Michael Cimino, the eccentric and uncompromising director of the seminal Vietnam War drama The Deer Hunter and the notorious anti-Western epic Heaven’s Gate, has died. Cimino, who won two Oscars for The Deer Hunter, was one of the most infamous figures of the New Hollywood generation, and came to represent both the ambition and the excess of an era when directors came first. He was 77.
For a long time, much of Cimino’s early life was shrouded in mystery and misinformation; though he was obsessed with historical detail and accuracy in his work, he fibbed freely about himself, often giving conflicting stories about his background. Not that he really had to. A gifted graphic artist whose early passions included jazz and architecture, the third-generation Italian-American graduated in three years from Michigan State University before going on to Yale, where he received an MFA in painting in 1963. From there, Cimino moved on to a career in advertising on Madison Avenue, and quickly became a successful director of commercials, most famous for his musical-inspired 1967 campaign for United Airlines. Even then, as a rising star in advertising, Cimino developed a reputation for meticulousness.
Relocating to Los Angeles, he began a career as a screenwriter, working on the scripts for Silent Running and Magnum Force. He made his feature directing debut in 1974, with the superbly entertaining Thunderbolt And Lightfoot, starring Clint Eastwood as a notorious bank robber and Jeff Bridges as the thief who accidentally saves him and becomes his partner. Cimino named the film after two characters in Captain Lightfoot, a Rock Hudson movie directed by the great Douglas Sirk—a decision that seemed to prefigure the mix of grand melodrama and macho themes that would define his best-known work.
Cimino made his name with The Deer Hunter, a 3-hour Vietnam War film centered on a tightly-knit group of working-class Russian-Americans from a Pennsylvania steel town. With its impressive ensemble cast—which included Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep, and John Cazale in his final performance—and years-spanning narrative, The Deer Hunter showcased Cimino’s ambitious vision. But though its first act is nigh unimpeachable, the film’s representation of the North Vietnamese and its portrayal of Saigon as a mythic underworld have often been called into question.
The commercial and critical success of The Deer Hunter paved the way for 1980’s Heaven’s Gate, an expensive flop associated with the downfall of United Artists. A fictionalized account of the Johnson County War—a series of armed conflicts in 1890s Wyoming that pitted immigrant settlers against cattle companies—the film represented the full scope of Cimino’s Erich Von Stroheim-esque ambition, which combined a painterly visual style with the narrative scope of great 19th century fiction. Widely mocked upon release, the film has seen its reputation bound back over the decades.
Cimino wouldn’t make another film until 1985’s Year Of The Dragon, a crime film set in New York City’s Chinatown that further cemented Cimino’s reputation as an iconoclast who made flops. He followed it up with The Sicilian, an adaptation of a Mario Puzo novel that starred Christopher Lambert as the notorious Sicilian bandit Salvatore Giuliano, and then Desperate Hours, a remake of the Humphrey Bogart movie that reunited Cimino with Mickey Rourke—who had been part of the cast of Heaven’s Gate and had starred in Year Of The Dragon—for the third and last time. Cimino’s final feature film, 1996’s The Sunchaser, went straight to video, an embarrassment for a director whose works made awe-inspiring use of the widescreen frame, even at their most flawed.
Cimino spent the last years of his life in France, occasionally making announcements about projects that never came to fruition. In a 2015 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, he addressed the criticism of his work. “I’m not in the habit of reading reviews or opinions, I’ve still got unopened stacks of all the stuff that was written about Deer Hunter, about Heaven’s Gate, about Year Of The Dragon because in each one I was categorized, you know—first film, I was homophobic, second film, I was a right-wing fascist, third film, I was a left-wing racist, this and that, left-wing Marxist, and fourth film, I was a racist,” he said. “So they couldn’t make up their mind what I was.”