Michael Cimino, who directed the Oscar-winning Vietnam War film The Deer Hunter but then saw his career fade with a big-money box office flop, died Saturday at the age of 77.
Besides his grim, moving tale of the Vietnam War, Cimino will be remembered for the budget-busting failure Heaven’s Gate released not long thereafter in the 1980s.
Cimino’s death, first reported by Cannes film festival director Thierry Fremaux and the New York Times, was confirmed by Lt. B. Kim of the Los Angeles County coroner’s office.
Kim told AFP that Cimino was found dead in his Beverly Hills home and that the cause of death is pending.
Watch: Trailer of The Deer Hunter
The Times quoted the director’s friend and former lawyer Eric Weissmann as saying Cimino’s body was found at his 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 gripping 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.
Watch: The Deer Hunter and Michael Cimino winning Best Picture and Directing: 1979 Oscars
At the time, the Times review 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 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 $12 million and about three months to shoot the film.
But he spent more than $40 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 and it was a box office failure.
Variety magazine said the film was “synonymous with showbiz disaster.”
Watch: Trailer of Heaven’s Gate
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.”
Gilles Jacob, a former president of the Cannes festival, praised Cimino on Twitter: “He was my friend. He was a great man.”
Cimino went on to direct four other films, Year of the Dragon (1985), The Sicilian (1987), Desperate Hours (1990) and The Sunchaser (1996).
Variety said that after Heaven’s Gate the rest of Cimino’s films were “mostly footnotes.”
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.
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