Michael Cimino, the Academy Award-winning filmmaker who earned a reputation as one of Hollywood’s boldest directors with the haunting 1978 Vietnam War drama “The Deer Hunter,” and then all but squandered it two years later with “Heaven’s Gate,” died Saturday. He was 77.
Eric Weissmann, a friend and former lawyer of Cimino’s, confirmed the death.
He said Cimino’s body was found at his home in Los Angeles on Saturday by the police after friends were unable to reach him by phone. The cause of death had yet to be determined, Weissmann said.
“The Deer Hunter,” just the second feature directed by Cimino — a former painter, art student and commercial director — seemed to exemplify a decade’s worth of groundbreaking motion pictures by writers and directors who were given wide latitude to fulfill their visions by mainstream studios.
In the tradition of Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967), Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” (1972), Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets” (1973) and Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown” (1974), “The Deer Hunter” cloaked a mood of existential uncertainty beneath layers of violence.
The film, for which Cimino shared a story credit, chronicled a group of friends from a Pennsylvania town whose lives were scarred by their experiences in Vietnam.
With a cast that included Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep and John Cazale, “The Deer Hunter” is perhaps best remembered for a nail-biting sequence in which De Niro and Walken’s characters, having been taken prisoner by the North Vietnamese, are forced to play Russian roulette with one another.
“The Deer Hunter” received nine Oscar nominations and won five, including best picture (prevailing over “Coming Home,” another drama about the Vietnam War and its aftermath).
Cimino, who won the Oscar for best director, seemed to have the film industry at his feet and the freedom to do what he wished.
He had already leveraged the intense anticipation surrounding “The Deer Hunter” to reach a deal at United Artists to make a movie from a screenplay he had written, called “The Johnson County War.” It focused on a blood-soaked conflict between immigrant homesteaders, landed cattle ranchers, mercenaries and U.S. marshals in 1890s Wyoming.
Cimino was given a budget of around $12 million and a timetable of about 2 1/2 months to film a feature that the studio, with a schedule full of movies that were delivered late and over budget, had hoped to have ready in time for Christmas 1979.
Instead, Cimino’s film — renamed “Heaven’s Gate” — took almost a year and more than $40 million to make. Widely panned and a commercial failure, it entered theaters with a running time of more than 3 1/2 hours and seemed to stand as a cautionary tale of an intemperate director permitted to indulge his every whim by timid executives who all but brought their studio to the ground.
Although the reputations of Cimino and of “Heaven’s Gate” would improve to varying degrees, the saga surrounding the film ensured that Hollywood’s auteur period was effectively over.
Variety, the industry trade publication, has cautioned that, where Cimino is concerned, many facts about his life are “shrouded in conflicting information.” Several sources give his birth date as Feb. 3, 1939, and he was raised on Long Island.
He attended college at Michigan State University, where, according to a Vanity Fair profile, he said he earned a bachelor of arts degree in less than three years and went on to study at Yale, where he earned a bachelor of fine arts degree in 1961.