Michael Cimino, 'Deer Hunter' director, dead at 77

Story highlights

  • Cimino first made a splash in Hollywood by writing and directing Clint Eastwood movies
  • His bomb "Heaven's Gate" became a cautionary tale about Hollywood excess

(CNN)Director Michael Cimino, whose searing 1978 Vietnam War drama "The Deer Hunter" won five Oscars, including Best Picture, died Saturday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 77.

His death was confirmed by Eric Weissman, Cimino's attorney. No cause of death was given.
    An up-and-coming screenwriter and filmmaker, Cimino hit the jackpot with "The Deer Hunter," which also won him an Oscar for directing. The film starred Robert DeNiro, Christopher Walken and John Savage as working-class buddies in western Pennsylvania who bond over drinking and hunting before being sent to Vietnam, where the horrors of war tear them apart. It also featured Meryl Streep in her first major film role.
    Filmmaker Michael Cimino, at a 2015 event in Switzerland.
    The movie drew praise for its epic sweep, its vivid acting -- DeNiro, Walken and Streep were all nominated for Oscars; Walken won -- and its unflinching depictions of war. It's perhaps best remembered for its pressurized scenes of Russian roulette, in which disillusioned soldiers squared off at rowdy bars with loaded revolvers to their heads.
    A critical and commercial hit, "The Deer Hunter" made the New York-born Cimino one of the hottest young filmmakers in Hollywood. But his success -- he also co-wrote the 1973 Clint Eastwood hit "Magnum Force" -- was short-lived.
    Cimino's next film, "Heaven's Gate," a bloated epic Western about a clash between immigrants and land barons in 1890s Wyoming, was a spectacular bomb. The movie cost a reported $40 million -- an enormous amount at the time -- and its 11-month shoot was plagued by delays and bad press. Rushed out in 1980, it was savaged by critics, earned less than $4 million at the box office and helped sink United Artists, the studio that bankrolled the film.
    Many industry observers say "Heaven's Gate" soured Hollywood on the auteur-driven era of the 1970s and led movie studios to exert more control over their projects and budgets -- if not director's egos -- a trend that endures today.
    The movie also torpedoed Cimino's career. He withdrew from the spotlight and made only four more movies, none of them major hits, although "Year of the Dragon," a 1985 gangster drama starring Mickey Rourke, made a minor splash.
    But Cimino earned a bit of redemption in 2012 and 2013 when a three-hour-and 39-minute "director's cut" of "Heaven's Gate" screened at film festivals to strong reviews.
    "Nobody lives without making mistakes," he told Vanity Fair in 2010. "I never second-guess myself. You can't look back. I don't believe in defeat. Everybody has bumps, but as Count Basie said, 'It's not how you handle the hills, it's how you handle the valleys.'"
    Several of Cimino's fellow filmmakers had kind words for him on social media.
    "Say what you will about Michael Cimino but when he was 'on,' he had more power, fierce intelligence and real vision, than most anyone else," said filmmaker Guillermo del Toro on Twitter.