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Michael Cimino, ‘The Deer Hunter’ Director, Dead at 77

Academy Award-winning filmmaker also helmed ‘Thunderbolt & Lightfoot’ and the divisive epic ‘Heaven’s Gate’

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Michael Cimino, the Academy Award-winning director and cinematic visionary behind films like 'The Deer Hunter' and 'Heaven's Gate,' died Saturday.

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Michael Cimino, the Academy Award-winning director and cinematic visionary behind films like The Deer Hunter and Heaven’s Gate, died Saturday.

Cannes Film Festival director Thierry Fremaux first announced news of Cimino’s death, tweeting that Cimino died surrounded by family members. A representative for the director could neither “confirm nor deny” whether Cimino had died. No cause of death was provided. Cimino was reportedly 77.

“I cannot believe Michael Cimino has passed away too,” director Edgar Wright tweeted.”‘Thunderbolt & Lightfoot’ is one of my favourite films. R.I.P.”

After beginning his career in art and advertising, the New York-born Cimino moved quickly into screenwriting in the early Seventies, co-writing the sci-fi epic Silent Running and the Dirty Harry sequel Magnum Force.

The success of those films allowed Cimino to step behind the camera for this debut feature Thunderbolt & Lightfoot, starring Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges. The film became a hit at the box office and provided Cimino an opportunity to have his pick for his next project. He chose the ambitious Vietnam War drama The Deer Hunter.

The film, the story of the impact the Vietnam War has on a group of Pittsburgh steelworkers, went on to win five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director for Cimino, on its way toward becoming an American classic. The film was later preserved in the Library of Congress.

For his next film, Cimino embarked on another mammoth project: Heaven’s Gate, a Western epic about a land dispute in Wyoming. Like The Deer Hunter, the film fell behind schedule and over-budget, but unlike Cimino’s previous picture, the nearly four-hour Heaven’s Gate bombed commercially and critically, becoming among the biggest box office duds in movie history; the film would nearly destroy its studio, United Artists.

“Now, I’m of the school that doesn’t think that Heaven’s Gate needed to be saved,” Steven Spielberg told Rolling Stone in 1982. “I think that the overall attack that was launched on the director, Michael Cimino, is more interesting and worthy of analysis than the Heaven’s Gate cataclysm. Because Heaven’s Gate, which is a very, very flawed movie, is one of the most carefully crafted movies of all time.”

Although future generations of filmmakers and cinephiles would regard Heaven’s Gate as a cult classic and modern masterpiece, Cimino’s career never fully recovered from the film’s initial critical and commercial drubbing. He would only go on to direct four more films: 1985’s critically ravaged (but Quentin Tarantino-loved) Year of the Dragon, 1987’s The Sicilian, 1990’s Desperate Hours and Cimino’s final feature film, 1996’s Sunchaser.

While Cimino was notoriously adverse to interviews – he didn’t speak to journalists for a decade following the failure of Heaven’s Gate – he spoke to Rolling Stone in 1980 as part of a feature on that film’s legendary cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond; that Oscar-winning director of photographer died in January.

“What distinguishes Vilmos Zsigmond from other cinematographers is of course talent but, more, physical stamina,” Cimino said at the time. “You just can’t be great without it. On a movie, you often work fourteen-, sixteen-hour days, six days a week, for six months. It is so easy to let up because of fatigue. Vilmos will always say, ‘We know it’s good; is there a way to make it better?'”

Zsigmond added of collaborating with Cimino, “[He] said that when we work together, it’s like playing jazz. He starts with one instrument and then I come in with mine and kick it back and forth. He’s right. The director and the cameraman should act like musicians, but there are other members in the band: the art director, the actors…. The ensemble is important.”

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