Film Studies: So hot you could make scrambled eggs on him

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The Independent Culture

If you want the recipe for being a sensation in Hollywood, look up "Cimino, Michael" in the index to Steven Bach's essential book, Final Cut. Here are the sub-categories that fall under his "character and personality": calm and reasonableness; energy and enthusiasm; megalomania; narcissism; need for control; perfectionism; professionalism; secrecy; sulks and silences. How sweetly alphabetical order gives us the entire narrative arc. But wait. Must we now expect a new pay-off – "surprise comeback"?

I was going to say how old Michael Cimino is, but that comes in a cloud of doubt that covers his education and whether he was really with the Green Berets in Vietnam. In other words, he tells a story. Cast your mind back to 1978 and The Deer Hunter, which won Best Picture and brought Cimino an Oscar as Best Director. There are those who charge that the film is historically inaccurate, racist, fascistic and wildly implausible. They have their points. Nevertheless, The Deer Hunter is also one of the most compelling American movies – foreboding in its first half as we watch a working-class steel-town marriage oddly attended by most of the great American actors of that age; and then hideous, inescapable and absolutely harrowing as some of them are suddenly dumped in Vietnam.

Cimino was so hot you could have scrambled eggs on his child-like face. Instead, United Artists hired him to make a Western, Heaven's Gate. What is it about? Well, the Johnson County war in Wyoming in the 1890s; the clash of old money and immigrant invasion; the texture of landscape, costume, time of day and frontier decor; and the personality of Michael Cimino.

Final Cut is the story of how that film stumbled into being, and it is the more impressive in that it was written by Steven Bach who was a top executive at United Artists, and whose career – like the fate of UA – was destroyed by the film's commercial disaster. It got out of hand, in part because Cimino was a perfectionist and secretive; but in part because Bach and UA wanted to believe in him, and then reached a crazy point where, having spent so much money on the film, they had to spend more. I should add two things: Bach is a friend of mine and Heaven's Gate (especially in its long version) is ravishing.

No one interested in film, or vaguely moved by visual things, could see The Deer Hunter and Heaven's Gate and reach any conclusion except that Cimino is touched by genius. But a touch can be unbalancing. There was a five-year gap between Heaven's Gate and his next film, Year of the Dragon.

Since then, he has made The Sicilian, Desperate Hours (a remake of the old Fredric March-Humphrey Bogart thriller) and Sunchaser. These are bad films that flopped. Cimino could easily respond that he was hampered by poor material, restrictive budgets and his own reputation. He has never again been free, as he was for a few years in the late Seventies.

He has had larger, personal projects: he wanted to film Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead (and some shudder at the thought of his identification with Rand's wilful architect). He was drawn to a life of Dostoevsky, and a film about the Tour de France. And he is talking now about the André Malraux novel, Man's Fate.

For if he is not quite back, he is stirring. The most fascinating part of this story is that a couple of years ago there was a rumour that Cimino had had a sex-change operation. No one ruled it out – for it mixed the drastic, the romantic and the unlikely in a way that was Cimino. But grant the change, still the question lingered – from what to what? No, I'm still a guy, Cimino is telling the French press. For it is in France that his resurrection has begun. There were always a few in France who found Heaven's Gate not just more than ravishing, but un film maudit – a film bastardised by reputation, a treasure to be reclaimed. This process was enhanced by the publication (by Gallimard) of a novel by Cimino, entitled Big Jane. In an instant, the provocative French, always ready to prune the Bushy US, had awarded Cimino the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres. It is as if the French had asked Jerry Lewis to be their ambassador in America.

However alarming, such an appointment could only enliven Washington DC. Equally, I applaud the new life Cimino has found, whatever its hormonal balance. The movies need him. And the rest of us need the real thing in showbiz – an authentic monster of chutzpah. But Man's Fate seems too minor for him. Suppose instead he could do a version of The Fountainhead, one that employed the World Trade Centre.

d.thomson@independent.co.uk

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