‘Deer Hunter’ director Cimino dead at 77

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WASHINGTON — Michael Cimino, director of the Oscar-winning Vietnam War film The Deer Hunter, has died at the age of 77.

Cimino will also be remembered for the budget-busting flop Heaven’s Gate released not long after his grim tale of the Vietnam war.

His death was reported by Cannes film festival director Thierry Fremaux and by the New York Times, which quoted the director’s friend and former lawyer Eric Weissmann. No cause of death was immediately given.

Weissmann was quoted as saying Cimino’s body was found at his Los Angeles home after friends were unable to reach him by telephone.

The Deer Hunter, released in 1978, was a gut-wrenching tale of a group of American friends in Pennsylvania whose lives were scarred by the Vietnam War.

One of its most famous scenes depicts characters played by Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken, held prisoner by the North Vietnamese army, playing Russian roulette against each other.

The Deer Hunter received nine Oscar nominations and won five, including best picture and best director.

At the time, the Times critique called it “a big, awkward, crazily ambitious, sometimes breathtaking motion picture that comes as close to being a popular epic as any movie about this country since The Godfather”.

In a statement on Saturday De Niro said, “Our work together is something I will always remember. He will be missed.”

But as much as The Deer Hunter was a success, Cimino’s next film was widely panned as a disaster.

Heaven’s Gate, based on a screenplay that Cimino himself wrote, was about migrant homesteaders, rich cattle ranchers, mercenaries and US marshals in the state of Wyoming in the 1890s.

United Artists, which had a history of giving film makers a lot of creative leeway, did so with Cimino on the basis of his big success with The Deer Hunter.

Cimino had a budget of about US$12 million (RM48 million) and about three months to shoot the film for United Artists.

But instead he spent more than US$40 million (RM160 million) and took more than a year to film the movie, the Times reported.

The movie was more than three and a half hours long. It was a box office failure.

Variety magazine said the film was “synonymous with showbiz disaster”.

The Times said that in a 2010 interview with Vanity Fair, Cimino expressed hope that Heaven’s Gate would be viewed as a masterpiece some day.

“Nobody lives without making mistakes,” Cimino said. “I never second-guess myself.”

Cimino went on to direct four other films: Year of the Dragon (1985), The Sicilian (1987), Desperate Hours (1990) and The Sunchaser (1996).

Before his Deer Hunter success, he had directed Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” (1974) starring Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges, who was nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar for his performance.

Cimino had no survivors, Variety reported. — AFP