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Why Michael Cimino’s Disastrous Epic Western ‘Heaven’s Gate’ Was Blamed for Ruining United Artists

Charles Elton's new book "CIMINO: The Deer Hunter, Heaven's Gate, and the Price of a Vision" explores the director's fraught Hollywood legacy, unpacking many myths in the process.

HEAVEN'S GATE, Isabelle Huppert, Kris Kirstofferson, 1980. (c) United Artists/ Courtesy: Everett Collection.

“Heaven’s Gate”

©United Artists/Courtesy Everett Collection

In his first non-fiction book, literary-agent-turned-producer Charles Elton takes on a major topic: the first biography of “critically acclaimed then critically derided filmmaker Michael Cimino.” In “CIMINO: The Deer Hunter, Heaven’s Gate, and The Price of a Vision,” Elton explores Cimino’s fraught legacy — including his two best known films, “The Deer Hunter” and “Heaven’s Gate” — and uses extensive interviews with Cimino’s peers, collaborators, enemies, and friends to explore and reevaluate a number of sprawling Hollywood myths. 

In an excerpt below — available exclusively on IndieWire — Elton unpacks the real truth behind the persistent belief that Cimino’s epic (both in scale and in terms of financial failure) “Heaven’s Gate” led to the end of United Artists. The book is out today.

Michael Cimino’s epic Western, “Heaven’s Gate,” his first film since the Oscar-winning “The Deer Hunter,” was shown to the New York press on November 19, 1980. The next morning, the reviews were probably the most devastating ever written for a movie. Vincent Canby’s review in the New York Times was the most shocking: “’Heaven’s Gate’ fails so completely that you might suspect that Mr. Cimino sold his soul to the Devil to obtain the success of ‘The Deer Hunter’ and the Devil has just come around to collect.” By that point, Cimino had become so unpopular in Hollywood that it was reported that cheers rang out in the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel as producers heard about the reviews. Two days later, United Artists did something that no studio had ever done — they withdrew the $44 million movie and put it on the shelf, saying that they would be recutting it to reduce its bloated 240 minute length.

With its horrifying reviews and financial loss, the movie would always have been part of Hollywood legend, but with the news of the withdrawal and the recutting, it became a laughingstock as well — the movie had cost a fortune to make, taken six months to shoot, a year to edit, and now the filmmakers seemed to be agreeing with the terrible reviews.

The jokes began quickly. There was a Johnny Hart “B.C.” comic strip in which a man goes into a library and asks, “Do you have a book on how to make a bomb?” He is handed a copy of the “Heaven’s Gate” screenplay. Later, its very title became a gift for cheap gags: as Watergate begat Contragate and Irangate, thus Cimino’s film begat Heavensgate and later Kevinsgate (Costner’s disastrous “Waterworld”). His movie became the poster child for failure.

The Deer Hunter

“The Deer Hunter”

Universal

Cimino cut an hour out of his movie and it was re-released in April 1981. It failed miserably. A sales executive from United Artists said, “It’s as if somebody called every house in the country and said there will be a curse on your family if you go see this picture.” The reviews were hardly any better than they had been the first time around. Vincent Canby: “‘Heaven’s Gate’ looks like a fat man who’s been on a crash diet. Though it’s thinner, it’s not appreciably different.” Stanley Kauffmann: “A long bore has been converted into a tolerable non-success.” Only one journalist was brave enough to admit he loved the short version — Kevin Thomas in the Los Angeles Times. He wrote, “In its new two-and-a-half-hour version, Michael Cimino’s ‘Heaven’s Gate’ is an experience that leaves you feeling you have witness a true screen epic. … Now it is time to sit back and enjoy all that Michael Cimino has wrought.” However, in a rare moment of critical vulnerability, he said, “I don’t think in twenty years of movie reviewing I’ve ever been so totally alone.”

Andy Albeck, president of United Artists, made one last attempt to salvage their leaky vessel by fighting hard to have “Heaven’s Gate” entered for the Cannes Film Festival in early May — the French critics tended to be more welcoming to difficult auteurs. The movie did not fare particularly well — there had been a little booing at the screening — but Cimino was courteously received. However, as the festival got underway, a bigger story than the disaster of his movie surfaced: Transamerica who owned United Artists was going to sell the studio to Kirk Kerkorian, who owned MGM.

The received wisdom, then and now, pinpointed Cimino as the culprit, the man who single-handedly “bankrupted a studio.” In fact, it was just as inaccurate as the belief — invented by an early biographer — that George Washington cut down a cherry tree. The United Artists executive, Steven Bach, who wrote “Final Cut,” a devastatingly vicious book about the making of “Heaven’s Gate,” was not slow in corroborating the myth: the subtitle of his book included the phrase “The Film that Sank United Artists.”

However it came about, the sale was shocking to Hollywood. When Transamerica bought UA in 1967, it had remained an autonomous business run by its existing management with no interference in its decision-making process. Now the studio, one of the oldest and most prestigious in the business, was going to be emasculated and subsumed into another studio, which was owned not by a canny mogul like Darryl Zanuck or Jack Warner, who understood the almost unfathomable equation of the movie business, but by Kerkorian, a secretive billionaire who was more interested in building a hotel empire in Las Vegas than in filmmaking. To an industry that values tradition, it was like the willful destruction of an ancient monument, and it was Cimino who had done the bulldozing. Could one man alone really destroy a part of Hollywood history? People believed the answer was yes.

HEAVEN'S GATE, Kris Kristofferson, 1980. ©United Artists/courtesy Everett Collection

“Heaven’s Gate”

©United Artists/Courtesy Everett Collection

In truth, there were many factors involved in the sale of United Artists, and few of them had much to do with Cimino. In 1981, the year the recut version of “Heaven’s Gate” was released, the movies green-lit by UA had began to come through, and most of them did not perform well financially or critically. Even movie buffs would have some difficulty recalling them — “Deadly Blessing”; “Cutter’s Way”; “Those Lips, Those Eyes”; and the improbable Ringo Starr prehistoric comedy “Caveman.” There was a modest financial success with the Meryl Streep movie “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” and a major critical success with Scorsese’s “Raging Bull,” even though it did not go into profit for many years.

Despite the lackluster slate of films and the early write-off of “Heaven’s Gate”‘s $44 million loss, the studio still made a respectable profit of $22 million. United Artists was not bankrupt, or even heading in that direction. “With a nip of reorganization here and a tuck of new management there, no studio ever quite seems to go over the edge,” Aljean Harmetz said in the Los Angeles Times. In fact, United Artists did not slow down after the debacle — they were still spending huge sums on acquisitions: $500,000 for the movie rights to Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff” and $250,000 for Truman Capote’s “Handcarved Coffins.” The most staggering buy was $2.5 million for Gay Talese’s giant nonfiction history of America’s sex life, “Thy Neighbor’s Wife.” It was widely regarded as unfilmable, and, indeed, it never was. Nor was the Capote book. “The Right Stuff” was eventually made, but by another studio.

The studio could have weathered the Cimino storm, but there were other factors over which they had no control. Transamerica had always been the parent company of a random group of businesses that included UA and Budget Car Hire. Now they were beginning to divest themselves of the companies that did not relate to their core product divisions — insurance and investment. Then there was the money: United Artists had been bought for $180 million twelve years before; now Transamerica sold it to Kerkorian for an astonishing $383 million. There was really no downside for them. Even Bach, contradicting his book’s Film-that-Sank-a-Studio subtitle said, “At that price, ‘Who wouldn’t sell?’”

“CIMINO: The Deer Hunter, Heaven’s Gate, and The Price of a Vision”

Abrams Press

Outside the industry, “Heaven’s Gate” seemed a small footnote to the sale. In a story about it, the New York Times mentioned the movie but said that United Artists had not been looking to sell — Kerkorian had initiated the talks with them. The news agency UPI reported the sale price but made no mention of the movie at all.

What could be laid at Cimino’s door was that United Artists had somewhat lost their appetite for filmmaking because of him. However, the wider damage to Cimino’s reputation had been done — the industry believed that he was totally to blame for a bankruptcy that did not actually happen. It still does. In 2016, the website Screen Rant included “Heaven’s Gate” in a list of movies that “bankrupted their studio.” Even one of the industry’s papers of record, The Hollywood Reporter, noted in 2020 that the movie, “earned a place of infamy for bankrupting United Artists.”

In one of Cimino’s favorite Westerns, John Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” a journalist says, “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend” — and that was exactly what happened.

Excerpt from the new book “CIMINO: The Deer Hunter, Heaven’s Gate, and The Price of a Vision” by Charles Elton published by Abrams Press ©2022.

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