The Enduring Power of ‘The Deer Hunter’

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In his last dramatic and interminable years, Michael Cimino spent his days in solitude rewatching old movies in the Bel-Air mansion he bought during his heyday. On the rare occasions that he ventured out, he drove a Rolls-Royce he acquired while making The Deer Hunter in 1978, his chauffeur having left long ago, as well as his success.

Even in those final moments, he did everything he could to show a winning image to Hollywood, a town that had ostracized him ever since the colossal Heaven’s Gate fiasco that had bankrupted United Artists during the early ’80s. He had a perpetually ironic, scornful smile, but he was the first to know how pointless, even miserable, that act was. The only thing he had left from his triumphant years was some money, and he would show up at the hangouts of movers and shakers like the Polo Lounge, where he often ended up meeting other outcasts putting on the same act, like Peter Bogdanovich.

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Thanks to Dino De Laurentiis, he had been among the very few who had been given a second chance, but even after the moderate success of 1985’s Year of the Dragon, he had collected another two flops with The Sicilian (1987) and Desperate Hours (1990). He hoped to win the Palme d’Or in Cannes for 1996’s The Sunchaser, but he did not get any awards despite the fact that the jury was chaired by his friend Francis Ford Coppola.

“Francis could have helped me,” he told me one evening in a tone more of despair than anger. Michael Cimino had grown fond of me, or perhaps I was simply one of the few who still treated him with attention and affection. He was thrilled about a retrospective of his films I had organized at the Museum of Moving Images in Queens, and he knew how difficult it had been. His name, as they say in Hollywood, was poison.

In the weeks leading up to the premiere, he read and reread his inaugural speech with the excitement of a first-timer. For too many years, he had been ignored by the press, except for a recurring rumor about an alleged sex change. The loneliness and bitterness prevailed, but it took only a little to get him talking passionately about culture, starting with Vladimir Nabokov’s lessons on Russian literature, which he considered the best reading for understanding the essence of any art. And when he began to speak, he was seductive, infectious. He had a deeper and more eclectic background than most directors, and he loved to talk about architecture, a profession he had graduated in, studying together with Jackson Pollock.

Among the many projects he had failed to complete was an adaptation of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, inspired by the life of Frank Lloyd Wright. Once he kept me up late into the night explaining how he was going to shoot it, quite differently from King Vidor’s 1949 version. He was a witty man, and he had a treasure trove of anecdotes: “In The Sicilian, I offered Dirk Bogarde the role of a prince, but he turned it down,” he said, and then, imitating Bogarde’s English accent, continued, “Darling, how can you offer the role of a prince to a queen?” He would burst out laughing sometimes, then suddenly freeze, as if assaulted by his reality.

One evening he responded coldly to me when I made the mistake of linking the bankruptcy of United Artists to Heaven’s Gate. “They used my film as a scapegoat for a bankruptcy that would have happened anyway, and Hollywood was just waiting to reduce the role of the authors after a string of box office failures, in the same years as Peter [Bogdanovich] with Daisy Miller [and] At Long Last Love, and Billy [Friedkin] with Sorcerer. Shortly after, it would be Marty [Scorsese] with The King of Comedy and Francis with One From the Heart.”

He called colleagues by their first name with a familiarity that no longer was there, and included the surname only to attack the author of a devastating book about his ill-fated masterpiece. “Steven Bach is an alcoholic, how is it possible that even you take him seriously?” Cimino demanded. When we spoke, Bach was the editor of Variety, but at the time of the film, he was an executive at United Artists.

The title of the book Final Cut, The Making of Heaven’s Gate and the Unmaking of United Artists made it clear what Bach thought about the filming process and the results. Even he admitted that there are many extraordinary moments in Heaven’s Gate, although the numbers remain merciless. The initial budget of $7 million became $44 million by the end of production, equal to $200 million in today’s value, against a gross of a mere $1.5 million. To give you an idea of the expenditures on the set, Cimino had a centuries-old oak tree from England transplanted for the opening waltz scene at Harvard, and for each of the 500 extras in formalwear, he arranged an oxygen tank in case they felt sick after the endless number of takes.

Cimino was proud of the film’s final result, and he spoke of it in detail, as if it were unfolding in that very moment in front of him: “In the end what matters is only the film you made.” Just as he was proud of casting Isabelle Huppert instead of Jane Fonda, the studio’s choice. One of the chapters in Bach’s book is titled, “Who the fuck is Isabelle Huppert?” which is what United Artists president Norbert Auerbach shouted when he first heard the French actress’ name. He also told endless anecdotes about the film, starting with Sam Peckinpah visiting the set and drinking the crew’s entire stash of whiskey himself, or Willem Dafoe being fired before he started filming because he burst out laughing at the wrong moment.

After his second, final downfall, Cimino devoted himself to writing, achieving moderate success in France, but his passion remained with cinema, and he attempted until the end to adapt Malraux’s The Human Condition, another book he admired. He often spoke to me about potential financiers disappearing into thin air, adding bitterness and despondency to his severely tested psyche.

Only movies gave him pleasure, and one evening I saw him at the MoMA in New York for a screening of Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew. “There is always something to learn from artists,” he told me, and I was struck by how his body had changed. A terrible car accident had forced him to undergo reconstructive procedures on numerous parts of his body, starting with his face, where plastic surgery had made his features unrecognizable.

The legend of the sex change was born from this mutation. He had become very thin, almost skeletal, and had a slight limp. He resembled Edward Scissorhands, and, like Tim Burton’s character, when he tried to hug someone, he hurt them. It didn’t take long to realize that behind the brusque manner, it was he who had an enormous need for warmth. He was too proud to admit it, and even in the moments when he showed all his fragility, there was always something grand about his ambitions, culture and his outlook on the world, free from any intellectualism and ideology. He had the same attitude as Norma Desmond, the protagonist of Sunset Boulevard, when she says, “I am big, it’s the pictures that got small.”

That evening he made me think of Icarus, who crashed to the ground because he got too close to the sun, or even Prometheus, the titan tormented for eternity for having stolen fire from the gods to give to the humans. This was how he lived his relationship with art, an essential mission to be performed with a religious dedication. The seventh art was his life, and he conceived no difference between genre movies and auteur cinema, as seen in his magnificent debut in 1974 with Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, starring Clint Eastwood. He always found an unexpected and enlightening angle on any film and repeated that his cinematic trinity consisted of Ford, Kurosawa and Visconti, to which he would immediately add David Lean. He spoke of these directors with boundless admiration, being moved to tears by 1973’s Ludwig, which he called “a heart-wrenching self-portrait of Visconti.”

He admired Kurosawa’s way of combining art with spectacle or Ford’s mix of the intimate with the epic. “I’ve never managed to shoot in Monument Valley, it belongs to him,” he confided, and in the tone of his voice, there was deference and reverence.

When he spoke, he studied the reactions of his listener — the joy of sharing had to be mutual — and he once told me how happy he was that the Oscar for directing The Deer Hunter had been presented to him by Coppola, who called him “my colleague and paisà Michael Cimino.” And he was even happier that the best picture Oscar was delivered to him by John Wayne. “A monument of cinema,” he told me, explaining how obtuse film critics were to dislike him for his political views. “The films are good or bad, and the artists are authentic or fake; it is absolutely irrelevant whether they are right, center or left.”

This is what can be said of his most famous film, The Deer Hunter, which is being released again in theaters in a restored copy. Today it is considered an absolute masterpiece, but at the time it was accused of being a reactionary film because of the Russian roulette scene in which the photograph of Ho Chi Minh stands out and for having shown the tragedy of Vietnam starting from the trauma suffered by American soldiers.

I must have seen this extraordinary film at least 10 times, and when he talked about it, Michael would dwell mainly on the wedding scene. Even then he would speak as if he were in the middle of shooting it, and I was always reminded of the amazement, then the excitement I felt the first time I saw that scene with its dilated timing, so anomalous compared to a classic structure. And I still remember the buzz at every screening when two drops of wine fall from the bride and groom’s glasses as they drink in front of the priest. The couple does not notice, but tragedy is about to overwhelm them.

It is shortsighted and limiting to call this great work of art a film about Vietnam. The Deer Hunter is a film about friendship, about the ability to survive, about what Shakespeare called the pangs of despised love, and about how a great country manages to reconcile with itself after a tragedy. Only the ideological obtuseness of those years could have interpreted the sad moment of pride in the finale as triumphalism, with the characters singing “God Bless America.”

There is never a time that I am not moved when John, played by the wonderful character actor George Dzundza, starts crying alone just before he joins his friends and toasts Nick (Christopher Walken), who died playing Russian roulette against Michael (Robert De Niro). It always struck me that the protagonist has the same name as Cimino and I never had the courage to talk to him about it.

“Is this what you want?” Michael had asked him, pointing the gun to his forehead before firing, accepting the risk of death. “Is this what you want?” he repeats, and it is a moment of unbearable tension, and fortunately the shot does not go off. Then it’s Nick’s turn, dragged into the abyss of Russian roulette by a Frenchman who has seduced him by saying, “He who says no to champagne says no to life.”

It is a heartbreaking scene, and every time I see it I hope that Nick will stop, that he will survive, that he will go home with his friend who plunged back into the hell of Saigon to save him. But Nick has chosen death, or perhaps he is already long dead and only his body has survived until that moment. His hallucinated look before the gunshot is an indelible image, like Michael’s tears as he embraces his heartbroken and blood-covered face.

For that performance, Walken won one of the five Oscars the film won, and it is thrilling to see him duet with De Niro, who in another moment that has gone down in history explains to him that when hunting a deer one must fire “only one shot.” It is a matter of loyalty to the animal that only Nick can understand, certainly not the inept Stan, played beautifully by John Cazale, who made the film while seriously ill and died a few months later of leukemia.

But the entire film is full of unforgettable scenes, starting with the whole group of friends singing “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” in a pub. It is their last moment of happiness, and we can understand the psychologies of each from the way they sing, drink, smile, play pool and hint at dance steps. The pub is bathed in darkness and it is sunny outside, but the day is freezing.

Every time I see that sequence again, I feel first of all a deep gratitude for how Michael conceived such a perfect scene and such a wonderful film, and then I am overwhelmed by a feeling of identification, illogical and absurd, toward that group of workers in a Pittsburgh steel factory. Great art comes to this. And I have the same feeling in the film’s most poignant moment, with Michael refusing to attend a party thrown in his honor when he returns from Vietnam.

All his friends and hunting buddies are there waiting for him, including the inept Stan, the passionate John, and even Axel, played by an authentic steelworker named Chuck Aspegren. But Michael prefers to be alone in a motel, in a squalid furnished room we see him suddenly put his hand to his face as if feeling all the pain in the world, as Stanley Myers’ poignant “Cavatina” starts playing. He stands there, alone, as a cut shows us the river slowly flowing through that sad industrial town. Then, the next morning, he goes to see Linda (Meryl Streep), with whom he is in love, knowing that she loves Nick, who remained in Vietnam. It is a pure cinema moment of the highest poetry, made of glances, of things left unsaid, awkward silences and magnificent acting at the service of a direction so great as to be invisible.

We know about Linda that she has an alcoholic father and that she works in a supermarket. Few characters have been told in such an unforgettable way with just a couple of touches of the brush and in the dignity of this woman abused by her father and by life. There is all the strength of her country, which Michael, despite everything, like his protagonist of the same name, continued to love and celebrate.

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