clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Death of the All-Powerful Director

In 1980, the tumultuous filming and release of Michael Cimino’s ‘Heaven’s Gate’ changed Hollywood forever

Rob Dobi

Over the next week at The Ringer, in honor of the release of Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage, we will explore events that changed the world as we knew it—specifically ones that marked the ends of established eras and triggered the beginnings of then-unknown futures. Some will be overt and well established. Others will be less trodden and perhaps more speculative. But all will entertain an immovable idea that when things die, there is someone or something that pulled the trigger. Welcome to This Is the End Week.

“Here are the spent shell casings,” writes Steven Bach in the introduction to his extraordinary 1985 book Final Cut, which chronicles the legendarily troubled production of Heaven’s Gate. Bach paints the making of the film as a war of attrition between its director, Michael Cimino, and the studio that signed off on its making. As in all the bloodiest and most intractable battles, neither side could really claim victory. All that Bach could do as the last man standing was try to tell the tale.

History is written by the winners, except when they conveniently forget to put pen to paper; the script for Heaven’s Gate was based on an obscure but shocking 19th-century episode in which a group of Wyoming cattle barons hired Texan militiamen to confront and eradicate a contingent of settlers on their land. It was a genocide carried out with the tacit approval of regional governmental authorities, and Cimino’s fictionalized retelling was meant to elicit anger and shame. But the military narrative evoked in Bach’s scrupulously detailed behind-the-scenes account—compiled during the author’s tenure as senior vice president at United Artists in the late 1970s—is closer to Custer’s Last Stand, with a stubborn, doomed general holding his ground and amassing casualties right up until the final shot.

The broad strokes are that after arriving in Montana with his cast and crew and a mandate to follow his muse, Cimino went mad with power. He tore down and rebuilt expensive sets on a whim and shot endless retakes, to the point that even Stanley Kubrick would have had no choice but to eat his heart out. Time is money, and Cimino spent both like there was no tomorrow. At one point, several months (and over a million feet of film) into the shoot, star John Hurt complained to the press that he was going to miss out on his previously arranged gig making The Elephant Man while Heaven’s Gate spun its wheels. By the time Hurt had flown to England to act for David Lynch and back, Cimino was finally ready to shoot his scenes. Denied access to dailies and later locked out of the editing room, the film’s producers contemplated firing their director (or maybe even worse) and rejected the five-hour assembly cut he showed them. By the time Heaven’s Gate opened in November 1980, a year after its targeted release date, its budget had swelled by several hundred percent (with some estimates placing it at $50 million) and the knives were out. In The New Yorker, a ready-and-waiting Pauline Kael called it “a movie you want to deface”; other critics followed suit, splattering Cimino’s epic with unflattering adjectives and scaring off even the most curious audiences in the process.

But occasionally, history also gets rewritten so that the losers become the winners, and 40 years after its arrival as a pop-cultural punch line—an unfortunate, notorious metonym for a big-budget flop—Heaven’s Gate looks more and more like a movie that lost the battle but won the war, or at least a few hearts and minds. Perhaps inevitably, given the combination of its outsized ambition and the severity of its failure, Cimino’s film has been passionately reclaimed by critics—a collective response to Kael’s calls for defacement. It’s also been canonized by the Criterion Collection, a company whose imprimatur signifies a commitment to the idea of cinema-as-art: what Bach evocatively calls the “the war to create art from technology and ambition and will.” What makes Final Cut such a compelling book is the way its author leverages his very real frustration with the situation and its participants (especially Cimino) against bigger-picture thinking about what was at stake in the making of Heaven’s Gate. It was a crystallized moment when auteurist autonomy—good, bad, and ugly—bumped up against increasingly anodyne, corporatized studio ownership.

Since its inception, United Artists had always symbolized a synthesis between art and commerce. In 1919, D.W. Griffith, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Charlie Chaplin consolidated their resources, connections, and celebrity into a new studio that sought to counteract the overarching control and influence of the period’s vertically integrated monoliths (and their power-tripping bosses). Operating as a studio without an actual backlot, UA cultivated relationships with established and emerging directors, backing John Huston on The African Queen and Sidney Lumet on 12 Angry Men; in the 1960s, its brain trust smartly pitched in overseas to help launch the James Bond franchise and Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns. When the company was purchased in 1967 by the insurance-oriented Transamerica Corporation, it looked like a solid marriage of faceless capital and long-held artistic principles. But Transamerica blanched at having its name on extreme releases like Midnight Cowboy and Last Tango in Paris (hence the great sight gag in Philip Kaufman’s UA-financed Invasion of the Body Snatchers framing San Francisco’s Transamerica pyramid as the epicenter of an alien conspiracy). After Heaven’s Gate flopped in an explosion of bad publicity and worse vibes, Transamerica sold its ownership to the highest bidder.

The irony of a company forged out of the bonds of creative solidarity being undone by a director run amok is potent verging on mythic, and with its nearly four-hour running time, ensemble cast, and sprawling Montana landscapes, Heaven’s Gate is just about monumental enough to withstand the burdens placed on it by history. You can look at it as the death knell for United Artists, as the Last Picture Show of the New Hollywood, or possibly, one last spectacular Pyrrhic victory just before The Empire—call it the New New Hollywood, same as the Old Hollywood—Struck Back.

Heaven’s Gate was green-lit by UA in 1978 as a direct result of Cimino’s success with The Deer Hunter, a movie that represented one species of grand, outsized cinematic achievement. The Deer Hunter was a post-Vietnam psychodrama with echoes of The Best Years of Our Lives; as cowritten and directed by Cimino, its allegory of broken men trying and failing to rebuild was powerful, pretentious, and also politically ambiguous enough to have its characters gather together and sing “God Bless America” at the close. Whether it was meant as a hymn or a protest was up to the viewer. Never mind that Cimino copped his climactic Greek chorus conceit from Robert Altman’s wryer (and superior) bicentennial satire Nashville—whose own, originally composed theme song “It Don’t Worry Me” cut deeper post-Watergate than Irving Berlin’s repurposed wartime patriotism—or that an extended set piece at a wedding aped The Godfather. Brilliantly staged and phenomenally acted by a definitive late-’70s cast including Robert De Niro; John Cazale; Meryl Streep; and an unblinking, Oscar-winning Christopher Walken, The Deer Hunter had the same kind of art-blockbuster pedigree as Francis Ford Coppola’s film, yoked to a more sensationalistic sensibility.

The problem was that the other species of grand, outsized cinematic achievement flourishing at that moment were special-effects-driven hits like Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Superman. The latter was no. 1 at the box office as Heaven’s Gate went into preproduction, and looks in retrospect like its bizarro twin: a risky, expensive investment that went off schedule, ran over budget, and cultivated murderous resentments between its director and his producers. Of course, you could say some of the same things about Star Wars and Jaws, both of which left their casts and crews physically and emotionally exhausted. Except with those two movies (and Superman), the strife was incurred in the service of an authentically popular moviegoing vision.

What Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Richard Donner understood, whether instinctively or with some measure of cynicism, was that the same audience that had developed a taste for challenging and even unpalatable mainstream movie-making—of downers like The Deer Hunter—was also hungering, desperately, for popcorn fare. What Star Wars and Jaws had in common was a defined view of evil, which either wore black or had a dorsal fin. With Heaven’s Gate, Cimino was simultaneously cashing in his chips from The Deer Hunter and placing a big bet (with his financiers’ capital) that a drama costing about as much as Star Wars (set less far away and minus any explicitly crowd-pleasing elements or adorable robots) could extend both his personal winning streak and staunch the flow of escapism swamping the industry.

The first thing that Heaven’s Gate had going against it, commercially speaking, was its genre. By the late 1970s, the Western, which had shaped the visual and thematic vocabulary of American cinema and served as fertile territory for national mythmaking (and revisionism), had faded from box-office prominence; the wistful, elegiac tones of movies like Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid gave them the feeling of requiems. The hard-driving frontiersmen and searchers of Monument Valley period pieces had migrated into steel-and-concrete jungles, with Clint Eastwood serving as a bridging figure: As it turned out, Dirty Harry was a pretty good modern moniker for the Man With No Name. The crackling, urban energy of cop thrillers, palpable also in the steady stream of Blaxploitation movies made in its shadow, was irresistibly contemporary, and while Western archetypes abounded in other genres—after all, what is Jaws but the story of a stubborn local sheriff gathering up a posse to hunt down a vicious outlaw?—its surfaces had become dusty and outdated, or else used in gimmicky ways (as in the lumpy satire of Sydney Pollack’s The Electric Horseman, about a rodeo rider who’s sold out to a cereal manufacturer).

Originally titled The Johnson County War, Cimino’s screenplay—written in 1971, before the filmmaker had any credits or stroke—examined vintage Western themes of conflict and community, investigating America’s melting-pot heritage and drawing parallels between capitalist exploitation past and present. Its heroes were Harvard-educated boys who receive a brutal education in property and economics after heading West, where they fall in with a hardscrabble cohort of settlers rustling cattle as a means of survival. The script attracted interest from Steve McQueen and was pitched to John Wayne, but when it came time to cast Heaven’s Gate, Cimino didn’t go the movie star route. While you’d have been hard pressed to find better actors circa 1978 than Kris Kristofferson, John Hurt, Jeff Bridges, and Christopher Walken—a true murderers’ row—none of them were necessarily box-office draws; after impulsively offering the lead female role to Isabelle Huppert, Cimino was castigated by executives who would have preferred Jane Fonda or Diane Keaton. “No one has ever heard of her,” Bach quotes himself as telling the director during yet another in a series of tense meetings, “and as of this moment we have no marquee other than Kristofferson.” What Cimino left unsaid was that these choices, beyond their artistic merit, would ensure that once the cameras were rolling, he was the star of Heaven’s Gate—the real marquee attraction.

Tales of Cimino’s unchecked ego and arrogance proliferated at every stage of his career; accepting the Best Director Oscar for The Deer Hunter, he noted—not as a joke—that it was “difficult to leaven pride with humility.” He also dismissed media criticisms of The Deer Hunter’s myriad historical inaccuracies and shockingly unsubtle racism with a snideness that swiftly turned journalists against him. Hence the rabid, borderline-morbid media fascination with Heaven’s Gate’s increasingly troubled production, which, while on one level was in a great tradition of rubbernecking industry gossip dating back to disasters like Queen Christina and Cleopatra, also channeled larger anxieties. In 1962, when Cleopatra had started careening out of control, the story was about Elizabeth Taylor’s mental health and mood swings, and the attempts of producers and directors to placate her larger-than-life whims. With Heaven’s Gate, the culprit—fingered unanimously by actors and crew members leaking information from the set—was Cimino, who, in his resistance to creative input and his increasingly despotic disposition, became the poster boy for the dangers of auteur megalomania.

In truth, there were plenty of other contemporaneous candidates to serve as cautionary tales on this front. If the main innovation of the New Hollywood had been how its initiates inhabited and exploded classical forms in ways that excited viewers—as in The Godfather’s blend of 1940s setting and aesthetics with startlingly bloody violence—the increasing confidence of these practitioners led them, collectively, on Icarus-like trajectories. Around the same time that Star Wars and The Deer Hunter were on their victory laps, Sorcerer; New York, New York; and 1941 tarnished the glows emanating respectively from William Friedkin, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg. In each case, the story was that the filmmakers had overstepped the boundaries of their talent and exceeded the possibility of return on investment.

Francis Ford Coppola’s experiences making Apocalypse Now in the Philippines (another United Artists production) were every bit as harrowing as Cimino’s misadventures in the West. But if Apocalypse Now is the cinematic equivalent of a phoenix—an incandescent monster rising from the flames of its own making—Heaven’s Gate only sporadically achieves liftoff in between the long, unhurried passages of moseying that Cimino intended to impart measures of depth and dread. There’s nothing in it with the operatic punch of Apocalypse Now’s Wagner-with-helicopters bombing run, or even the sleazy grandeur of the USO strip show set to Flash Cadillac’s cover of “Suzie Q.” Instead, its centerpiece sequence features characters spinning aimlessly in circles—a fiddle-driven, full-cast hoedown at the eponymous Johnson County roller rink that cycles on and on for a miniature eternity, at once tedious and exhilaratingly carnivalesque, a last waltz that never ends.

Narratively speaking, the 10-minute interlude at Heaven’s Gate does next to nothing for Heaven’s Gate, but as a utopian vision of American community—of immigrants, interlopers, and working-class stiffs living it up before the ruling class lowers the boom—it’s genuinely poetic. Which is why James Cameron stole it wholesale for the steerage-class dance party in Titanic, another potential doppelgänger for Heaven’s Gate except that its maker’s megalomania resulted in coronation rather than exile. The two movies’ fortunes are like inverses of one another, with Cimino guessing wrong that a throwback period piece could compete with state-of-the-art sci-fi, and Cameron—the most assiduous inheritor of Spielberg and Lucas’s kingdom—going earnest and old-school in a post-Tarantino moment of ironic overkill. To give Titanic its due, it’s a cleaner and clearer piece of storytelling than Heaven’s Gate with a more romantic view of history, and in picking Kate Winslet over a host of more established actresses, Cameron hit a bull’s-eye that Cimino missed with the then-untested Huppert. And yet its CGI looks flimsy compared to Heaven’s Gate’s analog grandeur, and its class critique is purely cartoony, absent the righteous sense of fury that informed Cimino’s attempt to memorialize (in fictionalized form) a country’s betrayal of its own assimilationist promises.

“Movies matter,” writes Bach toward the close of Final Cut, noting that the flip side of this maxim is that their costs matter too. The industry takeaway from Heaven’s Gate was not so much that movies were getting too expensive as that the wrong kinds of movies were being made for too much money, a consensus that placed a premium on accessibility. Instead of trusting that a brilliant filmmaker could move the needle on what constituted mainstream fare—whether by daring or forcibly dragging an audience to meet them halfway—executives grew hesitant to subsidize anything too far outside of a particular comfort zone, and the movies got blander and more innocuous as a result. In the 1980s, there was a proliferation of so-called high-concept projects whose contents could be summed up in a single sentence and efficiently conveyed by marketing departments. Meanwhile, difficult, chipped-shoulder directors like Cimino, who was banished once and for all after the failure of his overwrought 1985 cop epic Year of the Dragon, grew marginalized; it’s not a coincidence that of all the significant filmmakers who emerged in the 1970s, it was the unruliest ones (Cimino, Robert Altman, and Francis Ford Coppola) who had the rockiest time, while Spielberg and Lucas were able to operate on cruise control.

It’s genuinely futile to argue for Heaven’s Gate as a strictly good or bad movie, and yet it’s also evasive to take a middle position. Too much was risked, lost, or straight-up immolated in its making to consign it to the category of either-or. It may be less that history has vindicated its flaws—the laconic pacing, shameless speechifying, and blurry dramaturgy surfacing at regular intervals—and more that those flaws feel as nostalgic and far away as its virtues. In 1980, Heaven’s Gate was the biggest target around, and duly besieged for it. But if it’s hard to imagine anything like it being made today, the reasons are disappointing to contemplate. Heaven’s Gate is a cautionary tale with a deceptive epilogue, as the aforementioned high-concept contingencies of the ’80s did anything but provide an antidote to Hollywood bloat. Instead, they amplified it in ways we’re still paying for, one deadening franchise at a time. After reading Final Cut, it’s all but impossible to be sympathetic to Cimino. But after watching Heaven’s Gate, and knowing what was coming next, it’s all but impossible not to be.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.