Photo by Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images

Liar, crook and Hollywood great

For all Cimino’s flaws, there was still “the vision thing”


This article is taken from the February 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

“One of the central conflicts of the movie business,” says Charles Elton, “is that the studio wants a director with a vision and then complains about how costly that vision is.” The director Michael Cimino is known for one movie, which was a phenomenal success despite the odds, The Deer Hunter (1978). His other, Heaven’s Gate (1980), was such a monumental turkey that it became the poster child for failure — until it was belatedly recognised as a masterpiece thirty-two years after its release. 

Cimino: Hollywood, Heaven’s Gate, and the Price of a Vision, Charles Elton (Abrams Press, £19.99)

“Of all Hollywood directors,” says Elton, “Cimino is one of the most fascinating, mysterious, and enigmatic figures, both reviled and praised, his controversial behaviour well-documented but often misunderstood.”

Cimino described himself as a child prodigy, though he did not specify in what respect. He grew up in a town on Long Island, with a music publisher father and a seamstress mother. The director pretended his upbringing was more privileged than it was but also more traumatic, “like an Eugene O’Neill play”. He was disconnected from his family, one of whom described him as “a social and familial porcupine, and his father, mother, siblings and school friends were all jettisoned as he chose self-exile from his background. 

He was always lying about his age and height. One acquaintance said he reminded her of Napoleon because he was so short, but that he filled the room. After studying graphic art at Michigan State and taking a postgraduate degree in fine arts at Yale, he joined a cutting-edge advertising agency in New York City. 

Within eighteen months he was directing commercials. His black-and-white Pepsi commercial from 1965, says Elton, “looks like it was shot by Jean-Luc Godard on a day off from À bout de souffle with a kinetic energy and a kaleidoscopic array of effects — jump cuts, point-of-view shots, slow motion, rack zooms, vertigo-inducing camerawork”. For his 1967 Eastman Kodak “Yesterdays” commercial, he shot 8,000 feet of film (“around five hours that was eventually cut down to two minutes”). This was a harbinger of things to come. “Although people don’t always agree with me,” he said “I have a feeling about detail which may seem irrelevant to some people. Naturally, costs go up.”

He started writing screenplays in collaboration with a young playwright, Derick Washburn, who made his living as a carpenter. They shared a screen credit with Steven Bochco (later famous for developing TV cop shows) for Silent Running (1972). Cimino co-wrote the first Dirty Harry sequel Magnum Force with John Milius, but he recognised that he would need to write and direct in order to obtain creative control. 

Arriving in LA at around the same time as the “movie brat” generation of De Palma, Spielberg and Scorsese, he was a man apart. “I didn’t go to film school, I didn’t come from the scene,” he said. “I’d rather talk about paintings or read about Kandinsky.” His first film as director (out of a mere seven feature films), Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974) was made for Clint Eastwood as star and producer, who kept him on a tight leash.

At over five hours, Cimino’s first cut was unreleasable

Once he had come up with the idea for The Deer Hunter, an assemblage from different sources, the process of making it “set in motion an astonishing set of betrayals”. He told numerous lies to bolster his claim to total authorship, including that he had served with the Green Berets in Vietnam. 

When the film came out, Universal was so worried about negative publicity that studio boss Lew Wasserman pulled strings in Washington and arranged for a Pentagon spokesman to falsely confirm Cimino’s military service.

The Deer Hunter achieved Oscar glory just as Heaven’s Gate, a revisionist Western, was going into production. At over five hours, Cimino’s first cut was unreleasable in the conventional way; his second stab, at three hours and 40 minutes, equally so. Heaven’s Gate cost $40 million, took six months to shoot and a year to edit, was excoriated by all but one critic, and withdrawn from distribution by United Artists after being shown for less than a week in a single New York theatre. 

It did not bankrupt United Artists, as many claimed at the time, although the studio’s corporate owners Transamerica did decide to sell up. Cimino became “an almost mythical figure — a kind of Hollywood boogeyman who could strike fear into children, or at least the children of movie executives”.

Throughout his career, Cimino had one all-consuming relationship and that was with Joann Carelli, originally an agent, who became “his muse, lover, enabler, consigliere, hatchet woman, bad cop, gatekeeper, or some alchemical combination of all of them”. She was given producer credit on his movies and was referred to as Cimino’s “shadow government”. 

Carelli married the twenty-three year-old roller-skating violinist in Heaven’s Gate, David Mansfield, a talented musician who also arranged the film’s score, but Cimino never acknowledged their marriage. When Carelli gave birth to a daughter, Calantha, Cimino simply treated her as his own, just as he had tried to have Mansfield’s name erased from the album cover of the Heaven’s Gate soundtrack.

Like so many others before her, Valerie was cut adrift

Elton is a resourceful investigator as well as a beguiling writer. Many of those damaged by their association with Cimino still live in the Hollywood undergrowth, and he has sought them out. He also tracked down many in Kalispell, Montana, for whom making Heaven’s Gate had been a life-changing experience. 

He even followed a slender clue that led to a woman named Valerie Driscoll, who had owned a wig shop in the nondescript LA suburb of Torrance offering a discreet service to secretive cross-dressing males. This is especially significant since, as Elton argues, Cimino’s first few films had been about masculinity, whereas his last three demonstrated that he “had lost faith in the power of masculinity”. 

His appearance changed over the years. He went from looking like a chubby version of Neil Sedaka in his youth to resembling Yoko Ono with short hair and sunglasses in his seventies. “I don’t know at what point he was done being a guy,” Driscoll told Elton, but “Michael became Nikki. For fifteen years Valerie was Nikki’s close friend until, like so many others before her, she was cut adrift. Elton asked everyone he interviewed whether they had regarded Cimino as a collaborator or friend and “almost nobody said friend”. One “friend” observed that “Michael is an aristocrat who seeks the common man, and indeed the director remained friendly with the man who had been his driver on Heaven’s Gate

For all his flaws, there was still what George H. Bush called “the vision thing”. Everyone is against you, Cimino believed, so “you have to be more aggressive, you have to fight harder. You have to be stronger, tougher, smarter, faster”. Cheating and lying goes with the territory. 

Although Cimino tried to deny Derick Washburn his writing credit for The Deer Hunter, Washburn told Elton forty years later that if Cimino “hadn’t been so dishonest and basically such a crook, that movie would never have gotten made … My God, he was a rare thing. If he had called me anytime in the last 40 years to do a script with him, I would have dropped everything”.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover