Michael Cimino, a Chaotic Auteur

Michael Cimino, a Chaotic Auteur

A new biography examines the work of a flamboyant director who placed himself at the center of his own private Hollywood cosmology.


In the prologue to Cimino, Charles Elton’s new biography of Michael Cimino, the author describes pulling up to his subject’s mansion in the Hollywood Hills, knowing full well that the director would not be home. Elton showed up at the mansion’s doorstep in 2018, a year and a half after the director’s death at the age of 77 from undisclosed causes. He was there to sift through the artifacts of a career that changed the course of American movie history even as it also, to some extent, has become lost to it.

The idea of a biographer adrift in a cluttered Xanadu garlanded with Rosebuds is as old as Citizen Kane, and the ghost of Orson Welles—the auteur making masterpieces in his own protean image—haunts the memory of Cimino’s own life in indirect but suggestive ways. The mythic privilege of “final cut” famously afforded to Welles on his debut doubled as the title of Steven Bach’s best-selling account of the catastrophic production of Cimino’s 1980 western Heaven’s Gate, a movie as synonymous with the idea of top-down directorial control as Kane, albeit as a cautionary tale rather than a bellwether.

As a revisionist western examining the stark, remorseless violence of a country’s capitalist system, Heaven’s Gate remains potent and provocative, its flaws subsumed into a magisterial pictorial beauty. But it’s also a case study in the uneasy intersection of auteur exceptionalism and blockbuster bloat. The film’s signature sequence, featuring hundreds of costumed extras carousing on roller skaters around a wooden rink to the vigorous accompaniment of a bluegrass band, was indelible enough that James Cameron hijacked it for Titanic; its excess also serves, unconsciously, as an emblem of Cimino’s on-set profligacy. Caught up in their own circular reverie, the players fiddle on endlessly, while just out of the frame, an untold corporate fortune burns.

“There was no chaos,” writes Bach in Final Cut about the making of Heaven’s Gate. “There was its opposite…a calm, determined, relentless pursuit of the perfect.” What Bach’s book leaves unexplored is the dramatic idea that Cimino’s on-set perfectionism (and its ultimately chaotic consequences) existed in counterpoint to the impulsive, messy, and exasperating ways in which he existed in the world—tendencies over which he both did and did not exercise any control.

Elton’s biographical method is mostly muckraking, and he’s good at it. Cimino is written neither from the perspective of an acolyte nor of a devil’s advocate (or even, really, a movie lover); it’s sprawling and granular, structured around on-the-record-testimonies about an artist who, as he got older, did his best to live a hidden, private life. “I Googled myself one time,” Cimino told his friend, the novelist F.X. Feeney. “I don’t know most of the people I’ve been.”

Before the Kane-like seclusion of his final years, Cimino had always been good for a quote, especially about himself. “It is difficult to leaven pride with humility,” he observed in 1978 while accepting the Academy Award for Best Director, for The Deer Hunter (1978), the hyperbolic, surpassingly problematic Vietnam War film, which instantly placed the formerly for-hire screenwriter on the same turf staked out by the movie brats—Coppola, De Palma, and the like. Any discussion of Hollywood in the 1970s necessarily includes massive directorial egos writing checks that their studio backers cashed, but Cimino’s iconoclasm placed him outside even the in-crowd.

A hard-driving kid who told tall tales of growing up wild on Long Island in the 1950s and briefly enlisting in the Army Reserve before plying his skills as a graphic designer on Madison Avenue, Cimino insisted that he only decamped to Los Angeles to cultivate a playboy persona. He scoffed at the self-conscious cinephilia of Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and their pals, one-upping their invocations of Jean-Luc Godard by name-checking Kandinsky. “I didn’t come from the scene,” Cimino huffed. What Elton’s book illustrates is how the director was able to place himself at the center of his own private Hollywood cosmology and end up with power brokers and movie stars alike coming into his orbit.

In truth, Elton’s biography is a dual character study of two flamboyant ciphers: Cimino, for one, but also his longtime producer, friend, and companion Joan Carelli, whose daughter Calantha grew up with the filmmaker as her surrogate parent. If Cimino’s much-contested biography scans like a game of multiple choice—with even the correct year of his birth steeped in ambiguity—Carelli was the human equivalent of “all of the above.” She’s described by Elton as the director’s “muse, lover, enabler, consigliere, hatchet woman, bad cop [and] gatekeeper,” an inventory that only scratches the surface of her intimate influence. Upon first encountering Cimino in the early 1970s—and recognizing his talent, hustle, and capacity for self-invention as being equal to her own—Carelli advised the young filmmaker to “ask for ten things and settle for the four he really wanted.” This bit of advice looks in retrospect like the primal scene for the entitled gigantism and hubris of Heaven’s Gate.

Carelli was in her late ’70s when Elton managed to contact her. She’s coy about the “secret world” she shared with Cimino over nearly four decades at his side, telling Elton that everything he hears from other sources is likely a lie anyway. Her participation constitutes one of several genuine journalistic coups for him; another is a longish coda featuring Cimino’s brother Peter, who speaks about his sibling—and his claims of a childhood straight out of a Eugene O’Neill play—with a disarming mix of empathy and skepticism.

Elsewhere, Elton also tracks down more minor figures (old classmates, industry collaborators) and repeats unflattering anecdotes with which fans (and detractors) of the director will already be familiar. These include Cimino’s debunked claims that aspects of The Deer Hunter were derived from his own combat experiences as a Green Beret, as well as his attempts to deny contributing screenwriter Deric Washburn credit as a cowriter. The subtext to this inventory of stolen artistic valor is perhaps that you can’t make an omelet—or a critically lauded, commercially successful meditation on American identity and the psychic traumas of combat—without breaking a few eggs. Was Cimino’s statement that making The Deer Hunter gave him a form of PTSD really any more outrageous than Francis Ford Coppola’s that Apocalypse Now wasn’t “about Vietnam…[it] is Vietnam”?

Apocalypse Now and Heaven’s Gate are conjoined historically as fevered testimonies to stubborn, intractable directorial will, as well as to two of the last movies produced under the imprimatur of United Artists, the venerable studio founded in 1919 by D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin as a hedge against the vertically integrated machinations of the original Hollywood moguls. In Final Cut, Bach juxtaposes the two films’ hellaciously troubled productions while pointing out that Coppola’s film—for all its financial bloat and bad vibes—ultimately recouped its costs, while Heaven’s Gate, consigned by bad advance press to critical punching bag status (“a movie you want to deface,” wrote Pauline Kael), flopped hard enough to spell the end for its financial backers. Elton reports that the sale of UA in 1980 by its parent corporation Transamerica had been in the works for a while before the debacle of Heaven’s Gate, and that “the industry believed that [Cimino] was totally to blame for a bankruptcy that did not actually happen.”

As its subtitle suggests, Cimino is weighted hugely toward The Deer Hunter and Heaven’s Gate, and whether that is a byproduct of a comparative lack of historical material or the author’s own disinterest, the features Cimino made between 1981 and 1996 are largely glossed over: There’s more here about the director’s scuttled participation in Footloose (1984) than there is about 1983’s Year of the Dragon—a film whose unrepentant anti-Asian xenophobia feels in retrospect like an act of defiance against accusations of racism against The Deer Hunter.

Elton doesn’t attempt much film analysis, and when he does, the results can be unfortunate: Discussing Cimino’s directorial debut with Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, he calls it the last time a Clint Eastwood vehicle had subtext of any kind (that sound you hear is a thousand auteurists gnashing their teeth). But he is not without some key critical observations: He ably documents the details and reasoning behind the postmillennial reclamation of Cimino’s work. “Critics did not misunderstand [Heaven’s Gate], they just hated it,” he writes; decades later, in a cinematic landscape dominated by impersonal blockbusters, Heaven’s Gate’s combination of epic scale and individual idiosyncrasy has prompted a kind of fond nostalgia—a window into a different sort of big-budget albatross.

Of all the enigmas hovering over Cimino, and the malleability of his persona, the whispers about his later-life gender transition are the most mysterious, complicating the filmmaker’s sometimes bloviating machismo. In 1997, Cimino denied to Variety that he had asked for his Director’s Guild of America membership to be changed to “Michelle Cimino” and complained to friends that changes in his physical appearances had become a “fount of fodder.” But as Elton sensitively points out, “the fact that [he] denied that there was any truth to the stories about him did not mean that he was in denial to himself.” The closing passages quote Victoria Driscoll, a hairstylist and makeup artist who remembers her client and friend as “Nikki.” Driscoll had no idea about Cimino’s life or career outside the Torrance wig shop where they met and bonded in the 1990s; even at his most gregarious and open-hearted, Cimino clung to his own self-styled privacy.

In 2015, Cimino was asked by an interviewer about a room in his home that he reportedly had filled with unfinished or unproduced scripts, to which the director responded, sadly, “I keep [it] locked because I can’t bear to look at it.” If Elton’s book doesn’t fully unlock the door to its subject, it offers enough of a glimpse of what lay behind to be indispensable.

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