Can the worst film ever finally get a happy ending?
It was the flop that sank a studio, and the career of Michael Cimino. Now Heaven's Gate is back in a new director's cut – and (whisper it) it may go down as a masterpiece
It was the most reviled film of its era, blamed for the financial collapse of United Artists and the unravelling of the once glorious career of its Oscar-winning director, Michael Cimino. A spectacular box-office failure in the US that marked the end of the auteur-driven Hollywood film movement of the 1970s. The film's star Kris Kristofferson, then among Hollywood's most coveted leading men, found himself shunned overnight. Now, at the Venice Film Festival, it seems that Cimino's folie de grandeur Heaven's Gate (1980) may finally have been rehabilitated.
When Cimino walked on stage at the Sala Perla in Venice yesterday, he was introducing a restored 218-minute version of the epic western about the Johnson County War that many are predicting will force film history to be rewritten. The restoration, which uses the 4K resolution standard, was undertaken by Criterion, a distribution company that specialises in the release of "important classic and contemporary films", and overseen by Cimino himself. He claims it is "even better" than the original print.
Now 73, Cimino cut a curious figure. He was frail but defiant as he remembered the savaging the film received 33 years ago. After the opening, the New York Times critic Vincent Canby quipped that watching the film was "like a forced, four-hour tour of one's living room". Legend has it that it was received so badly at the Toronto film festival that when the stars and Cimino returned to Hollywood, United Artists had to be bribed to pick them up at the airport because no one in the industry wanted to be seen with them. In panic, Cimino cut his own movie. Most audiences in the US saw a botched, shortened version of the film.
Although European critics have long praised the movie, it has always had a hostile reception in the US. Speaking in Venice, an emotional Cimino acknowledged that the drubbing he received in 1980 had left its scars. "You know, being infamous is not fun. It becomes a weird kind of occupation in and of itself."
Cimino paid tribute to the film's producer, Joann Carelli, and to his cast who, he said, had stayed loyal when everyone else deserted him. "Even when I was going through post-traumatic syndrome after the rejection of this film, she [Carelli] and Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken and Isabelle Huppert never wavered. They never doubted the work we'd done."
Carelli persuaded MGM to allow the film to be restored and brought on board Criterion. Initially, Cimino wanted nothing to do with the film that had brought him so much grief. "I said, Joanna, I don't want to revisit Heaven's Gate. I've had enough rejection for 33 years. I don't need more."
When MGM had approved an earlier restoration in 2005, he refused to have anything to do with it. However, this time round, Carelli convinced him to "go back to work". Ironically, Cimino supervised the restoration at the Sony Pictures Complex in Los Angeles, yards from where his office had been at the Clark Gable Building when he was making Heaven's Gate. In a chaotic ceremony, Cimino was presented with a lifetime achievement award. "Cimino is one of my favourite film-makers and Heaven's Gate is an undervalued masterpiece," said Alberto Barbera, director of the Venice Festival.
Many theories have been advanced as to why Heaven's Gate was such a gargantuan flop. Some say Cimino was being punished for his hubris. He had won an Academy Award and huge praise for The Deer Hunter (1978). United Artists had therefore given him carte blanche to make Heaven's Gate. He soared over budget and schedule. His set was infiltrated by a hostile reporter who wrote a piece suggesting that Cimino was behaving with an extravagance that made even Cecil B DeMille seem frugal.
Another theory is that the film's liberal politics counted against it. Cimino was dealing with the plight of immigrant workers out west and with the ruthless behaviour of the Wyoming cattle barons. That subject matter didn't play well in the early days of the Reagan era.
And it didn't help that United Artists poured so much into the movie that other film-makers suddenly found they couldn't get their films made. The late Steven Bach, then boss of United Artists, supported Cimino initially but grew increasingly exasperated. Ultimately the film cost him his job.
"The version you're going to see tonight I am going to watch with you," Cimino told the audience. "I have not seen this film in over 30 years. Because of the new digital technology, I was able to make colour changes, editorial changes, all sorts of things that were impossible at the time we made the movie. Seeing it reel by reel was astonishing… seeing it through the digital equipment, it was a new movie!"
Yesterday's screening looked magnificent. From the gilded opening scenes at Harvard, where Kristofferson, John Hurt and others from the "class of 1870" frolic and waltz to Strauss music, to the seething, dirty frontier town of Casper, Wyoming, the film has a level of detail and visual invention that recalls a lost tradition in Hollywood. Perhaps the curse on Heaven's Gate will finally be lifted.
Hollywood turkeys: Spectacular film flops
Howard The Duck
The 1986 film about a smart-talking alien duck proved rather more of a turkey after a savaging from the critics. Hollywood lore has it that the film, described by Leonard Maltin as a "hopeless mess", prompted a fistfight between that production heads at Universal over who had greenlit the project. One, Frank Price, quit soon after while Willard Huyck never directed another film.
The 13th Warrior
This Antonio Banderas vehicle earned just $60m, after spending $160m on the budget. Poor reception saw Michael Crichton, the author of the source material, take over directing duties, and pushing the release back a year. The 1999 movie prompted Omar Sharif to retire from acting, although he returned four years later in Monsieur Ibrahim.
Pirate movie with neither swash nor buckle is widely regarded as the biggest flop in film history with a net loss of $147.2m in today's money. The film, eight years before the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie was released, sunk its backer Carolco Pictures, and hit actress Geena Davis' status as a bankable star.
The adaptation of Scientology founder L Ron Hubbard's novel, Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000, was not touched by any of the major studios so it was picked up by Franchise Pictures. It received a critical mauling, and John Travolta's renewed bankability took a hit. Franchise was bankrupted following investor lawsuits as it had fraudulently overstated the budget by $31m.
And one that did alright in the end...
The 1995 Kevin Costner vehicle struggled under the weight of the tag of the most expensive movie mate to date. It was dubbed Kevin's Gate by some as it grossed just $88m at US cinemas off a budget of $175m. While it did better overseas, the film eventually made a profit on home video sales.
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