Heaven’s Gate

heavensgateHeaven’s Gate is a bummer that killed New Hollywood — as a director-driven force. Still, the movie happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

First, some basics. Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter came out in 1978. It was a hit and it won the Oscar for Best Picture. The new brass at United Artists wanted to be a part of Cimino’s next project. So Cimino signed on to direct a script he had written years before. UA set a budget of $11 million and, right up until the eleventh hour, they gave him carte blanche. He shot a million feet of film and he broke the studio’s trust. In capitalizing his Art, he gutted his financiers – to the tune of $44 mil. When Heaven’s Gate opened with a thud, Cimino, with UA’s consent, pulled the film and recut it. Five months later, UA released a shorter version – by all accounts, a worse film – and it, too, flopped. UA collapsed; heads rolled. (Petty politics aside, Transamerica [UA’s parent company] wrote off the loss, recouping its cash.) The critics pounced on Cimino1 — he made it easy for them.  Cocky, then sorry, he looked as a child.

Really, the movie was a scapegoat. Great directors often fail; Cimino was not the first fathead to “sh*t a pumpkin” that blew through its budget (nor will he be the last). At Long Last Love, Sorcerer, New York New York, 1941: these were expensive bombs. They almost nuked the careers of the directors who made them, but for two things – consequence, clout. Compared to Cimino, each director had more than one hit to his name. None had bankrupted a studio. Cimino’s luck was thus. Had his movie moved, Hollywood might have forgiven him. But no. Heaven’s Gate was a drain, Cimino the worst of the poorly behaved movie brats. The studios were scared. Never again would they give so much power to a director.

And what about the movie?

It is overlong, a ponderous, feel-bad western that says the American dream is rigged (i.e., the rich always win). In other words, it’s a French film academe’s wet dream: a Euro-tized deconstruction of the Old West (as we know it from pop culture), where real heroes don’t exist. The immigrants are shabby and dangerously naïve. The cattle barons are tailored, waxed, and dangerously corrupt.

Creatively speaking, what went wrong?

Well, the lead characters bore. Christopher Walken has a few striking, moody moments, but the actors who play the leads are generally boring. And Cimino’s trimming the film could not have saved it. Flatulently this film was suffused – conceived, even, with flatulence.

There’s almost no forward momentum. Cimino wanted to make everything look authentic. Then, he wanted to shoot it as prettily as possible. (The faces and landscapes are certainly pictorial.)  Then, he couldn’t kill his darlings in the editing room. So the beautiful movie sags.  It is its own world, but the pace is off.

When you think about it, Heaven’s Gate is a great example of how not to make a masterpiece. You see it to rubberneck. That it bankrupted a f*cking studio is just more grist for the anti-auteur mill.

Now let me be. I’m going to watch a Budd Boetticher film.


1Most of them centered on the bad business around the film, not the film itself.

About Jack Cormack

Email Jack at jackyboy916@gmail.com.