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Michael Cimino (1939 – 2016)

by Legacy Staff

Michael Cimino, the Academy Award-winning director of “The Deer Hunter,” died July 2, 2016, according to multiple news sources. His age was believed to be 77.

The news of Cimino’s death was tweeted by Cannes Film Festival director Thierry Fremaux.

Cimino’s crowning achievement in film was “The Deer Hunter” (1978). Starring Robert DeNiro, Christopher Walken, and Meryl Streep, the movie tackled the effects of the Vietnam War on a band of friends from western Pennsylvania. It won five Academy awards, including best picture, best director for Cimino, and best actor in a supporting role for Christopher Walken.


It was selected in 1996 for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. The harrowing Russian roulette scenes, which were very controversial at the time of the film’s release because of their historical inaccuracy, we’re hailed by critics as a brilliant metaphor for the random terror of war.

Cimino himself was a mysterious figure. He often gave conflicting information about his background. He is believed to have been born in New York City in 1939, though he may have been older.

He directed commercials before moving to Los Angeles to break into feature filmmaking. His first credits were as co-writer of the sci-fi film “Silent Running” and the Dirty Harry sequel “Magnum Force.” Clint Eastwood took a liking to Cimino and agreed to star in his directorial debut, “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot.”

With the success of “The Deer Hunter,” Cimino was considered part of a new generation of directors, including Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese, taking over Hollywood. However, his reputation as a temperamental and egotistical director would soon derail his promising career.

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His follow-up film, “Heaven’s Gate” (1980), an epic Western, took 11 months to film and cost almost nine times its original budget. Cimino was largely blamed for these overruns as his perfectionism and obsession with detail, sometimes filming 50 takes of a single shot, slowed the production down. The troubled production was documented in the entertainment press and upon release, the film was dubbed a “box-office bomb.” Its failure contributed to the financial collapse of the backing studio, United Artists.

Though critical evaluations of the film have been more positive in recent years, Cimino’s career was forever scarred by the debacle. He directed four more films, but all of them did poorly at the box office. He retired from filmmaking after the 1996 film, “Sunchaser.”

In later years, he turned to writing, publishing the novel “Big Jane” in 2001. He maintained a low profile, granting few interviews but making occasional appearances at film festivals.

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