Film director Michael Cimino, who died this weekend, was at his peak in the late 1970s, when he was widely seen as the rising star of Hollywood. His second film The Deer Hunter (1978) won five Oscars, including best director and best picture. At this point, like Francis Ford Coppola, the director with whom he seemed to have so much in common, he was identified with grand, cinematic sagas dramatising the history of America through the stories of its immigrants. It’s fair to say that Cimino’s epic sensibility helped to define Hollywood cinema in the 1970s
Yet Cimino’s star waned very quickly. He became infamous when his third picture, Heaven’s Gate (1980), flopped so dramatically at the box office that it became a byword for out-of-control artistic ambition. Indeed, it was soon known simply as ‘the film that sank United Artists’, and Cimino was seen as having an ego that dwarfed even that of Orson Welles.
Admittedly, Cimino did himself few favours. He would shun publicity, giving rise to gossipy speculation about his personal life, especially the reasons behind his ongoing cosmetic surgery. Rumours of possible transgenderism were not uncommon. In his rare interviews, he would denounce colleagues and boast constantly about his success with women, while simultaneously belittling them. His public persona was a caricature, that of a macho man making macho films.
Is it now possible, in light of his death, to make a clear assessment of his cinematic legacy? Perhaps. Cimino’s films are as unique as they are difficult to define. They are auteur films that derive their meaning outside the auteur.
One of the unique and defining aspects of Cimino’s vision is his ability to portray characters as both of their environment and simultaneously shaping it. The characters, as immigrants to America from Russia, Eastern Europe and China, are typically trying to make sense of the New World. In Cimino’s vision of America, ordinary people are extraordinary. From the odd beauty of the Pennsylvania mining town in The Deer Hunter to the panoramic landscapes of the American West in Heaven’s Gate, the people who make up these places are framed and held in the space they inhabit.