There’s a long history in Hollywood of shelved projects, abandoned franchise dreams, stalled careers, and entire genres that lost favor or profitability. 9 times out 10 these problems and failures are the result of a myriad of complex issues and contributing factors. Sometimes though… Sometimes you can pretty much pin everything on one film that fucked it up for everyone. Whether it’s a movie that killed a rival project, destroyed a filmmaker’s career, squashed some brilliant idea, or took the shine off of an entire genre, this CHUD List will catalog the films that were just total, unapologetic Cockblocks.
Day 11 (Heaven’s Gate)
THE COCK: Michael Cimino
Every once in a while a young director takes charge and makes a masterpiece. But the seventies were filled with young directors trying their best to either imitate or outdo the older generation. The Easy Riders and Raging Bulls of this generation were easy to spot, but the pariah of the group is easily Michael Cimino. For Cimino it was his second film, The Deer Hunter, that launched him into the revered orbit. Starting his directorial career with the successfully amiable and charming Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (a Clint Eastwood picture made in the mid-70’s), it would be hard to guess that his next picture would be nominated for nine academy awards and win five Oscars for best editing, sound, supporting actor (Christopher Walken), director and picture. But there was Cimino; the man behind a masterpiece. He was minted, on top of beating Francis Ford Coppola and his ass-dragging production of Apocalypse Now to the big screen. Francis may have thought his film “was Vietnam,” but Cimino got their first, and by doing so put himself in – and in competition – with the brats. A success as great as that meant that Cimino could write his own ticket. And so he did. And in the process bankrupted a studio.
THE BLOCK: Heaven’s Gate
By the time Heaven’s Gate finally came out, the film was already rumbled to be a disaster, and the film had to be trimmed from the already extended three hour and twenty nine minute cut (which previewed disastrously) to a two and half hour version. The film – with a supposed final budget of $44 Million – made $3 Million at the box office. United Artists (owned by Transamerica at the time) was sold to MGM, who basically used the U/A as a boutique label for certain titles.
How it Went Down:
The story of how one director’s vision/hubris destroyed a studio deserves a book, and a book it has recieved. If you want to know anything about the film or Hollywood at the time (or just like dirt) the late Stephen Bach’s Final Cut is a must read. The basic version of went wrong is this: Michael Cimino had the power to do whatever he wanted as a follow up to his gigantic success, so he went to UA and faced executives like Stephen Bach who – and Bach admits as much- didn’t know what the fuck they were doing. With Cimino left to his own devices working on a project that likely never had a completed script, he got everything he wanted but it was no substitute for having a story to tell or a great vision. I’ve watched the film in its three and a half hour cut, and never was able to find the hidden masterpiece, although some critics (like the late Robin Wood) think it was unduly ruined by the bad press. I think it’s fascinating, undeniably, but mostly a misfire.
To that, the problem with Heaven’s Gate is often the problem with so many movies that we still circle and point at before release. The public’s mind was made up before they saw it, and Cimino Icarus again flew too close to the sun. Whenever someone received such tremendous success, it’s almost impossible to top it, and climbing that mountain may very well have been Cimino’s goal. He likely didn’t want to just cover the current America, and the end of the American dream as through Vietnam, but with Heaven’s Gate he was going to tell the story of America. Perhaps that was his intention, perhaps there was something there under the surface, perhaps he was trying to find a new way to talk about the end of the west, the frontier, and the truths about our mythos, and how the class system in America really works. We normally celebrate the balls it takes to attempt such a thing, and too many modern artists don’t seem to be swinging for the fences so much as going for a two-base hit. The problem with all or nothing is always the nothing.
But far too often we’ve seen Oscars and success held against a filmmaker. Kevin Costner’s career was torpedoed not so much because of films like Waterworld and The Postman (to which there are cases to be made, even if they are flawed) but by the fact that he remained Kevin Costner. Tarantino had to weather – and still does – a lot of ridiculous complaints about everything post Pulp Fiction because he has been launched into the master class for redefining pop culture, which he did. Alas, the people who are most scraped at are the people who try. Nothing against James Cameron, but when he’s risked it all it’s generally at the service of conventional material that he goes after in a technically audacious way.
It’s easy to be in defense of great challenging art, but that said there’s no way to read The Final Cut and not see Cimino as a man who bullied the studio to make the movie. One of the great passages explains how Cimino knew they couldn’t fire him once he got deep into production because he had just won an Academy award, and so he kept bleeding the studio. It’s a smart move, but it would have been smarter if he had the film. Perhaps the five plus hour version of the movie is where it’s at.
But between this, and Coppola’s failure with One From the Heart, the great artists of the 1970’s were proving themselves troublesome, and it made more sense to try films like the sorts Steven Spielberg and George Lucas made. In 1980 Pauline Kael wrote the essay “Why are the Movies so Bad? Or The Numbers” and so this argument has been made for the last thirty years. The business men moved in, and the creatives moved out. Cinema became a product. The geniuses lost and the bean counters won. Avon Barksdale is replaced by Marlo. Seasons change, etc. But by destroying the studio that also released Raging Bull, it’s fair to say Cimino made things worse.
Bullet Dodged, or Greatness Robbed:
Verdict: Greatness Robbed
The Alternate Universe:
The three and a half hour cut is the only version readily available these days – the truncated two and a half has fallen to the wayside. Cimino doesn’t like to be seen in public any more, some say because of too much plastic surgery. U/A is attached to some MGM titles, but MGM itself is no longer a player. Like New Line and the Road Warrior…
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