“I don’t make movies to make a point,” Michael Cimino once said. “I make movies to tell stories about people.” In 1979’s The Deer Hunter, Cimino did just that; regaling film fans with one of the greatest stories ever told on the silver screen. Survived by his cousins, Leslie, Ashley, Melissa, Adele, and James Capozzoli; his grandniece, Stephanie Nichole Cimino; and his nephew, T. Rafael Cimino; the Oscar-winning writer-director died Saturday at the age of 77, passing away of natural causes at his home in Beverley Hills.
Taking to Twitter on Saturday to announce the news, Thierry Fremaux, the director of the Cannes Film Festival, wrote: “Michael Cimino has died, in peace, surrounded by friends and the two women who loved him. We loved him too.”
An auteur with a passion for telling other people’s stories, Cimino’s own personal tale is the subject of much conjecture; the veracity of his life story as he presented it often called into question. What we do know — or have come to believe — is that the filmmaker was likely born in New York on February 3, 1939; his father a music publisher, and his mother a clothing designer. Raised in Long Island, Cimino soon garnered a reputation as a prodigiously gifted child — his abundant gifts taking him all the way to Yale, where he studied architecture.
After joining the Army Reserve and unsuccessfully attempting to become a Green Beret, Cimino hitched his hopes and dreams on Hollywood. He studied under the tutelage of Lee Strasberg and learned all about the sweet sciences of acting and directing.
Moving to Los Angeles in 1971, the budding director set about his business, writing a string of films such as: Silent Running, and the follow-up to Dirty Harry, Magnum Force. The latter introduced him to Clint Eastwood, who would go on to star in Cimino’s break-out project and first outing in the director’s seat, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. Featuring George Kennedy as Red Leary and Jeff Bridges as Lightfoot, the comedic crime drama follows Eastwood, as he teams up with his sidekick (Bridges), reuniting his old gang of misfits in order to pull off yet another heist. Praised by critics and audiences alike, the entertaining buddy/road picture hinted at Cimino’s directorial powers, earmarking him as a talent to watch.
Later, Cimino established himself as a filmmaker of the highest order, with the Vietnam War classic, The Deer Hunter. That a film starring Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, the late John Cazale, and Christopher Walken could be dominated by the directorial choices and flourishes of a filmmaker with one credit to his name underlines the quality of Cimino’s work. Featuring some of the most striking and visually arresting shots of modern cinema — not to mention that classic Russian roulette scene — the film earned nine Academy Award nominations, with Cimino taking home the Oscars for Best Director and Best Picture.
This, though, would be the high point of his career, as his success was then matched by the failure that followed him after the release of his next feature — the notorious Heaven’s Gate. Widely credited as the straw that broke the camel’s back, bringing the New Hollywood era of the auteur to a crashing end — that fantastic period of American cinema running from the mid 1960s to the early 1980s that spawned numerous classics, ranging from McCabe & Mrs. Miller to Taxi Driver — Heaven’s Gate is generally regarded as Hollywood’s costliest mishap. In his New York Times review, Vincent Canby wrote: “Heaven’s Gate fails so completely, you might suspect Mr. Cimino sold his soul to the Devil to obtain the success of The Deer Hunter, and the Devil has just come around to collect.”
So devastating was the performance of Heaven’s Gate — a film that ran over budget at an astounding rate no production before it ever had — it brought down United Artists, the studio that produced it. Despite directing a host of other films post-Heaven’s Gate (including The Sicilian and Year of the Dragon), Cimino’s star never regained its luster.
Still, following his passing over the weekend, the director departs as one of the most intriguing filmmakers of his generation, his contributions to modern cinema undebatable with The Deer Hunter’s popularity enduring to this day. He leaves behind a legacy of bold, interesting filmmaking; a legacy many have been quick to celebrate. “Say what you will about Michael Cimino,” Guillermo del Toro tweeted. “But, when he was ‘on’, he had more power, fierce intelligence and real vision, than most (sic) anyone else.”