Michael Cimino: A stubborn liar, a misunderstood genius

Tom Davidson
5 min readMar 3, 2023

To believe the one-time cultural hegemony, Michael Cimino ruined the ‘New Hollywood’ era and ushered in an 80s of dire and uninspired cinema, which focused more on box office box-ticking than storytelling.

Michael Cimino directing Kris Kristofferson on the set of Heaven’s Gate

His magnum opus Heaven’s Gate, with its bloated budget, excessive runtime and paltry box office in 1980, marked the end of director power. It was the lightning rod for studios to take back control of their product and stop indulging the ‘auteurs’ of the 70s, so they say.

Irwin Winkler, five times nominated for Best Picture, once said: “What altered Hollywood irrevocably was the notorious 1980 film Heaven’s Gate.”

It did not help matters that just five years after Heaven’s Gate’s disastrous release one of the producers, Steven Bach, published Final Cut: Art, Money, and Ego in the Making of Heaven’s Gate, the Film that Sank United Artists.

The book helped to reinforce all the industry rumour swirling around Cimino, his stubbornness, obstination and lack of respect for bean-counting producers. (Bach, of course, undersells his own role).

Steven Bach’s Final Cut

It was a warning shot to producers every where not to indulge egotistic directors (lest their studio also ‘sink’ — even though United Artists did no such thing).

Peter Biskind’s seminal Easy Riders, Raging Bulls from 1998 (a book on the rise and fall of New Hollywood) is a bit gentler on Cimino, reflecting the gradual critical reappraisal of Heaven’s Gate and also helping better contextualize just how it flopped so badly (it grossed just $3.5m on a budget of $44m).

Biskind also highlights that the blockbuster success of 70s films Jaws and Star Wars was more directly to ‘blame’ for the studios taking over (they saw the dollar signs).

Only two of Cimino’s film endure in the cultural zeitgeist, the aforementioned Heaven’s Gate and his Vietnam epic The Deer Hunter.

But his spectacular rise and equally spectacular downfall, combined with his tarring as the egotistical pariah of the 70s movie industry, has long fascinated the industry.

Six years after Cimino’s death at the age of 77, Charles Elton, a longtime agent, producer, and novelist, has attempted to correct the record and delve a little deeper into Cimino with Cimino: The Deer Hunter, Heaven’s Gate, and the Price of a Vision, a response, 37 years after the fact,to the mean-spirited Final Cut.

But for all the interesting movie-making anecdotes (and there are plenty), it’s a much more melancholy read than one might expect.

Charles Elton’s Final Cut riposte

Cimino is a frustrating, beguiling subject. He was a liar, short-tempered — perhaps even a bully — and a consummate perfectionist.

He brazenly bullied people out of deserved writing credits. He manipulated those around him and was prepared to shut them out entirely if he did not get what he wanted, though he’d often later make sincere, groveling apologies.

When his star was highest, in the wake of The Deer Hunter’s remarkable box office and Oscar success, he was able to cajole $44m out of United Artists to make an epic Western based on the little-known Johnson County War (where poor emigrants were set upon by wealthy ranchers).

Elton is perhaps a touch too forgiving of Cimino’s many filmmaking eccentricities.

Yes, other films had gone over budget before (but not quite to this scale) and yes, directors had been booted off films before (something UA considered as Heaven’s Gate’s budget ballooned), but it was far from a common occurrence.

The author concedes that Cimino’s decision to pull Heaven’s Gate entirely after a disastrous New York premiere (it was 219 minutes long) was almost unprecedented.

A subsequent 149-minute version was no better received.

The battle over the ‘final cut’ of the film raged on, with many different versions circulating over the years.

Elton posits that Heaven’s Gate was a perfect storm. Journalists, angry at being denied access to production (and perhaps worrying they over-praised The Deer Hunter) had their knives sharpened by agitated producers who were using any and every means at their disposal to reign in their errant director.

But Heaven’s Gate has, over the years, undergone a severe critical reevaluation and is now acclaimed as a misunderstood, though far from perfect, masterpiece.

And likewise Cimino himself changed over the years.

Elton reveals later in the book (post-Heaven’s Gate) that Cimino had plastic surgery to appear more feminine, wore wigs and women’s clothes. One friend even used ‘she/her’ pronouns for the director, whom she knew as ‘Nikki’ and not Michael.

These revelations lend more depth to his deceptions and insecurities.

Throughout his career, which began in advertising, he refuses to be honest about even the most basic things, such as when he was born, but he also lies about serving in Vietnam.

Cimino frequently bragged of having so many women on his arm but Elton paints him as anything but a social butterfly (unlike the other ‘Movie Brats’). His most trusted confidant is friend-turned-producer and perhaps one-time wife Joann Carelli, who is herself something of an enigma.

Cimino was a workaholic who confided in few and those he did he compartmentalised and told different stories. Even his family feel like they didn’t know him and his death, alone in his home on the outskirts of Beverly Hills, is something of mystery.

Elton is heartened by Cimino living long enough to see Heaven’s Gate earn significant praise. After some cajoling, in 2012, he even assists the Criterion Collection in a significant remastering of it, finally able to deliver his own final cut (216-minutes long, since you ask).

Four years later, in 2016, he died, with questions unanswered and those who were close to him, still holding his secrets.

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Tom Davidson

31-year-old journalist living in south westLondon trying my hand at some film writing as and when