Aired tonight on Arte, The Duckster, Michael Cimino’s first film, augured a brilliant career for its director. But a historic failure shattered the promising fate of this New Hollywood genius.
On July 2, 2016, the American cinema lost one of its last “mavericks”, a hothead who had everything in hand to transfigure Hollywood: the director Michael Cimino, found inanimate in his house in Beverly Hills, at the age 77 years old. Flashback to the early 1970s, before Spielberg and Lucas ushered in the blockbuster era with Teeth of the Sea and Star Wars. Several filmmakers are shaking up the old world of studios by offering violent, spectacular and sometimes subversive works. They are called Arthur Penn (Bonnie & Clyde), Denis Hopper (Easy Rider), Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather) or Terrence Malick (The wild ride). Among them, a young screenwriter has just stood out by co-signing in quick succession the scripts for Silent Running, a science fiction film by Douglas Trumbull, and Magnum Force, the second episode of Inspector Harry. Clint Eastwood immediately buys the following script of this Michael Cimino who begins to make a name for himself in Hollywood.
Entitled Thunderbolt & Lightfoot in its original version (Le Canardeur in VF), it is a road movie, a genre very popular at the time after the success of Easy Rider, which follows a former bank robber (Clint Eastwood ) flanked by a young outsider (Jeff Bridges), trying to escape other mobsters who accuse him of leaving with the loot of their latest heist. In its modern western style, Le Canardeur already shows the beginnings of a Cimino who is a fine observer of America in what is most primitive. The film made a solid score at the American box office, becoming the 17th biggest success of the year 1974. Confident in its possibilities, the scenario writer refuses several enticing offers because it has in mind an ambitious fresco on Vietnam. It will be Journey to Hell’s End, an epic 3-hour drama starring the best of American actors: Robert de Niro, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep … The film wins 5 Oscars, Cimino now has carte blanche from United Artists for his next project.
If Voyage to the end of hell gave him a glimpse of Hollywood’s seventh heaven, The Door to Heaven will close violently on Michael Cimino. The ego over-inflated by his previous successes, the director develops a reputation of tyrant on the set and multiplies the budget overruns. The American Humane Association even reports numerous acts of cruelty to animals, on the set (decapitated hens, real beef blood, real cockfights …). On the verge of being fired, Cimino fights to the end to keep the final cut of his work. For a final budget of 44 million dollars (an insane figure for the time), The Door of the paradise brings only 3.5 in the United States. The monstrous failure of the film sinks United Artists and symbolizes the end of the dream for a generation of American authors, aspiring to revolutionize Hollywood while sharing their obsessions.
Despite the gradual rehabilitation of La Porte du paradis, Cimino’s career will never recover from this setback. He tries to relaunch his career with The Year of the Dragon, an interesting thriller with Mickey Rourke, then The Sicilian, where Christophe Lambert clumsily tries to follow in the footsteps of Al Pacino in The Godfather. Still entangled in disputes with his producers on the subject of editing, the filmmaker cannot find the grace or the power of his first three films. His last film, Sunchaser, was released in 1996 and went almost unnoticed, despite a presentation at the Cannes Film Festival. He published a detective novel in 2001, Big Jane. His attempts to return to the cinema will never materialize: Cimino is considered a cursed director, whom the studios do not trust. His image of an eccentric recluse does not help his business with Hollywood, nor does his abuse of cosmetic surgery. If the reassessment of his work has never ceased, Michael Cimino’s career leaves a bitter aftertaste, that of the immense waste of rare talent.
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