Cimino: The Deer Hunter, Heaven's Gate, and the Price of a Vision
FFC rating: 7/10
by Charles Elton
by Bill Chambers Six years after his death, Michael Cimino remains an enigma, shrouded by a swirling mass of rumours and contradictions. A biographer has their work cut out for them. Before reading Charles Elton's Cimino: The Deer Hunter, Heaven's Gate, and the Price of a Vision, I took stock of everything I knew about the mercurial filmmaker: that he helmed seven movies during a span of 22 years, the second of which he was fêted for (The Deer Hunter), the third of which he went to director jail for (Heaven's Gate); and that he gradually began to look different in ways for which time alone cannot account. I also had some preconceived notions about Cimino--that he was vain, an egotist, one who burned a lot of bridges--that are more or less borne out by Elton's overview, but it's important to note that Cimino was not around to defend himself when the author went rummaging through his past. (I feel fairly confident in saying, again from the picture Elton paints, that he probably would've spent more energy trying to halt the book's publication altogether.) Though Cimino is not one of the great posthumous bios on the order of David Weddle's If They Move...Kill 'Em! or Lee Server's Baby, I Don't Care, it does have unique virtues (which I'll get to) and is reasonably good at preserving Cimino's dignity while countering or outright demolishing his own unreliable narrative.
Invoking Citizen Kane, the brief prologue is clearly intended to mirror Kane's opening moments as Elton surveys the entrance to Cimino's now-vacant mansion in the Hollywood Hills, whose iron gates sound as forbidding as those exterior views of Xanadu. Cimino is, in not so many words, about Elton's search for his subject's "Rosebud," the thing that would give definition to an inscrutable figure. To that end, the early chapters knock down lies and half-truths like ducks in a shooting gallery. No, contrary to what Cimino's passport(!) said, he was not born in 1952: that would make him four years old when he graduated high school, 11 when he went to work on Madison Avenue, and 15 when he directed a TV commercial for Kodak so extravagant it spawned a making-of book, just like Heaven's Gate did years later. He grew up middle-class, near but not on "Fitzgerald's Gold Coast," as a 1990 profile alleged. According to friends, his surname isn't even pronounced the way film fans have always heard it ("Chimeeno"), but rather "Simino." When The Deer Hunter came out, Cimino used the press to spin a web of bullshit around himself so thick it aroused the curiosity of Tom Buckley, a war correspondent who took to the pages of HARPER'S BAZAAR to fact-check Cimino's claims--the most outlandish one perhaps being that he was a medic in the Army Reserves entrenched with the Green Berets in 1968. At this point in the Cimino odyssey, I was impressed that he at least was in the Army Reserves, although he enlisted in 1962 (you know, when he was 10) and was not assigned to a Green Beret unit. Elton decries Buckley's reporting as unfair and "unmotivated," but I don't know--four years of Trump convinced me that calling out liars is a moral imperative. Given that it had little to no measurable impact on Cimino's career, there's a touch of "physician, heal thyself" in Elton's distaste for the article, which effectively provided the template for the first third of Cimino.
Cimino is quoted as saying, "I can't shake off The Deer Hunter even now. I have this insane feeling that I was there, in Vietnam. Somehow the fine wires have got really crossed and the line between reality and fiction has become blurred." In terms of the public record, it's a rare show of introspection from the auteur. Whether or not it's entirely intentional on Elton's part, Cimino suggests that his fabulism first came out of insecurity (like when he put lifts in his shoes to feel as tall as his co-workers in advertising), then came out of a deeper need to rationalize his unorthodox path to fame and fortune. Cimino left the ad world on the advice of his friend, Svengali, and possible immortal beloved Joann Carelli to try his hand at features, spent five years in the weeds after subjugating himself to producer-star Clint Eastwood on the excellent Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, and then almost as a fluke struck gold with The Deer Hunter, the movie that made him a multiple Academy Award winner at the age of 40 (or 27 in Cimino years). Sure, a combination of talent and perseverance got him pretty far, but that isn't sexy, and to credit luck would be to cede too much power to the cosmos.
Cimino is a conventionally linear telling of the director's stratospheric rise and eventual fall from grace. Although some of this stuff will undoubtedly be old hat to anyone drawn to a book on Michael Cimino, a figure of fascination profiled in seminal film-geek texts such as Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and Steven Bach's Final Cut: Art, Money, and Ego in the Making of Heaven's Gate, the Film that Sank United Artists, Elton does have an ace or two up his sleeve. For one thing, he managed to track down the elusive, shadowy Carelli and coax a sort of passive-aggressive participation from her, despite her stating up front that she and Cimino agreed they would never get involved in a biography. For another, Elton finally got David Field's perspective on Heaven's Gate. Field was the other UA executive overseeing the production, the supposed bad cop to Bach's good cop; due to infighting, he's a ghostly presence in Final Cut and the frankly mediocre documentary adaptation it inspired in 2004. What I expected to be a low point of Cimino--the chapters encapsulating Heaven's Gate (Final Cut is a tough act to follow)--turned out to be one of the more engrossing sections of the book, since it reveals that Bach was no less guilty of burnishing his image than Cimino. While Elton doesn't exactly absolve Cimino of any wrongdoing, he does show that Cimino was scapegoated in the Heaven's Gate postmortem, blamed for the end of United Artists and New Hollywood when capitalism had already earmarked both for extinction. People just enjoyed the schadenfreude of seeing an Oscar darling knocked off his pedestal in record time.
The book's a tad lean when it comes to the rest of Cimino's movie career, i.e., the four post-Heaven's Gate films (Year of the Dragon, The Sicilian, Desperate Hours, and The Sunchaser) and projects that didn't pan out. Of these, The Sicilian and Cimino's flirtation with Footloose receive the most attention, with Elton arguing that the waltzes in Heaven's Gate prove Cimino did have a musical in him, even if Footloose wasn't it. What alienated him from that production, for what it's worth, was his desire to open with a lengthy sequence of Kevin Bacon bidding adieu to his hometown, which would've tipped the film into self-parody following the elaborate wedding and graduation set-pieces that begin The Deer Hunter and Heaven's Gate, respectively. Cimino was, according to Cimino, a child art prodigy (others actually back this up), and I'm again reminded of the autistic artist in Oliver Sacks's An Anthropologist on Mars whose talent came pre-evolved: in childhood, he drew like a grown-up, but he drew like that same grown-up in adulthood. Quite possibly, Cimino's Oscar was simultaneously proof of his genius and a harbinger of no worlds left to conquer. Cimino certainly didn't grow out of the cynicism and paranoia that informed his dealings with the studios, and the clusterfuck that was post-production on The Sicilian happened in part because he jumped the gun in manoeuvring against the powers that be.
Elton has habits that grate, like a tendency to say "so-and-so told me" instead of quoting the person directly, or overusing the word "spiky" to describe Cimino. (Apt though it may be, it leads to confusion when Cimino becomes involved with a British producer named Barry Spikings.) At one point, he uses "macho-ness" instead of "machismo." And, having not read any of his novels, I did find myself wondering what attracted Elton to Cimino, considering he comes across as largely incurious about the non-masterpieces--fans of the alternately abysmal and transcendent Year of the Dragon, who do exist, will have to make do with a glorified recap of Cimino's DVD commentary--except where there was behind-the-scenes strife. Cimino's filmography is so short that there was room to indulge in a more penetrating analysis of the work itself. The closing Acknowledgments imply this was a passion project for Elton, but he's not an apologist on the order of critic F.X. Feeney, whom Elton interviewed about his late-life friendship with Cimino before Feeney's passing in 2020. Elton hardly strikes me as much of a cinephile. His frame of reference seems limited and strange ("It's hard to see what kind of metaphor the Russian roulette could be other than a general reflection on man's inhumanity to man, no more "symbolic" than the firing-squad deaths in Kubrick's Paths of Glory or James Mason walking into the sea in A Star Is Born"), and he has a tendency to cite Stanley Kubrick's working methods not to equate them with Cimino's fastidiousness, but as if Kubrick were the rule rather than the exception proving it (e.g., "That was almost unprecedented in Hollywood--Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, for example, involved years of research and a ten-month preproduction period. Cimino's three-hour movie was shot in four and a half months").
Ultimately, the challenge of writing a Cimino biography is covering those last 20 years of seclusion, and Elton meets it as well as anyone could, mainly by treating him as Schrödinger's Director, an inventory of "maybe/maybe not"s destined to remain unresolved. When Cimino passed away at 77, Cannes honcho Thierry Frémaux presumptuously tweeted that he "died peacefully, surrounded by his family and the two women who loved him." In fact, so much time had elapsed before Cimino's body was discovered that a precise date of death was never determined, nor was an official cause ever given. In the absence of information, Elton notes that Cimino once wrote a short memoir-cum-roman à clef depicting himself as anorexic and obsessed with suicide. (It was only published in France.) Why was he a lifelong bachelor who never had children? All we know is that Carelli married someone else in Cimino's film family--Heaven's Gate composer and onscreen fiddler David Mansfield--and that as she and Mansfield grew apart, Cimino subsumed his role in raising their daughter, Calantha. Was Cimino's childhood as bleak as he claimed? Maybe, but as Elton writes, "the divergences between the [Cimino] brothers' recollections are not ones of nuance or degree--they are descriptions of two utterly different pasts." Did dissociative tendencies factor into Cimino's retreat from filmmaking? He used to compartmentalize his friendships to the extent that each one ate with him at a specific restaurant to prevent overlap.
Were gender-identity issues at the crux of Cimino's peculiar twilight, including the indisputably radical changes to his physical appearance? Elton bitterly points out how the prevailing film culture treated Cimino's potential trans-ness as a joke while extending love and acceptance to the Wachowskis. Cimino himself, of course, denied it in print, and Feeney dismisses with a practised quip the idea that this maker of a particularly masculine kind of cinema had transitioned. But Elton contacts someone who signed the guestbook for Cimino's online memorial, a woman named Valerie Driscoll who once ran a wig shop in Torrance, CA. Driscoll says that she used to avail herself to Cimino for private makeover sessions. Before she figured out who he was, she knew him only as a woman called Nikki, and was "drawn to her softness, sweetness, and uncharacteristic naivety." Their friendship fizzled when Driscoll breached Cimino's social partitions, though she remembers Nikki/Cimino, "the most beautiful woman [she] ever saw," fondly: "I wish she had understood that my love for her never changed, no matter who she was as a man." True or not, one assumes the same goes for Elton, whose passion for Cimino is questionable but whose compassion for him--or her--is never in doubt.
352 pages; March, 2022; ISBN: 9781419747113; Abrams Press