbanger (Jon Seda) with terminal cancer who kidnaps his doctor (Woody Harrelson) and takes him on a spiritual journey of self discovery. The rather unengaging film failed to connect with critics and audiences, and remained nothing more than a barely-seen curiosity. Cimino left filmmaking behind and turned to publishing novels like Big Jane (2001) and Conversations en miroir (2003) while seemingly content with his unofficial retirement. Aside from the three-minute segment "No Translation Needed" in the French anthology "To Each His Own Cinema" (2007), Cimino never worked in film again. Michael Cimino was found dead at his home in Los Angeles on July 2, 2016. He was 77 years old.
By Shawn Dwyer
Director (Feature Film)
Cast (Feature Film)
Writer (Feature Film)
Producer (Feature Film)
Misc. Crew (Feature Film)
Enlisted in US Army Reserve and served six months
Worked as director of documentaries, commercials and industrial films
Relocated from NYC to L.A. to pursue film career
Feature screenwriting debut, "Silent Running", shared screen credit with Deric Washburn and Steven Bochco
Shared screen credit with John Milius on "Magnum Force", starring Clint Eastwood
Feature directing debut (also screenwriter), "Thunderbolt and Lightfoot", starring Eastwood and Jeff Bridges
Scored biggest success with "The Deer Hunter"; wrote, produced and directed; won Oscars as Best Picture and Best Director
"Heaven's Gate", budgeted at $12 million and made for $38 million, was a colossal failure leading to the collapse of United Artists
Directed "Year of the Dragon" which drew wildly different critical reviews; also co-wrote screenplay with Oliver Stone
Bombed with "The Sicilian"; director's cut, though thirty minutes longer, was considered somewhat more coherent but was also a box-office failure
Directed and produced the remake of the crime suspense drama "Desperate Hours"
"Sunchaser", starring Woody Harrelson, shown in competition at the Cannes Film Festival; given limited release before heading to video
Published first novel, "Big Jane", in France