Michael Cimino, Oscar-Winning Director of ‘The Deer Hunter,’ Dies at 77

Cannes Film Festival director Thierry Fremaux revealed the news on Twitter

michael cimino

Michael Cimino, Oscar-winning director of “Deer Hunter” and “Heaven’s Gate,” has died at the age of 77.

Cannes Film Festival director Thierry Fremaux revealed the news on Twitter Saturday, saying, “Michael Cimino has died, in peace, surrounded by friends and the two women who love him. We love him too.” Details of his death have not been disclosed.

Cimino directed a total of seven feature films in his career but is best known for the 1978 post-Vietnam War drama “The Deer Hunter,” which earned five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actor for Christopher Walken.

In addition to “The Deer Hunter,” one of the most acclaimed films of American cinema, Cimino also directed “Heaven’s Gate,” widely recognized as one of the most epic flops in Hollywood history — at least upon its initial release in 1980.

A New York City native who got his start shooting commercials, Cimino was tapped by producer-actor Clint Eastwood to make his feature directing debut on Eastwood’s 1974 thriller “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot.”

He then pitched an ambitious Vietnam War drama to EMI executives. “The Deer Hunter” came out in 1978 and starred Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and John Savage as three friends and fellow soldiers who fight in the war and then struggle to rebuild their lives afterwards back on the homefront.

The film also featured Meryl Streep, in only her second big-screen role, and Streep’s then-fiancé, John Cazale, in his final screen performance before his death from lung cancer in 1978.

The director followed up “The Deer Hunter” with “Heaven’s Gate” in 1980, given mostly free range due to the success of his previous film.

Unfortunately, the 1980 Western became an unmitigated disaster both for critics and audiences alike. The film earned only $3 million on a $44 million budget, leading to the downfall of the film’s distributor, United Artists.

UA was sold by parent company the Transamerica Corporation, which got so spooked by the box office performance of “Heaven’s Gate” that it abandoned film production altogether.

In the years since, “Heaven’s Gate” has been viewed much more favorably, and a 2012 restoration of the director’s full, uncut version bolstered a critical re-evaluation of the film.

Fremaux told The Village Voice in 2013 that the film should now be regarded “not merely as a movie deserving of a better reputation but as one of the masterpieces of world cinema.”

Cimino made four more movies after “Heaven’s Gate,” 1985’s “Year of the Dragon,” 1987’s “The Sicilian,” 1990’s “Desperate Hours” and 1996’s “Sunchaser,” but none received the critical acclaim or box office success of his earlier work, due in part to the taint of “Heaven’s Gate.”

Notoriously dodgy with press, Cimino often gave out contradictory versions of his life and history, including his birth date, though it is generally accepted as being in the year 1943.