When Michael Cimino died in 2016, I expressed an ardent wish to read a well-researched and sympathetic biography of him. Here it is: Charles Elton’s “Cimino: The Deer Hunter, Heaven’s Gate, and the Price of a Vision” is as engaging, as fascinating, as revelatory, and as melancholy as one might expect. The book, which was published in March by Abrams, has two main themes: first, how the director’s career was slaughtered by critics’ mockery of his masterwork, “Heaven’s Gate,” when it premièred, in 1980; second, that Cimino presented as a woman, at least in private, for part of the last twenty-five years of his life. Elton doesn’t find or force any significant connections between these two aspects of Cimino’s life, but their link is under the surface, by way of the third main subject of the book: a grand, mysterious love story between Cimino and his principal collaborator, Joann Carelli—a relationship that remained strong from his earliest days as a director to the end of his life.
Every biography could be two books rather than one—the work itself and the nonfiction making-of detailing the journalistic adventures that yield the biographical record. Elton, a longtime agent, producer, and novelist, blends both in “Cimino.” Unlike many of the New Hollywood directors of the nineteen-seventies, whose public and private lives intertwined amid self-promotion or unguardedness, Cimino was very secretive and even brazenly deceptive about many of his personal details, whether about such intimate matters as his romantic life and his family or even about such readily checkable ones as his birth year and his military service. As a result, Elton’s research is filled with false leads and surprising connections, and it led him to subjects whose meetings with the author are themselves the stuff of high drama. Elton delights in the practical details of these encounters—how he locates people, where they meet. He connects with relatives of Cimino’s whose existence the filmmaker denied, and he also encounters a faux relative with whom Cimino nonetheless associated. Even with the conflicting stories and recollections, Cimino’s leading role as a character in his own self-created mythology develops stepwise along with his cinematic vocation and career—and is reflected in the aura of wonder and mystery with which the people in his orbit are enduringly tinged. And, when the legend eventually overtook the career, Cimino loomed as an awe-inspiring, cautionary, even tragic presence on the margins of Hollywood and at the center of film history.
Unlike such contemporaneous directorial heroes as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, and Brian De Palma, Cimino didn’t grow up as a cinephile. He wasn’t a film critic, didn’t go to film school, and came to movies nearly by accident. Born in New York City and raised in a middle-class Italian American family in Westbury, Long Island, Cimino was a gifted artist. He graduated from Michigan State with a degree in graphic arts and, in 1963, got his M.F.A. in painting from Yale, where he “would hang around” the drama school and would find his calling in narrative and spectacle. (He also, Elton discovered, changed the pronunciation of his name from his family’s way, “Sim-i-no,” to the now familiar “Chi-mee–no.”) Moving to Manhattan, he found a job with an advertising-design firm, decided to direct commercials, and studied film technique by associating with prominent colleagues. A quick learner, Cimino, by 1965, commanded high pay as a commercial director (he soon bought himself a Rolls-Royce) and, by 1967, earned acclaim as an extraordinarily original commercial director—and an extraordinarily artistically controlling and demanding one. Then, in 1971, he went to Hollywood.
Carelli, an advertising artist who had represented Cimino in his commercial work (whether officially or not—one advertising producer called her Cimino’s “handler”), was his professional partner. She was present as his collaborator and behind-the-scenes counsellor and conscience for most of his career. (Elton writes, “Cimino had an entourage of one.”) When he moved to Hollywood, so did she. Many who knew them assumed that they were a couple, but neither Carelli nor Cimino ever said as much. Carelli gave very few interviews and stayed out of the public eye. Elton’s story of their initial discussions and their many encounters has a novelistic flair, as in his account of their first conversation, by phone: “ ‘This is Joann Carelli,’ she said in a guttural, unreconstructed New York accent. ‘I’m not going to tell you anything.’ ” But she turns out to be a key interview subject in “Cimino.”
Carelli advised Cimino that, if he wanted to direct in Hollywood, he’d have to write scripts—which is to say, first, he’d have to learn to do so. (Elton emphasizes that, at that time, no other TV-commercial director of note had had any success in Hollywood, although that career path became increasingly common by the nineteen-eighties.) As with commercial directing, Cimino learned screenwriting quickly, from others, yet not quite in the same way. Cimino collaborated with other writers, but removed their names before showing the scripts around. His methods were Machiavellian, and they worked. He was a co-writer of the post-apocalyptic “Silent Running,” with Bruce Dern; he revised the script for “Magnum Force,” starring Clint Eastwood; and he wrote a script on spec for Eastwood, “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot”—and, when Eastwood decided to produce and star in it, Cimino added the proviso that he be allowed to direct it as his first feature.
“Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” focusses on a former bank robber (Eastwood), whose past accomplices are chasing him; he escapes with a young rover (Jeff Bridges), and they team up with the accomplices to pull one final heist. Eastwood, a strict and economical producer, gave Cimino three days of shooting to prove himself. Cimino stuck religiously to the schedule and the budget, and Eastwood was pleased with his direction. The movie was a commercial success and received good reviews and an Oscar nomination (Bridges, for Best Supporting Actor). But it opened few doors for Cimino. He went back to writing—including a bio-pic of Janis Joplin that ended up being made without her name involved, as “The Rose,” starring Bette Midler—and he tried and failed to get financing for his dream project, a new adaptation of Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead.” It wasn’t until late 1976 that he got the green light on another film, “The Deer Hunter,” a drama about three young men from a working-class town in western Pennsylvania whose service in the Vietnam War proves horrific.
“The Deer Hunter” was financed by an upstart studio, the U.S. division of EMI. Its producers were hungry for a prestigious hit, but, Elton says, “for tax reasons,” the production had to start quickly. In the mad rush to get the shoot up and running by March, 1977, the studio placed fewer checks on Cimino than were customary for a big-budget film. He brought in another writer, Deric Washburn, with whom he’d previously worked, and, again, removed his collaborator’s name from the script. (It was restored in Writers Guild arbitration.) He selected a wide range of locations—spread across the country (from Pennsylvania to Washington) and, indeed, around the world (Thailand)—that would provide the film with the authenticity and the detail that he sought. It was reported that, because the hunting in the movie took place in the fall but was filmed in the summer, leaves were painted yellow and pasted on trees. Cimino shipped two large deer to the hills, where thirty crew members carried them over in crates. The movie’s great set piece, a Russian Orthodox wedding scene, required two hundred and fifty extras; it was ten pages in the script, and Cimino told his producer that it would be aptly brief onscreen. But, in Cimino’s first cut, that one scene ran seventy-five minutes. In Thailand, they filmed amid a military coup. By the end of the production, Cimino had shot about a hundred hours of footage, and the budget had doubled, from $7.5 million to fifteen million dollars. He was contractually obligated to bring the film in under two hours, or else lose his right to final cut. The producers granted him an extra half hour; Cimino wouldn’t cut it below three hours. He snuck his cut out of the editing room, showed it privately to influential industry people, and orchestrated a pressure campaign that worked—because the film, at that length, proved overwhelmingly moving to those who saw it.
Cimino was a master tactician. He figured out how to manipulate the system and its power wielders in the interest of making his films as he saw fit. As good as “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” is, it hardly suggests the enormous scope of Cimino’s vision. He was already in his late thirties, and “The Deer Hunter” had been his great chance to catch up to his peers—and he made good on it. His sense of drama is inseparable from his sense of spectacle; his art is a granular and sensory one that shares a fanatical eye for graphic detail with his work in commercials. In directing “The Deer Hunter,” Cimino was cunning, duplicitous, peremptory, and it worked. The film garnered rave reviews, was a box-office hit, and received nine Oscar nominations and won five, including Best Director and Best Picture.