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19 February 2024

Michael Cimino (1939 – 2016) film director and author

Cimino grew up in Long Island, New York. He was educated in private schools and then attended first Michigan State University and then Yale. At the latter he took a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) in 1961 and an MFA in 1963. He was also in the US Army reserve where he did a month of medical training. 

He found work in New York City with a small company that made documentary and industrial films, and from there progressed into making commercials. He then attempted scriptwriting, and created Thunderbolt and Lightfoot which was at first about outlaws in Ireland, but he was persuaded to revise it as a contemporary heist movie set in the US. It was shown to Clint Eastwood, who wanted to direct it himself, but Cimino insisted. Eastwood also asked him to revise the John Milius script for the Dirty Harry film, Magnum Force. Then Eastwood let him direct Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, although Eastwood was in charge. (The film includes a scene where Jeff Bridges’ character is in drag to distract a security guard and deactivate the alarms). Cimino also worked on the revision of the script for Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales in 1976.

Cimino’s next film as director was Deer Hunter. It had started as a spec script called The Man Who Came to Play, about going to Las Vegas to play Russian Routlette. Cimino was hired to develop the script so that it could be filmed. He in turn hired Deric Washburn to do most of the writing, to be completed within a month. It became a script about steel workers in Pennsylvania sent to Vietnam, and tortured by Russian Roulette (despite there being no record of the Viet Cong ever using such methods). The original protagonist was split into three characters. On completion Washburn was fired, and his name taken off the script, although it was restored in a Writers’ Guild arbitration. The resulting film went over budget and over schedule and cost $15 million. However it grossed $49 million, was nominated for nine Academy Awards and took five.

Cimino then made Heaven’s Gate for United Artists. It was filmed in Montana, budgeted as $12 million but cost $44 million and on release in 1980 grossed less than $4 million. The original version was over 5 hours, but the main cinema release was cut to 2½ hours. It was said that Heaven’s Gate caused the collapse of United Artists, and ended the run of director-auteur films that had typified 1970s Hollywood – however there were other factors such as management infighting.

Most of the projects that Cimino was involved in for the next few years never got as far as filming. However he did then direct another four films – albeit without the freedom that he had earlier: Year of the Dragon, 1985; The Sicilian, 1987; Desperate Hours, 1990; The Sunchaser, 1996. 

Cimono still had a vision and kept writing sceenplays – but they were no longer filmed. One of these was adapted into a novel, Big Jane, set in 1951, about a butch woman who travels by motorcycle across the US and ends up in a women’s brigade in the Korean War. It was translated and published in France in 2001, but never published in English. He was honoured for this in 2001 at Deauville Film Festival with a Prix littéraire. This was followed by the autobiographical Conversations en miroir, which again was published only in France.

Eastwood and Cimino in 2015

Cimino had became a recluse in his house in Beverly Hills, rarely seeing anybody. He lost weight and his face changed – the latter was assumed to be because of cosmetic surgery. There were rumours that Cimino had been seen presenting as female, of an application to the directors’ union for a name change to ‘Michelle Cimono’. Journalists and others actually asked him to his face if he were transitioning. Cimino denied being trans and suggested confusion with Gene Simmons of the band Kiss who lived next door. Cimono’s previous personality had been solemn, abrasive and without any humour. Now, especially at appearances in Europe, Cimono was charming. This was helped by the discovery of the original four-hour version of Heaven’s Gate, the DVD rerelease on Criterion of a director’s cut by Cimono, and the re-evaluation of the film as a masterwork. He was feted at film festivals across Europe. 

Since the early 1990s Valerie Driscoll had owned and run Hair To Wear Wigs in Torrance, a suburb close to the Los Angeles airport. Among other trades she had been a cosmetologist, a masseuse, a commodities trader and a dominatrix at S&M parties.  She contributed to the Cross-Talk newsletter for trans persons with articles on hair and makeup, and also advised her customers re cross-dressing.  She described one of her customers who used the name Nikki as “sweet, soft, and particularly naïve”.  Nikki claimed to be “a caregiver to an elderly couple in Beverly Hills and lived in their guesthouse”. Slowly they developed a friendship and talked.  Meeting with biographer Charles Elton may years later, Driscoll said: “We each knew things that helped each other. I think she grew to like me due to my strength and independence as a woman. I was drawn to her softness, sweetness, and uncharacteristic naivety.”  She felt that she gave Nikki the confidence to change.   “As time passed, I began to notice subtle changes to her face, and soon his masculine features softened. I don’t know at what point he decided he was done with being a guy. I just don’t know. Michael became Nikki.”  Valerie gave up her shop in 1996, and moved  to Yucca Valley in the Mohave Desert, where she ran a massage and spa business.  Nikki and Valerie continued their relationship by telephone, and sometimes would meet halfway at a hotel.  But the makeover magic worked less well as Nikki aged.  Nikki stopped calling so often.  Valerie missed her, and as she had Nikki's cellphone number she was able to find out that Nikki was Michael Cimino.  She mentioned to Nikki that she knew who he was, and then their relationship was strained, and then it was over.

Cimino died alone at home at the age of 77. Forest Lawn cemetery set up an online memorial page.  Three women in the film world added tributes, as did Valerie Driscoll whose comment was: 

"Every day I think I’ll hear his unmistakable voice on the other end of the phone. We had become friends through my retail business in Torrance over 12 years ago and I must say that he became my BEST friend. I love him so much and miss his intelligence and humor.” 

 This led to Charles Elton, the biographer discovering her existence.

  • Michael Cimino. Conversations en miroir.  Gallimard, 2004.
  • Steven Bach. The Final Cut: Dream and Disaster in the Making of "Heaven's Gate". William Morrow, 1985
  • Steve Garbarino. “Michael Cimino’s Final Cut”. Vanity Fair, March 2002. Online.
  • Charles Elton. Cimino: The Deer Hunter, Heaven’s Gate and the Price of a Vision.  Abrams Press, 2022.
  • Bret Easton Ellis. “How Hollywood destroyed Michael Cimino”.  com.  Online.
  • Richard Brody. “A New Biography of Michael Cimino Is as Fascinating and Melancholy as the Filmmaker Himself”.  New Yorker,  May 22, 2022.  Online.
  • Juan Sanguino translated by Xanthe Holloway. “The tragic life of Michael Cimino Hollywood’s most notorious failure”. El Pais, Jun 14,2022. Online.

EN.Wikipedia    IMDB    

Here is a list of movies that made a big lossHeaven’s Gate is only moderate in this list.

1 comment:

  1. Not all who set out on the road to womanhood reach the destination.


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