Michael Cimino was born on February 3, 1939 in New York City. He graduated from a high school in Old Westbury, New York and went on to study at Yale University. After graduating with a Master of Fine Arts degree he moved to California to pursue work in motion pictures.
In 1974, Cimino was given the opportunity to direct his first film. The film was "Thunderbolt and Lightfoot" and starred the legendary Clint Eastwood. The film was a success and even managed to get an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor.
Cimino's second film, "The Deer Hunter", was about a group of close friends from a small town serving in Vietnam and the changes that occurred as a result. The movie featured Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, and Christopher Walken and managed to became a major success. Cimino won the academy award that year for "best director" and suddenly became one of the biggest names in Hollywood.
The breakout success of "The Deer Hunter" ensured that Cimino was in demand and, as a result, could get just about anything he wanted from movie studios. His next production was "Heaven's Gate", which received financial backing from United Artists. Starring big names like Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, and John Hurt, the movie looked like it would be guaranteed hit, but Cimino's neurotic directing style began causing trouble.
Since the film took place in the 19th century, it required an entire town to be built to match the era. After the production crew finished building the set, Cimino suddenly decided that the spacing between the buildings looked wrong and he ordered the entire town destroyed and rebuilt at a cost of over one million dollars. When the studio executives began to get paranoid about the mounting costs and production time, they approached other directors to ask them to take over directing, but all of their offers were refused. Cimino eventually posted an armed security guard outside of the editing room to keep the studio executives out.
The film ended up being a year and a half behind schedule and cost an astronomical $38 million dollars more than the initial budget of $2 million. Cimino's cut of the film was 5.5 hours long, but the studio convinced him to trim it down to 3 hours for theatrical release. The film was released in November of 1980 to very bad reviews and Cimino had the film pulled from theaters so that he could reedit and re release it. Even after this last ditch effort to salvage the film, it completely bombed in the box office, leaving the studio with massive debt.
The utter failure of "Heaven's Gate" nearly forced United Artists to declare bankruptcy and they were sold to MGM studios shortly after. Cimino went from being a highly sought after director to a blacklisted director and could not find work in Hollywood for the next five years. He also received a bad reputation with animal rights groups for allowing the torture of animals on set. The abuse led to the inclusion of the message stating that "no animals were harmed in the making of this film" in future films involving animals.
In spite of the commercial failure of the film, it is still worth seeing since it features one of the most bizarre battle scenes in the history of cinema. The movie centers around a town inhabited by poor immigrants and wealthy land speculators who want the land for themselves. The tension develops between the two groups, eventually culminating in a giant battle scene that appears to employ Roman military strategy.
In 1985, Cimino managed to get his first directing job after the "Heaven's Gate" disaster. The movie was called "Year of the Dragon" and featured Mickey Rourke in the leading role. The film ended up being a marginal failure and failed to meet expectations.
Two years later, Cimino was chosen to direct the movie version of Mario Puzo's novel "The Sicilian". The film focuses on the Sicilian criminal Salvatore Giuliano, who led a rebellion of the working class in post-WW2 Italy. The film failed to get much critical acclaim and performed poorly at the box office, grossing only $5.5 million.
In 1990, Cimino was chosen to direct "Desperate Hours" with a cast that included Anthony Hopkins, Mickey Rourke, and Mimi Rogers. The film followed the story of a criminal who escapes jail just before trial and attempts to hide from the police. The film totally bombed and managed to get less than $3 million at the box office.
The dismal performance of that film resulted in Cimino not getting work for another 6 years until he was selected to direct "The Sunchaser" starring Woody Harrelson and Anne Bancroft. The plot of the film follows a doctor who is kidnapped by a terminally ill person. This film ended up being another poor performer at the box office and appeared to be the final nail in Cimino's coffin.
Since 1996, Cimino has not directed any films and has stated that he is unable to make the films that he wants to because of the failure of "Heaven's Gate". He has become something of a ghost in Hollywood and it looks like his career in films might be over. It is unknown whether he will make any notable films in the future, but we will have to wait and see.