When Michael Cimino passed away in 2016, I had a fervent desire to read a well-researched and personable biography about him. Here it is: Charles Elton’s Cimino: The Deer Hunter, Heaven’s Gate, and the Price of a Vision is as captivating, as intriguing, as insightful, and as melancholic as one might expect. The book, published by Abrams in March, has two main themes: first, how the director’s career was butchered by critics’ ridicule of his masterpiece Heaven’s Gate when it premiered in 1980; second, that for the last twenty-five years of his life, at least in private, Cimino presented himself as a woman. Elton does not find or enforce any significant connections between these two aspects of Cimino’s life, but their connection lies beneath the surface, through the book’s third main theme: a great, mysterious love story between Cimino and his key collaborator, Joann Carelli – a relationship that remained strong from his early days as a director to the end of his life.
Each biography could consist of two books instead of one – the work itself and the non-fiction making-of detailing the journalistic adventures that make up the biographical account. Elton, a longtime agent, producer and novelist, combines both in “Cimino”. Unlike many New Hollywood directors of the 1970s, whose public and private lives were intertwined amid self-promotion or impartiality, Cimino was tight-lipped about many of his personal details, and even brazenly deceived, be it on so intimate ones Matters like his romantic life and family, or something as easily verifiable as his year of birth and military service. As a result, Elton’s research is full of false leads and surprising connections, and it led him to subjects whose encounters with the author themselves are the stuff of great drama. Elton delights in the practical details of these encounters – how he locates people, where they meet. He contacts relatives of Cimino’s whose existence the filmmaker denied existed, and he also encounters a fake relative whom Cimino nonetheless associated with. Despite the conflicting stories and memories, Cimino’s lead role as a character in his own self-created mythology gradually evolves along with his cinematic vocation and career – and is reflected in the aura of wonder and mystery that permanently tinges those around him. And as legend eventually overtook career, Cimino emerged as a formidable, cautionary tale, even tragic presence on the fringes of Hollywood and at the center of film history.
Unlike contemporary directorial heroes like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich and Brian De Palma, Cimino didn’t grow up as a cinephile. He was not a film critic, did not attend film school and came to the cinema more or less by accident. Born in New York City, Cimino grew up in a middle-class Italian-American family in Westbury, Long Island. Cimino was a gifted artist. He graduated from Michigan State with a degree in graphic arts and received his MFA in painting from Yale in 1963, where he “hung around” in drama school and found his calling in storytelling and spectacle. (He also, as Elton found out, changed the pronunciation of his name based on the nature of his family: “sim-i-no” to the now familiar “Chi-me–no.”) He moved to Manhattan, found a job at an advertising design company, decided to direct commercials and studied film technology with prominent colleagues. A quick learner, Cimino received a high salary as commercial director in 1965 (he soon bought a Rolls-Royce) and in 1967 earned recognition as an extraordinarily original commercial director – and as extraordinarily artistically controlling and demanding. In 1971 he went to Hollywood.
Carelli, a commercial artist who had represented Cimino in his commercial work (whether officially or not – one commercial producer called them Cimino’s “handlers”), was his professional partner. She was present throughout most of his career as his collaborator and advisor behind the scenes and as a conscience. (Elton writes, “Cimino had an entourage of one.”) When he moved to Hollywood, so did she. Many who knew them assumed they were a couple, but neither Carelli nor Cimino ever said that much. Carelli gave very few interviews and stayed out of the public eye. Elton’s story of their first conversations and their many encounters has a novelistic flair, as does his account of their first phone call: “’This is Joann Carelli,’ she said in a guttural, unreconstructed New York accent. ‘I will not tell you anything.’ ‘ But it turns out to be the central theme of the interview in ‘Cimino’.
Carelli advised Cimino that if he wanted to direct in Hollywood, he had to write screenplays – which means he had to learn how to do it first. (Elton points out that no other TV commercial director was succeeding in Hollywood at the time, although that career path became more common in the 1980s.) As with commercial directing, Cimino learned screenwriting from others quickly, but not quite as much. Cimino collaborated with other writers, but removed their names before showing the scripts around. His methods were Machiavellian and they worked. He co-wrote the post-apocalyptic “Silent Running” with Bruce Dern; he revised the screenplay for “Magnum Force” with Clint Eastwood; and he wrote a screenplay for Eastwood, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot—and when Eastwood decided to produce and star in it, Cimino added the stipulation that he direct it as his first feature film.
Thunderbolt and Lightfoot focuses on a former bank robber (Eastwood) whose former accomplices pursue him; He escapes with a young Rover (Jeff Bridges) and they team up with the accomplices for one last heist. Eastwood, a strict and frugal producer, gave Cimino three days of shooting to prove himself. Cimino scrupulously stayed within schedule and budget, and Eastwood was pleased with his direction. The film was a commercial success, receiving good reviews and an Oscar nomination (Bridges, for Best Supporting Actor). But it opened few doors for Cimino. He returned to writing — including a biopic of Janis Joplin that was eventually filmed without her name, as “The Rose,” starring Bette Midler — and he unsuccessfully tried to get funding for his dream project, a new adaptation of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. It wasn’t until late 1976 that he got the green light for another film, The Deer Hunter, a drama about three young men from a working-class town in western Pennsylvania whose service in the Vietnam War proves horrendous.
“The Deer Hunter” was financed by an up-and-coming studio, the US division of EMI. Producers were hungry for a prestige hit, but, according to Elton, “for tax reasons” production had to ramp up quickly. In the mad rush to get filming up and running by March 1977, Studio Cimino imposed fewer controls than was usual for a big-budget film. He brought in another writer, Deric Washburn, with whom he had previously worked, and again removed his collaborator’s name from the script. (It was restored in a Writers Guild arbitration.) He selected a variety of locations — spread across the country (from Pennsylvania to Washington) and indeed around the world (Thailand) — that lend the film the authenticity and detail would that he was looking for. It was reported that because the hunt in the film took place in the fall but was shot in the summer, leaves were painted yellow and taped to trees. Cimino shipped two large deer to the hills, where thirty crew members carried them over in crates. The film’s great set piece, a Russian Orthodox wedding scene, required two hundred and fifty extras; The script ran to ten pages, and Cimino told his producer it would be suitably brief on screen. But in Cimino’s first cut, that one scene lasted seventy-five minutes. In Thailand, they were filming in the midst of a military coup. By the end of production, Cimino had shot about a hundred hours of footage and the budget had doubled from $7.5 million to $15 million. He was contractually obliged to record the film in less than two hours or he would lose his right to the final cut. The producers gave him an extra half hour; Cimino wouldn’t go under three hours. He smuggled his clip out of the editing room, privately showed it to influential industry figures, and orchestrated a print campaign that worked – because the film, at this length, was overwhelmingly moving for viewers.
Cimino was a master tactician. He figured out how to manipulate the system and those in power to make his films how he saw fit. Good as “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” is, it hardly belies the vast scope of Cimino’s vision. He was in his late thirties, and The Deer Hunter was his big chance to catch up with his peers – and he took it. His sense of drama is inseparable from his sense of spectacle; His art is granular and sensual, sharing a fanatical eye for graphic detail with his work in commercials. In directing The Deer Hunter, Cimino was cunning, two-faced, decisive, and it worked. The film received rave reviews, was a box office hit, and received nine Academy Award nominations and won five, including Best Director and Best Picture.