Michael Cimino Revisits His Notorious Flop 'Heaven's Gate'

Maybe it was a masterpiece all along?

"This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." So goes the adage from John Ford's 1962 classic The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and so it has gone for Heaven's Gate, the class-war Western written and directed by one of Ford's truest disciples among contemporary American filmmakers: Michael Cimino. Released in a single New York cinema in the fall of 1980, then hastily pulled by its beleaguered distributor, United Artists, Heaven's Gate was reissued the following year in a drastically cut version and has lived on in the pop lexicon as a euphemism without context—shorthand for large-scale Hollywood excess and failure, named for a movie that few audiences of the past three decades have been able to properly see to judge for themselves.

Now, finally, the winds of change have begun to blow favorably upon Heaven's Gate. A stunning new restoration produced by the Criterion Collection and supervised by Cimino has brought the film back before audiences in its full, uncut glory, beginning with special presentations at last fall's Venice and New York film festivals, where it received enthusiastic standing ovations. The New York screening—a return to "the scene of the crime," as a visibly emotional Cimino commented onstage afterward—came as particularly sweet vindication for the filmmaker, as did an accompanying headline, "Time Has Been Kind to Heaven's Gate," in The New York Times (whose then-lead film critic, Vincent Canby, eviscerated the movie in 1980).

Last October, Heaven's Gate screened on the closing night of France's Grand Lyon Film Festival, a celebration of classic films organized by the Institut Lumière, the film museum located on the grounds of the former photography factory where brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière produced some of the world's first motion pictures. The screening took place in a converted gymnasium before an audience of more than 4,000 spectators, and the reaction was once again ecstatic. Later that evening, at a dinner in Cimino's honor held at a small Lyonnais bistro, longtime Lumière Institute program director Thierry Frémaux proclaimed that the time had come to regard the film not merely as a movie deserving of a better reputation, but also as one of the masterpieces of world cinema.

Courtesy Criterion

"All of those years, I felt like Heaven's Gate was a beautiful, fantastically colored balloon tied to a string fastened to my wrist, so the balloon could never fly," Cimino says over dinner at Marino, the Melrose Avenue Italian haunt where he goes when he doesn't want to be recognized. It is, he says, the kind of place where you can show up in your pajamas, though on this particular evening, he's wearing an elegant, snap-button denim shirt and amber sunglasses to shade his sensitive eyes. "When Thierry said what he said, I just felt so light," he continues. "I thought, 'Finally, the movie is off on its own. It's floating freely and going up into the clouds.'"

Based on a real-life incident that Cimino first discovered while researching the history of barbed wire in the West, Heaven's Gate depicts a bloody 1890 land battle between poor, predominantly Eastern European homesteaders and wealthy cattle barons in the frontier territory of Johnson County, Wyoming.

To authentically re-create the period, Cimino built an entire Western town on the movie's Montana location and transported a working steam locomotive from a Denver museum. (An ad for Kodak film stock in Variety featured the director and train beneath the boldfaced quotation, "If you don't get it right, what's the point?"—this could be a mantra for Cimino's entire career.)

That fastidious attention to detail is hardly for naught: Watching Heaven's Gate, you feel a sensory immersion in the world of Johnson County—the precise textures of costumes and props, the faces of thousands of extras who seem to have stepped out of old daguerrotypes—nearly forgotten at the movies in the CGI era. Which is to say nothing of the landscape photography of Cimino and cameraman Vilmos Zsigmond, in which characters disappear into billowing dust and low clouds loom portentously on the horizon. It is said that Cimino, as with David Lean before him, spent days waiting for light and weather to perfectly align, but he was right to do so, for not only is Heaven's Gate one of the most visually ravishing films ever made, but it's also one in which the beauty of the images is matched by the meaning they carry.

"This is going to sound corny as hell, but you have to be at one with that place," says Cimino, who fell in love with the West as a young man and has returned to it time and again in both the films he has made and the many he hasn't (among the latter a planned adaptation of Frederick Manfred's novel Conquering Horse, about the Dakota Indians before the arrival of the white man). "The Indians believe all things have spirit—even the hail that comes from the sky is spirit. If you believe that, which I implicitly do, everything is alive. You can have this incredibly gorgeous frame, magically lit, and you get the actors there, and just as you're ready to roll, a little cloud comes in front of the sun, and the shot turns to shit. So you've got a choice: Do you shoot it looking utterly mediocre, or do you wait? And the mountain knows you're looking at your watch. And the mountain says, 'I'm going to test this joker.' Because the mountain doesn't automatically give you its beauty; it sees if you're equal to it. If you prove that you are, it will allow you to see it."

Cimino was so wounded by the initial rejection of Heaven's Gate that he didn't watch the film again until the combined wooing of Criterion and his longtime producer, Joann Carelli, convinced him to sit down in a digital studio on the Sony Pictures lot in Culver City and begin the lengthy restoration process. In addition to trimming several minutes from the running time and removing the intermission, he radically revisited the film's color palate, bringing back the vibrant greens, blues and browns that had been muted by a sepia haze in the original release prints.

But Cimino's greatest pleasure lay in rediscovering the work of the film's actors, particularly stars Kris Kristofferson and Isabelle Huppert (in her first English-language role), who were largely ignored by critics in their rush to crucify the director. "This thing was shot over a period of four seasons, and the consistency of their work, I think, is remarkable," he says. "I was just flabbergasted at how intense each of the performances were."

Today, it's easy to see Heaven's Gate as a victim of circumstance—it arrived in theaters two weeks after the election of Ronald Reagan, whose promise of a new "morning in America" contrasted sharply with Cimino's vision of the 99 percent mercilessly crushed by the 1 percent. Its arrival also coincided with a Hollywood sea change, away from the iconoclastic writer/directors and character-driven films that defined American cinema in the '70s and toward a new blockbuster model. (Three of the 1980s' top-10 box-office attractions were sequels: The Empire Strikes Back, Any Which Way You Can, and Smokey and the Bandit II.)

In the decades since, Cimino has managed to direct just four features, up to and including 1996's Sunchaser, featuring Woody Harrelson in a career-best performance as a tightly wound cancer surgeon kidnapped by one of his own patients. Like most of Cimino's post-Heaven's Gate work, it was subject to interference from its producers, barely released and well-worth a second look.

Yet for all of the knocks he has taken, Cimino remains markedly optimistic and forward-thinking. He continues to write screenplays and develop new projects and says that when people ask him to name his favorite of his own films, he answers, "The one I haven't made yet."

After the dinner plates have been cleared and the restaurant has emptied out, he tells me, "It's one of the things that movies do offer you, despite all of their hardships—they offer you moments of transcendence. We all want to experience that in our lives, a moment when we're 2 feet off the ground, and making movies gives you that opportunity. It comes and it goes so fast that it's unreal, but it does happen.

"What other reason is there?" he adds. "Michelangelo spent a couple of years on his back with paint dropping into his eyes while some crazy pope was off fighting wars. What else was he doing it for?"

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