How much money would you trust this person with?
For Clint Eastwood in 1974, the answer to that question was $4m. Eastwood’s Malpaso Productions trusted Cimino, who had cowritten Eastwood’s Magnum Force a year prior, to direct the actor and costar Jeff Bridges in Cimino’s first feature, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, a buddy comedy about a bank robber (Eastwood) and a car thief (Bridges) thrown together by calamity on a meditative road trip. Despite his inexperience, Cimino completed the movie on-time and on-budget. In the wake of Easy Rider, unconventional road movies were popular at the time, and Thunderbolt was no exception. It grossed a respectable $25m and was received well by critics. It was not huge success by New (or old) Hollywood standards, but everything about it implied Cimino had a talent for much more than commercials advertising discounted airfare.
For his next trick, Cimino pulled off something remarkable. 1978’s The Deer Hunter is the story of three blue-collar friends from small-town Pennsylvania who eagerly depart for Vietnam, only to be forever changed by a horrific and traumatizing experience there. The story ends with their lives in seemingly irreparable ruin as a result. The film was a veritable all-star team of the era’s new talent, with a cast that included Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Savage, Meryl Streep, and John Cazale, all photographed by one of the greatest cinematographers of all time, Vilmos Zsigmond.
Who wrote The Deer Hunter? This is not unlike asking Michael Cimino’s age. The film’s central metaphor, and the source of its biggest controversy, are the scenes of Russian roulette throughout the movie. Surprisingly, the origin of these appears to be an unproduced 1968 screenplay called The Man Who Came to Play, about a group of men who play the deadly game in Las Vegas, which had been purchased in 1968 when studio EMI began expanding from music into film. The Russian roulette element is probably the extent of the substance of The Man Who Came to Play that remains in The Deer Hunter, other than both projects concerning a group of men. The Deer Hunter that you see on screen reflects a very specific intent to make a film about the war.
Cimino would say, and he claimed this until he died, that he wrote the movie. All parties concede that writer Deric Washburn was hired to pen the project. As Cimino told it, Washburn had delivered a screenplay that was a shambles: “I just could not believe what I read. It was like it was written by somebody who was … mentally deranged. He was totally stoned on scotch, out of his frigging mind. He started crying and screaming and yelling, ‘I can’t take the pressure! I can’t take the pressure!’ He was like a big baby.”” Putting aside the credibility of Michael Cimino referring to another person as “out of his mind,” let alone a “big baby,” the only person who appears to second this account is his longtime producer and probable lover, Joann Carelli. Washburn’s version is the opposite: “It’s all nonsense. It’s lies. I didn’t have a single drink the entire time I was working on the script.” Washburn concedes he was under immense pressure to complete the screenplay, but insists that other than three days of mapping out the plot, Cimino contributed nothing to the process. To Vanity Fair in 2008, he described a dramatic scene, fitting for the Harvard-educated playwright he is, wherein Carelli delivered his walking papers over dinner: “We finished, and Joann looks at me across the table, and she says, ‘Well, Deric, it’s fuck-off time.’ I was fired. It was a classic case: you get a dummy, get him to write the goddamn thing, tell him to go fuck himself, put your name on the thing, and he’ll go away. I was so tired, I didn’t care. I’d been working 20 hours a day for a month. I got on the plane the next day, and I went back to Manhattan and my carpenter job.” For what it’s worth, the dispute went before a neutral decision-maker: the Writers Guild settled the issue, awarding Washburn sole credit for The Deer Hunter. In fairness, WGA arbitration is a process famous for excluding writers who contributed a great deal to a project in favor of limiting the number of names who get an official credit, but I have never heard a story about sole credit being given to an unfamous writer who delivered a draft that was of the sort Cimino describes. The WGA process involves reading the various drafts, so they knew what Washburn turned in, and how it may have differed from what ended up in the movie, and they chose to exclude Cimino entirely. Whatever the truth of Cimino’s contribution may be, there’s no possible way it’s anything like what he claimed it was in interviews.
Cimino’s craft as a director was, by all accounts, more than detail-oriented. But here is one example, especially pertinent to this discussion, from the Vanity Fair piece published upon Deer Hunter‘s 30th anniversary in 2008:
De Niro, as is his custom, had done meticulous research for the project, speaking to a number of veterans. Cimino gave him a wallet with the actor’s picture and his character’s name on a driver’s license along with family photos that belonged to a real veteran. According to Walken, the director also gave the cast a photo of a dozen or so children which he said held great significance for him, although he declined to reveal what that was.
All of this is odd, but odd is not unusual in filmmaking, and it was even very normal in the context of the New Hollywood. De Niro and Walken are both New York actors known for their eccentric methods of preparation, and these things very well might have helped in their craft. What is noteworthy here is the driver’s license. It signals that, as far back as 1977, Cimino was in the habit of creating fake documents, which reframes whatever you want to call the event of his showing that passport to Vanity Fair in 2002 to lie about his age. There may be other eccentric directors who have a record, in the press, of forging identity documents for reasons both professional and personal, but I know of none.
The Deer Hunter had a limited release in December of 1978 to qualify for the Academy Awards. It was immediately raved about by many critics, and just as immediately despised by others. As one of the first big movies that tried to reconcile the American experience with the Vietnam war, controversy was perhaps inevitable.
I first saw the film as a teenager. Despite a cynicism that was somehow greater at 16 than it is today at 37, I was moved by it. Being born in 1982, the only feelings I had attached to the war were based on the residual traces of it that hung over the eighties: the POW MIA movement, a visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall in Washington when I was 11, and whatever other movies I had seen up to that point, of which there were several. But while Platoon and Forrest Gump may have presented depictions of the war at opposite poles, The Deer Hunter is really of another character entirely. Because the film is separated into three distinct (very long) acts, which comprise before the characters go to war, moments from that grueling experience, and their lives afterward, the viewer is rarely spared discomfort. The first act is a leisurely, often beautiful experience where we live last joys in the characters’ lives along with them, almost in real time. That first act serves to make the subsequent two all the harder to bear, as we are presented with a series of horrors, or one horror that is so terrible it colors everything that comes after it, also in what often feels like real time. I thought The Deer Hunter was a great film, and I never wanted to watch it again. To this day, I’ve only seen it three times in my life.
I moved to Hollywood in my mid-twenties. One day, I was browsing in a dirty, crowded shop of miscellaneous memorabilia; the kind of place that exists less and less in Los Angeles as property values reach for new heights. Combing through a large box of what were little more than scraps of paper, I discovered a small poster for The Deer Hunter; what was once referred to as a “lobby card.” It had a small crease but was otherwise in excellent shape. The proprietor sold it to me for 50¢. I took it home and framed it.
When I began to read critically about The Deer Hunter, what most surprised me was the controversy the film generated when it was released. By many, it was judged to be a revision of history at odds with the agreed upon conception of the war common to the mainstream American left. What was shocking to me about this analysis was how at-odds with my experience of the movie it was: I had believed The Deer Hunter to be perhaps the most anti-war film I had ever seen. It presents an image of the war that LBJ or Richard Nixon would have never conceded to have existed, let alone endorsed. If it says something about the war, it is that the war was a nightmare that ruined the people drawn into it, even the ones who left it with their lives and limbs intact. The idea that the war was worth fighting, the main contention of its defenders to this day, is utterly off the table when this film concludes its 183-minute running time.
Despite its conclusion nearly 45 years ago, the Vietnam War remains a third rail in American discourse. I hesitate to express any opinion about it, particularly because that opinion tends to incite true believers at both poles of the subject. While popular culture likes to pretend all baby boomers were antiwar hippies, this is clearly untrue. Many were squares. Many hippies subsequently converted to squares and changed their view. Some squares are now in line with the hippie view. However, way too many people in at least the first two groups are just unwilling to confront the idea that they may have spent their youth accepting facts without reexamining them critically as history has progressed. Of the hawkish right, the most generous view, as I can discern it, is that this costly (50,318 American lives and one trillion in today’s dollars) and misguided war was undertaken mainly as a proxy fight with America’s very powerful enemies, none of them named Vietnam, and that engaging in that fight may have served to help forestall a devastating nuclear conflict on a world scale. Of their opponents on the left, the similarly generous view is that they opposed what was truly an unjust fight that devastated a nation, that it was further unjust to drop young Americans in the middle of that fight, and that the support which many of them expressed for the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong, despite identifying as “anti-war,” was based only on ignorance of the reality that these groups were as “pro-war” as anybody sitting in the Pentagon. On all sides, the people who actually fought the war were probably people who had no other choice, because freewill is often illusory, so that even those who enlisted voluntarily were not selecting that option in a rational calculus that wavered between it and joining a peace demonstration at Berkley. And in any case, that false choice is obviously still much more of a choice than any native Vietnamese, who were inarguably set upon from all sides, had. Of those who served on all sides, most served honorably, some served terribly. Historical scholarship has produced little but a series of horrors about the conflict in the ensuing years. How many were honorable or terrible, on which side, and when? What does a pie chart of it look? I can’t tell you, and neither can anyone else, with any accuracy. Do you have an opinion about who was right and who was wrong? What would the pie chart have to look like for you to reconsider it, specifically, numerically? Most of the worst parts of the war, are things which are true of all wars.
It’s common to see World War II as just, and Vietnam as unjust, but a civilian incinerated by an allied bomb at Dresden or Hiroshima might look with envy upon the millions of Vietnamese who suffered disability or illness from exposure to Agent Orange, but nevertheless got to keep living. Of course, plenty of Vietnamese were killed just as dead by American bombs and bullets. In violence perpetrated by all sides, as many as four million Vietnamese may have been killed during the war.
Many complained The Deer Hunter was racist. This is not an example of people making something out of nothing. In the film, the white people are mostly victims, and the Asian people, or at least the ones who have lines, are mostly monsters. If you are the type of person who reads every movie as a statement about the races you see on screen, you will probably judge this movie to be racist. What’s strange is how specific this complain is to The Deer Hunter. The movie contains arguably fewer depictions of actual racism than almost any other Vietnam movie. The cliched racial slurs directed at the Vietnamese are not constantly spewing from the soldiers’ mouths. The racism is mainly evidenced by the horrors the perpetrated by the Viet Cong—which, incidentally, actually substantially toned down from some almost comically atrocious ones that appeared in earlier drafts of the script.
I accept this critique as valid. The film lacks positive portrayals of the Vietnamese, but the film is also very limited in its scope. What I don’t accept is that Coppola’s Apocalypse Now—wherein native Southeast Asians are cattle-like savages who fall under the spell of a charismatic white leader—isn’t subject to the same critique. Even more egregious is Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, which literally inspired a generation of racists to weaponize its portrayals against Asian women (in addition to inspiring the rappers in 2 Live Crew, and Sir Mix-a-Lot.) But those movies also depict the United States as a horrible force in a way The Deer Hunter doesn’t, other than as obliterators through bombing of a village, which I still think is pretty bad. But again, the film’s scope is pretty limited. It doesn’t attempt to tell the story of the war, but rather a personal one of characters caught in it.
This problem with The Deer Hunter highlights one of the primary problems (and there are many) filmmakers face when their work is perceived as a statement about race that they didn’t intend.
This issue is complex. Take another example, this one seemingly benign: Overlord is a 2018 horror/action movie about a group of American paratroopers who, landing in France on the eve of D-Day, encounter Nazi science run amok in the form of human beings who have been transformed into super-zombies. It’s a decent movie, certainly above average for what that description implies, particularly in its special effects and the pedigree that comes with giving J.J. Abrams a producer credit. But I noticed one thing very striking in the film’s opening moments: the paratrooper unit is depicted as containing both black and white service members. The problem is that the Armed Forces were segregated until Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981 in July of 1948, four years after this movie takes place. Though about a million of them served in World War 2, black soldiers were treated as unequal, and denied assignments and opportunities to participate extended to white soldiers. This is the unfortunate reality of an event in American history which popular culture now chooses to remember as exclusively defined by heroism.
But what were the producers of Overlord to do? Representation of various demographics in a film like this is essential economically, but it’s also just the right thing to do at this point in history. Personally, I think the performance of black actor Jovan Adepo is central to what makes this a decent movie, and it wouldn’t be worthwhile without him. This movie did not create much of a controversy for its revising of history (it barely recouped its budget and went unnoticed by most people altogether), but nevertheless at least one outlet (Inverse) asked Adepo about it. He told them, “We’re not trying to make a historical movie,” and went on to suggest the film takes place in an “alternate universe.” This isn’t a bad answer, and I will say, the liberties taken with the historical record did not affect my ability to enjoy Overlord. But I wished they hadn’t overlooked it, and expected me to overlook it, when the writers could have just as easily crafted there story so that fate had thrown together a black unit with a white one, in order to achieve the same result. I would prefer this route because, I know, somewhere in America, a seventeen year-old is seeing this movie (and ones like it) and basing his knowledge of American history thereupon. I know this, because I was a seventeen year-old who believed things I saw in movies, if I didn’t have reason not. I suppose Overlord‘s historical rewrite would be closer to harmless if we were living in an America in which racism had been eradicated for the plague it is, but anyone who pays attention knows we’ve got a long way to go. Even in that case, it would still be wrong to erase from history the real struggles and real heroism black Americans experienced and displayed during the war, which are often cited as being one impetus for the civil rights movement.
And this all begs the question: how should the Overlord producers actually create their movie? If they had told a story exclusively about white characters, they would be arguably racist for lacking diversity. But as it stands, they’ve erased the suffering of a minority group from history, which there’s an equally good argument to be made is more harmful. But even if they took my advice, and created a story about two groups forced by a plot point to become intertwined (in this schlocky horror movie) they would risk being accused of treating issues of race with an inappropriate degree of sensitivity. So the movie exists as it is, and ultimately, and had Overlord been much more successful, I have no doubt it would have gotten much more criticism on this point.
And this is the danger of racism that exists with The Deer Hunter; that someone will see this movie and choose to form an impression of Asian people based on what they see the only Asian characters of consequence in the film do. As in my critique of Overlord, beyond the implicit (or explicit) racism of the situation, the other ground upon which Deer Hunter was challenged was its historical accuracy. In the film’s most famous sequence, the main characters have become prisoners of war, and they are forced to play Russian roulette (this being the thing borrowed from The Man Who Came to Play) by their Viet Cong captors. It is among the most tense scenes in the history of cinema. I defy anyone to watch it without having a visceral reaction. This scene sparked (it isn’t Cimino-esque hyperbole to say) a global, negative reaction. Aside from the many critics who took issue, Peter Arnett, who won the Pulitzer Prize for covering the war, said in the LA Times, “In its 20 years of war, there was not a single recorded case of Russian roulette … The central metaphor of the movie is simply a bloody lie.” Elsewhere, at the 1979 Berlin Film Festival, the Soviet delegation, joined by other socialist states, withdrew their films in protest of The Deer Hunter.
Today, the most famous Vietnam veteran in the United States is, far and away, Senator John McCain. He is more famous than he was when he died in 2018 after a protracted battle with brain cancer. McCain had been a household name since at least his bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000, but whether he was the nation’s most well-known veteran was often competitive with his Democratic counterpart, former Secretary of State (and Senator) John Kerry. But in the summer of 2015, McCain shot way ahead of Kerry, and he’s remained there since, even in death. Kerry might take the lead again, but for now it appears McCain’s position in history as the face of the Vietnam veteran is cemented by the events of that summer, and those that followed. This is because in July of that year, then-candidate Donald Trump made these remarks before an audience in Iowa: “He’s not a war hero,” said Trump of McCain, “He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.” The words were met with immediate, sweeping, public scorn, even by the audience Trump was addressing.
The comments exposed Trump, to the extent it wasn’t already obvious, as someone who never thought any further about Vietnam than the distance to his own allegedly bone-spurred feet. But they energized many against Donald Trump who had previously ignored him, and illustrated why McCain remains the revered figure that the current president, though he holds that office, can never be. Politically, McCain was never widely popular. He was a “maverick” in his own party, a designation which brought him positive press on occasion, but does not inspire trust in one’s colleagues in a political party. This didn’t do him any substantive favors in the other party either, with whom he was never quite aligned enough on any issue—at least until one of his final senate votes opposing Trump’s will—to secure a following. What he did have was the respect of nearly everyone in public life except Trump, and the public at large. He was, by most accounts, an honorable person. But the specific way people from all corners sprang to the McCain’s defense over Trump’s despicable remarks was due in no small part to certain details of the story which the former Reality TV personality’s paraphrasing neglected. McCain was not just a veteran. He was not just a prisoner of war. John McCain was tortured.
McCain was shot down over North Vietnam while serving as a naval aviator in 1967. After living through that, he was captured, and imprisoned in what was ironically called the “Hanoi Hilton,” and not released until 1973. During his captivity, he was subject to beatings several times a week so that his captors might extract propaganda statements from him, which he would be forced to sign under duress. Of the experience, he later wrote: “I had learned what we all learned over there: every man has his breaking point. I had reached mine.” And it should be noted that McCain, during this time, was receiving “special” treatment by the North Vietnamese, because they were aware his father was a very powerful naval commander in the war, and believed he might be a unique propaganda tool. McCain refused a release out of sequence with the men held alongside him, citing US military policy.
But McCain’s torture was not unique. According to the accounts of POWs, prisons in the war were places where such atrocities as murder, beatings, broken bones, teeth and eardrums, dislocated limbs, starvation, the serving of food contaminated with human and animal feces, and medical neglect of infections and tropical disease occurred. Torture occurred in many circumstances in the war, by parties on all sides. The Viet Cong, just as see you in the movie, did perpetrate massacres of civilians, particularly at Huế. The South Vietnamese are certainly reputed to have been as bad as their enemies, if not worse, and Americans are not without blame for that, in addition to the extensive recorded atrocities by American personnel, such as the Mỹ Lai Massacre, where US soldiers mutilated, raped, and murdered over 500 civilians, most of whom were old men, women, and children.
But what about any of this matters for the context of The Deer Hunter, and its controversial Russian roulette sequence? The particulars are different. Characters in the movie are tortured by the Viet Cong, a marginally different group than the North Vietnamese, who tortured McCain. The events occur not in a prison, but in a rural setting. The atrocity is not any of those enumerated above, but forced participation in the deadly game. And of course, the film does not portray American personnel committing horrors like My Lai. All of that said, what is the scope of the “bloody lie” that Arnett took exception to? Yes, it would appear the historical record does not include Russian roulette, but it does include the horrific torture of McCain and others. It’s also not Vietnam that you see in the movie, but rather Thailand. Is that problematic? What I’m getting at is what defenders of the movie, Roger Ebert among them, contended at the time: the artistic license taken with the material isn’t qualitatively different than the reality of what the war was. This is quite different than a biographical film that unfairly maligns a specific historical figure through the presentation of events that never occurred, or one that unreasonably lionizes such a figure by purposely excising similar events that did. Consider Arnett’s sentence again in full: “The central metaphor of the movie is simply a bloody lie.” If it were the presentation of actual events that had happened, it wouldn’t really be a metaphor, would it?
While the movie did have its eloquent defenders, Michael Cimino was not among them. He did a series of things which, if this all were to happen today, would have made the situation much worse and destroyed the movie’s reputation forever.
The trouble began before the controversy over the movie. Many people who worked on The Deer Hunter have said that they believed the material was drawn from Cimino’s own Vietnam experiences. The claim most often repeated is smaller than that, which is that Cimino was a medic attached to a Green Beret unit in Texas, but never sent to Vietnam. This is also a lie. The origin of this detailed version is an interview Cimino gave to The New York Times‘ Leticia Kent on the eve of the film’s limited release in 1978. In that interview, Cimino describes joining the army as something that happened in the wake of the 1968 Tết Offensive, as though he had rushed down to a recruiting office to take arms in service of the nation. Of course, when the time to check facts came around, Kent could not verify any part of this story, and when she contacted the film’s domestic distributor (Universal) over the discrepancy, they panicked. “He told the fucking New York Times he was a medic in the Green Berets? I know this guy. He was no more a medic in the Green Berets than I’m a rutabaga,” Thom Mount, former president of Universal recalled having said, when speaking to Vanity Fair for the 2008 piece. Apparently Mount brought the problem to Universal’s parent company, MCA, whose chairman, Lew Wasserman, was subsequently able to provide a number at the Pentagon that was passed along to the reporter. Presumably the information was confirmed, because it appeared in Kent’s story, and was endlessly repeated thereafter. Wasserman famously had strong connections in politics to both Republicans and Democrats, and was Ronald Reagan’s former agent. Eventually, the truth emerged, when former New York Times Vietnam correspondent Tom Buckley, writing for Harper‘s, was able to corroborate that Cimino had done a stint as a medic, but it was for six months in 1962, before the United States entered the war. Also, far from a Green Beret, Cimino had done his service in the Army Reserve.
Cimino denied having lied, and had his publicist say that he was going to sue Buckley. No lawsuit ever materialized, at least with Cimino as plaintiff. There would be litigation later in his career, however it would feature Cimino as the defendant. But misunderstandings about his military service, including that he had served in Vietnam, were somehow communicated to key people on The Deer Hunter. Vilmos Zsigmond told Vanity Fair in the 2008 story: “It seemed to me that he was involved with the war, that many, many of the stories in the film are biographical. But I don’t know where and how. He never really was specific about it.” Even his closest collaborator, Joann Carelli, could not clarify the truth about Cimino and the military for Vanity Fair: “It’s hard to tell with Michael. I don’t know where this comes from.”
Meanwhile, within the present timeline, in the Scorsese Cinematic Universe, it appeared to some that “Marty” was beginning to walk back his comments about the MCU. The Monday after the weekend The Irishman began to appear in a handful of theaters (before its larger release later in November on Netflix), he published an opinion piece in The New York Times entitled: I Said Marvel Movies Aren’t Cinema. Let Me Explain. And if it appeared that way, to some, it appeared wrong. They must not have read beyond the headline, which is completely literal. They were probably not the types who read editorials in the The New York Times, because they are more at home discussing Marvel movies on Twitter.
In the piece, Scorsese doubles and even triples down on his prior assertions, which, when read generously, could have been categorized as though he was simply saying “I don’t think those movies are good. Those aren’t my kind of movies, an art form I call cinema.” In the Times editorial, Scorsese expanded this to something that would be similarly paraphrased as “These movies are actually bad for society, and people who think they like them are just stupid.” That might sound sensational, but consider this actual quote:
And if you’re going to tell me that it’s simply a matter of supply and demand and giving the people what they want, I’m going to disagree. It’s a chicken-and-egg issue. If people are given only one kind of thing and endlessly sold only one kind of thing, of course they’re going to want more of that one kind of thing.
Does Martin Scorsese think this is what happened in American cinema? I ask this genuinely, because although his work is very rich in symbols and metaphors, I’ve always observed him (like in that headline) to be a very literal thinker when he speaks publicly. His commentary is thoughtful, and he doesn’t usually speak in broad exaggeration to hammer the point, the way many of us do.
His description, as quoted above, is an incorrect statement of what happened in the movie business. The MCU has only existed since 2007, but superhero movies, in their modern incarnation, date back to at least the success of Tim Burton’s first Batman in 1989, and probably to Richard Donner’s Superman in 1978, which spawned three sequels over a decade. And if you want to split hairs, superheroes (including Superman and Batman) had appeared in movie theaters before even that. It seems abrupt, the modern popularity of the MCU, but it’s been developing for Martin Scorsese’s entire life. Comic character Flash Gordon was finding success on movie screens before the director was ever born.
Scorsese makes other assertions in the piece that are compelling, and true. He cites a list of directors still working today, who meet his definition of cinema. These are Paul Thomas Anderson, Claire Denis, Spike Lee, Ari Aster, Kathryn Bigelow, and Wes Anderson. This is a somewhat eclectic mix, but none of them are outside of the mainstream, except possibly Denis, and she probably only places that far beyond it because there’s a limited market for French language films in the US. These are filmmakers who undertake their work with what is clearly an artistic vision, but nevertheless one that seems (or seemed) historically as having large commercial potential. These are (very specifically) the kind of people who are being pushed out of theaters by superhero movies.
That makes them very different from filmmakers like David Lynch or Jim Jarmusch, whose work barely had any commercial potential to begin with, though it did sometimes appear at the megaplex. Beyond them, there are cascading levels of more and more eccentric visual artists whose work never even leaves art school. In this group, if you talk to them, you can hear endless opinions that the work of the artists that Scorsese name-drops, and others like them, is utterly crass commercialism. To them, it is undifferentiated from the MCU. It should be noted that there are many eccentric artists whose own work might be very out-there, relatively speaking, but who nevertheless really enjoy mainstream artistic experiences. Inputs don’t always match outputs, and the fact that they don’t is why art is interesting to begin with, if you think about it.
But Scorsese’s argument is a pretty self-serving one. If you read that list coming from anybody else, you would wonder why someone left the name Martin Scorsese off of it. These are the directors most like himself. In the 90’s, I thought Spike Lee was the director most like Scorsese, and he probably still is, it’s just that his career will never track Scorsese’s because movies don’t have the same cultural importance they did when Scorsese was at the height of his powers.
But more than any other filmmaker, more than Marvel films even, Scorsese devotes his attention in the piece to Alfred Hitchcock. This is admirable, as Hitchcock’s trademark silhouette is ever-vanishing from the public consciousness, and dueling high-profile biopics in 2012 (Hitchcock and The Girl) didn’t appear to slow that process.
Alfred Hitchcock is perhaps the most influential filmmaker of all time. You can argue a host of others made contributions which are more essential to the form (the Lumiere Brothers, D.W. Griffith, Orson Welles, and so on), but if you survey actual directors about the artists who inspired them, his name will probably come up more often than any other. He had a groundbreaking career, and a ridiculously long one. He worked in film continuously from 1919 to 1976. He was also about as commercial as commercial gets. He made thrillers, a genre which was akin to horror today, and in fact horror today has more in common with his work than it does with what was called horror in his time. He was extremely influential on the French New Wave, which in turn inspired much of the New Hollywood, a movement that had its apex at a time when Hitchcock was still working.
He was also very famous, personally, to his audiences. He has a cameo appearance in nearly all of his films, and these are often memorable. He gave many interviews, and also served for a decade as the host of his television anthology series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Hitchcock was his own brand, in an era where almost nobody went to see a movie based on who the director was.
Scorsese is aware of this. “I suppose you could say that Hitchcock was his own franchise. Or that he was our franchise,” he wrote in the Times, before outlining all of the ways he sees what is happening in movies today as distinct and different from Hitchcock. Scorsese is of the view that Hitchcock’s movies were rich character experiences, which is interesting, because other writers have noted that the same character types appear over and over in the director’s films. Like Scorsese, Hitchcock worked with some stars repeatedly, most notably Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant (four times each.) Scorsese has made five films with Leonardo DiCaprio, and The Irishman marks his ninth with De Niro.
But there are differences to this comparison. Scorsese isn’t doing what Hitchcock was doing 50 years ago. Last year, Irishman‘s budget was reported to have been $140m. This is said to have largely paid for the visual effects work that makes De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci look decades younger. You can look at the results and judge whether the price was worth it. It’s not the most expensive movie ever made by a long shot, but it’s exceptionally high for an R-rated non-action movie. Only two other films it is competing against for Best Picture (Joker and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) are R-rated non-action movies, and they cost $62.5m and $90m, respectively. Of the nine films nominated in total, Irishman is the most expensive by over forty million dollars. Closest to it is Ford v Ferrari at $97.6m, and that’s a PG13 movie that you can take the entire family to. Joker, for all its own controversy and starkness, is a comic book movie. Hollywood stars the absolute two biggest movie icons of their generation, and it’s a generation that hasn’t been supplanted yet, unlike De Niro’s. In fact, when Scorsese made his prior film, 2014’s The Wolf of Wall Street, with Hollywood‘s DiCaprio, it only cost $100m. Only.
Alfred Hitchcock’s last film, 1976’s Family Plot, only cost $4.5m to make, and earned $13.2m. Even adjusting for inflation, that original budget would only be about $20m today, or one seventh of what Irishman cost. And that was on the higher side for Hitchcock; Rear Window and Psycho only cost about a million apiece. They earned $36m and $50m, respectively. The highest price tag I could find on any Hitchcock film was $6m, and that was for the 1969 bomb Topaz.
Back in 1978, before the The Deer Hunter had even been released, Michael Cimino was preparing his next picture. If the New Hollywood was killed by Cimino, this movie is what a prosecutor would hold up to the jury and identify as the murder weapon: the epic western Heaven’s Gate. Unlike The Deer Hunter, it’s not disputed that Cimino wrote this film. He had actually penned it in 1971, before even Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. At that time it was called The Johnson County War, and was based on a historical event of the same name; an often mythologized clash between settlers and wealthy ranchers in Wyoming at the end of the 19th century. Cimino had been forced to sit on it for the prior seven years after initially failing to attract a big star.
History-wise, Cimino’s script, near as my research can indicate (and I’m no historian) gets the broad strokes right. In Wyoming, between 1890 and 1893, there were violent clashes between homesteaders and wealthy ranchers that included assassins hired to kill purported cattle thieves; ultimately those wealthy interests benefited from political power up to and including then-President Benjamin Harrison. In this way, it is like The Deer Hunter; this specific thing did not happen to these specific people, but nothing happens in this movie that is so far off the mark that it should be characterized as a distortion. Heaven’s Gate is a little different, in that it borrows the names of actual people from the real story, and crafts from whole cloth events that did not occur in their lives, in some cases perhaps maligning them. Other aspects, like the presentation of the homesteader group as composed mainly of hordes of Eastern European immigrants, are false, but there were such immigrants who did participate in settling the Western United States, so this misstatement of fact might be called a blending. In any case, the historicity did not create a controversy when this film was released. There was already way, way too much other controversy to fill up column inches in America’s newspapers.
Interestingly, if people took issue with Heaven’s Gate‘s politics, it was for believing the story is some kind of Marxist fairy tale. True enough, it’s a story of class warfare, where the villains are a mustached upper-crust led by Sam Waterston, who, if he does not literally twirl his mustache, the viewer is nevertheless constantly waiting for him to do so. This wouldn’t be especially noteworthy, because many Hollywood movies tell this kind of story, if it weren’t coming from a director fresh off releasing a war movie that many thought might as well have been written by Henry Kissinger. Cimino took exception to people who tried to see any politics in his work, and these contradictory cinematic statements seem to show in his favor, in that regard. Speaking about popular interpretations of his career in one of the last interviews before he died, he said this:
“…first film, I was homophobic, second film, I was a right-wing fascist, third film, I was a left-wing racist, this and that, left-wing Marxist, and fourth film, I was a racist. So they couldn’t make up their mind what I was.“
But clearly these speculations about his work were something that mattered to him. The question by The Hollywood Reporter‘s Seth Abramovitch that sparked that very detailed response was a mere “What about critics? Do their opinions matter?” It’s interesting that he forgot “right-wing racist” about the second film (Deer Hunter), but it’s Michael Cimino. He gets the broad strokes right. At the end of his life, at least, Cimino appears to have been a conservative of the Fox News flavor: elsewhere in the same interview he begins a rant with that goes from the New England Patriots Deflategate scandal, to accused Patriot murderer Aaron Hernandez, to Hillary Clinton and Benghazi (he disapproves), to President Obama and Afghanistan (he’d rather not say what he thinks), at which point he says the “direction of [Abramovitch’s] exploration is taking [him] for a sour turn.” What did Abramovitch say to probe Cimino’s thoughts on these topics? The original question was “Have you become more reclusive?” Michael Cimino may be hard to figure out, but it’s not for lack of sharing his thoughts with you. At least if you can believe them, and again, that’s a big if.