How much money would you trust this person with?
That was the question facing United Artists as they undertook to begin production on Heaven’s Gate. The studio, which had been founded by D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks in 1919 to give actors control over their own interests, had been on a winning streak in the New Hollywood. The last three Best Picture winners (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Rocky, and Annie Hall) had all come from UA. Although the studio had also made plenty of very commercial fare, including Some Like it Hot and all of the James Bond films. But following a dispute with parent company Transamerica Corporation over autonomy, chairman Arthur B. Krim and senior management resigned in 1978 in order to form Orion Pictures. Transamerica wanted to start fresh, rather than promote from within. They installed Andy Albeck as president of UA, with Steven Bach and David Field as vice presidents of production. It was these latter two men who would oversee Heaven’s Gate, a film which they hoped would continue the studio’s track record at the Oscars.
But first that track record had to be continued at the 1979 ceremony, and they had high hopes with the Jane Fonda vehicle Coming Home. Coming Home was, like The Deer Hunter, a Vietnam movie. But it was wholly different from Cimino’s. Coming Home never goes to Vietnam, but instead, as the title implies, concerns the aftermath. Jon Voight plays a wheelchair-bound veteran in a VA hospital in Southern California. Fonda plays a bored, conservative housewife whose husband (Bruce Dern) is an officer serving overseas in the war to advance his career. When Fonda volunteers at the hospital, she meets Voight, her past high school classmate, and they eventually begin a passionate affair. They hang out at the beach and drive around in a vintage Porsche. There are some sad things that happen, and the film does depict PTSD, but ultimately Voight’s character finds meaning through the anti-war movement, and Fonda’s jilted husband ends his life by swimming naked into the Pacific Ocean. Scenes of Voight giving earnest anti-war advice are intercut with Dern’s suicide. As you see Dern’s naked buttocks, Voight is saying (I’m serious), “And now I’m here to tell ya, I have killed for my country or whatever, and I don’t feel good about it…I’m here to tell ya, it’s a lousy thing, man…” The lines aren’t as tacky as I make them sound, and there is more to it—Voight’s performance is quite moving. But it all does play as typifying a cliché, when viewed today.
As I disabled person (I have one leg), I can tell you this is outside the ordinary incidence of an injury like Voight’s. I’m still waiting for a beautiful woman to enter my life in a vintage Porsche, nearly three years after my injury. The Vietnam veterans I know, all but one of whom I would describe as broadly against war like Fonda was, have never shared with me memories of an experience like this either, though I haven’t asked specifically. The Deer Hunter‘s Steven (John Savage) also comes back from the war necessitating a wheelchair (both his legs are amputated), but his experience in the VA hospital is decidedly less uplifting than what you see in Coming Home.
It’s not like Coming Home is a bad movie. It’s a good one. It is (spoiler alert) quite a bit better than Heaven’s Gate. It is also the work of a superbly talented New Hollywood director (Hal Ashby, who did Harold and Maude and The Last Detail), and the film was the product of a very earnest desire to make an important statement about the war. Fonda was inspired to create it after meeting the disabled veteran and peace activist Ron Kovic, author of Born on The Fourth of July, which Oliver Stone would adapt a decade later. Kovic told the actress his sex life was better than ever, now that he was in a wheelchair, and I’ve never read his book, but Coming Home differs considerably from the experience communicated by Stone’s movie. Nevertheless, Fonda was motivated to translate Kovic’s message on the screen by having Voight’s character perform oral sex on her, which she saw as a feminist statement, and which became a considerable debate with Ashby after both of them learned that some paralyzed veterans could get erections. The final product is a mixed, somewhat confusing, probably limited by the era, combination of both those visions. But it’s a good movie, and the Best Picture nomination was deserved, as was the Best Actress trophy Fonda received for it.
But it’s very different from The Deer Hunter in at least one important way. Coming home is an anti-war movie for anti-war people. It is as much about the anti-war movement and how it perceived itself as it about the traumatized men who came back from the war. It’s also littered with contemporary hippie music that overshadows much of what’s happening. This is unsurprising. Jane Fonda was a peace activist during the period and her politics are well-known. They are especially well-known because, in 1972, she visited North Vietnamese soldiers in Hanoi and posed on an anti-aircraft gun with them. I always thought this was particularly weird for a person associated with something called the “peace movement,” but other than that, it happened long before I was born and I never had much of an opinion about it. But I can’t help but cringe realizing that this same army was at this same moment torturing John McCain in this same city. Fonda has publicly apologized multiple times for the incident, but protesters still confront her over it to this day. If there was a Twilight Zone about an anti-war activist getting trapped in an ironic hellscape, it would look a lot like this. I don’t doubt the sincerity of her apologies, but I don’t know how necessary they were either. In a war where many, many young people did many, many things they can’t take back, hers were far from the most blameworthy. For that kind of person, the one who saw Jane Fonda as more than a propaganda tool for the North Vietnamese, but rather as some kind of traitor of consequence, there was no way Coming Home was going to be a legitimate statement of anything. But if there was a way for the movie to win unconverted hearts and minds in 1978, I don’t think it tried very hard. It mostly confirms for a certain kind of person that what they already believed is right.
The Deer Hunter does not mythologize the war, even though that’s how many seemed to perceive it. It’s the story of three men whose lives are ruined by it, and the ripple effect that has in the aftermath. But it takes a slow path to get there. Cimino makes us watch (for too long) how happy and full of promise these people were, how naive, and how changed they are when it turns out that war is not like a John Wayne movie. But by doing it in its quiet way, without trying to insert a lot of contemporary political context, it has the effect of narrowing its message to being a personal one, which was the most effective anti-war message even in the era of Vietnam. This is a movie that can show people who supported the war the price it cost the people who fought it. Nowadays, most people can appreciate that war is a condition that has lifelong effects on the people tasked with it. But the popular narrative was once otherwise, even in my lifetime. The old view held that, Vietnam was “the wrong war,” and in the right one, these things would not have occurred. Both The Deer Hunter and Coming Home concern the permanent effects of trauma from war, but only is about them, without the veneer of an exciting, modern sex life, and that Porsche.
Why The Deer Hunter is so effective at this remains a mystery. Coming Home was definitely the product of a noble attempt to tell the actual stories of veterans, and there was an extensive research process that included talking to many of them. No such inquiry preceded the writing of The Deer Hunter. In what one can only imagine the speaker does not comprehend the possible insensitivity of, writer Washburn described the process for the 2008 Vanity Fair piece like this:
“I had a month, that was it,” he explains. “The clock was ticking. Write the fucking script! But all I had to do was watch TV. Those combat cameramen in Vietnam were out there in the field with the guys. I mean, they had stuff that you wouldn’t dream of seeing about Iraq.”
This, coupled with Cimino’s lies about his military service, is a definite indicator that the film was not overly concerned with authenticity. How this was a recipe for a great film which many veterans saw as true to their experience, who knows? Art, and its effect on people, is hard to explain.
But at the 1979 Academy Awards it didn’t matter. The Deer Hunter beat Coming Home for Best Picture (breaking UA’s winning streak), and Cimino bested Ashby for Best Director. Fonda took home the Best Actress award. Cimino said publicly (more than once) that afterward, he rode in an elevator with her, whom he wished to congratulate, but she refused to even make eye contact with him. I give this story a 40% chance of being true. Fonda, publicly, has simultaneously taken the positions that: 1) The Deer Hunter was racist; 2) “Our Film Was Better,”; and 3) that she has never seen The Deer Hunter. Coming Home also took the Best Original Screenplay prize. Voight won Best Actor (over De Niro), however, he later morphed into an arch conservative, and repudiates Coming Home today.
When Heaven’s Gate was seeking to cast its lead actress, trouble arose. Bach and Field wanted Cimino to choose a big star, possibly even Fonda. Cimino became insistent the role go the French actress Isabelle Huppert. The executives objected over concerns she could not speak English, but made a deal with Cimino that they would travel to France to give her a special screen test, and if they could understand her speaking the language, he would get his way. If not, he had to cast somebody they approved of. The test happened, and Huppert was awful. When Cimino was confronted over the phone about breaking his word, the director “…told me to go fuck myself, and hung up,” as Field later put it.
But after that Oscar win, there was no stopping Cimino, at least as far as UA president Andy Albeck was concerned. Heaven’s Gate was approved (including Huppert) with an initial budget of $12.5m. Cimino and company, which included producer Carelli, cinematographer Zsigmond, and a top flight group of actors such as Walken (who himself had taken a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Deer Hunter), Kris Kristofferson, and Jeff Bridges, headed to Montana to shoot the movie.
Pauline Kael was not a fan of The Deer Hunter. Kael, of The New Yorker, wrote a review that acknowledged the film’s overall quality while being unable to resist taking dig after dig at Cimino that seem predicated mostly 0n what she doesn’t like about America in 1978. She even questions why nobody is gay among the Pennsylvania steelworkers or soldiers in the war, but through the prism of 2020, you wonder what she means, specifically. Are we certain none of these small-town men are gay, in this time and place? How would we know? Does she expect one them to say “Boy, this Vietnam War is nothing like that pride rally.” Personally, when I watch this film now, there are three scenes that convince me that John Cazale’s Stan is a closeted gay man. He’s constantly asserting his heterosexuality and at one point goes on a homophobic rant, but you get the impression he is trying fervently to convince Michael of that heterosexuality when Michael isn’t questioning it. Ironically, Kael later would face harsh accusations of homophobia for various things she had written about gay men (mostly for implying that they were, by default, promiscuous) in her reviews over the years, though this assertion in her Deer Hunter review was not among those objected to. Critiquing Deer Hunter, Kael mostly takes issue with how masculinity—which she calls “boys’-book values”—is promoted in the film. I think this take really ignores how the movie ends. Michael is the only one of the three veterans whose life might ever again look like it did before, but the third act is a series of his attempts at heroism failing utterly. I ascribe this fact at least some value in ascertaining what this movie means. Kael specifically notes that Cimino is not a “great director,” but that criticism is misleading. A “great director” to Pauline Kael, in 1978, didn’t mean the same thing it meant to many others. Pauline Kael wasn’t impressed by the auteur theory.
Pauline Kael was most famous for being an elitist. She wrote movie reviews for people who like to read books instead of going to the movies. But she made her reviews enough like books, with enough references to literature, that the erudite-yet-reactionary readers of The New Yorker wouldn’t be startled out of their finely upholstered chairs—it didn’t work, other snobs there still found her positively uncouth.
Kael was unfairly characterized as an elitist, but not inaccurately characterized as elitist. Both these statements apply to famous remarks she made after Richard Nixon won the 1972 presidential election with an earth-shaking 520 electoral votes, 49 US States, and fully 60.7% of the popular vote. My home of Massachusetts was the only member of the Union to rebuke Tricky Dick, in vain. Kael’s quote about the election was (and is) often repeated: “I can’t believe Nixon won. I don’t know anyone who voted for him.” It smacked of American liberal elitism; a signpost for how out-of-touch that cohort was with the populace in 1972. The only problem was that Pauline Kael never fucking said that. Her actual words, to an audience at the Modern Language Association a month after Nixon won, and reported by The New York Times, were these:
“I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken. But sometimes when I’m in a theater I can feel them.”
It wasn’t by accident that the fake quote stuck. The real quote doesn’t disabuse the reader of any notion the false one suggests. Instead, it implies that greater than 60% of Americans are not people who disagree with her, or even just misguided or uniformed, but instead that this unheard-of-in-a-generation majority (which included 36% of even the Democratic vote) were an odious presence breathing on Pauline Kael’s urbane neck in the darkness at that unfortunate moment her livelihood forced her to be within 20 feet of them. This was not a person who had great admiration for ordinary people, despite her own origins from within their ranks, and her summary of The Deer Hunter makes that plain:
[Cimino’s] new film is enraging, because, despite its ambitiousness and scale, it has no more moral intelligence than the Eastwood action pictures. Yet it’s an astonishing piece of work, an uneasy mixture of violent pulp and grandiosity, with an enraptured view of common life — poetry of the commonplace.
Pauline Kael wasn’t in politics, but her view of regular people encapsulates well why it took the Democratic Party Watergate to deliver to them the only presidential election they won in a 28-year period, and why the Republicans have lost four-and-a-half (the half being 2000) out of the last seven. Placing oneself above the fray plays well in dense magazine pages, but not in voting booths. It’s easy to remember Nixon for Watergate and Vietnam, but he also spent his entire career pandering to ordinary people, including seeking to expand Medicare and federalize Medicaid. His motives for doing so may be suspect—he was a megalomaniac so consumed with fear of losing his own power as to have his sycophants compile a large “enemies list,” the expanded version of which contained Fonda, Bill Cosby, and Joe Namath—but many politicians have ulterior reasons for their policies and not all make delivering for ordinary people a priority. Ironically, Kael was the daughter of immigrant chicken farmers, who lost their Northern California farm when she was eight. The Nixon family’s ranch failed when the former (ex) President was nine, in the Southern part of the state. This all paints a picture that makes the class-warfare themes of Heaven’s Gate easier to understand, even if Cimino was a conservative. Incidentally, Kael so hated that film that she called it “a movie you want to deface.”
The discord between Michael Cimino and Pauline Kael is actually more interesting than their politics. Kael admired many New Hollywood films, and actually rose from obscurity to her mainstream platform for lauding Bonnie and Clyde. However, despite her sometimes taste for what it produced, Kael was an early and often critic of the auteur theory. She believed film was a collaborative process, and engaged in a long-running debate with rival critic Andrew Sarris, a key proponent of the theory (though every bit Kael’s fellow traveler in the field of highbrow Deer Hunter hatred.)
Despite its 1941 release (decades before the New Hollywood), Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane is supposed to be a shining example of the auteur at work, because of the extreme creative control Welles exercised over the picture, which he starred in, directed, co-wrote, and produced. However, in her 1971 essay Raising Kane, Kael pointed out how much of that film was owed to screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz and cinematographer Gregg Toland, and she was right. I would have added editor Robert Wise to the list. In an irony that could have only befallen Pauline Kael, key parts of the essay were subsequently revealed by Peter Bogdanovitch in Esquire to have been plagiarized from the UCLA professor Dr. Howard Suber, whose research and own drafts Kael had gotten her hands on under the pretense that they would work together, and then stopped returning his phone calls. In the book where the essay appeared, Kael failed to credit Suber at all. In the irony to the irony, in 1998 (after Welles had been dead a safe decade), Bogdanovitch revealed that the legendary director had taken a strong hand in “revising and rewriting” the Esquire article before its publication. Despite living 30 more years, Kael never responded to the controversy, and Raising Kane is widely viewed as discredited today for the many facts it ignores.
To Cimino, Cimino was the genius. He hadn’t hesitated to try and squeeze writer Washburn out of the picture, just like Welles had Mankiewicz a generation earlier. Even Vilmos Zsigmond, who possessed a genius rarely questioned in film circles, having shot films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, was not owed a kind word in Cimino’s eyes. “Vilmos and all those guys have built themselves up to be bigger than directors. It’s bullshit,” he told The New York Observer in 2002. Being the sophisticated creature of literary circles that she was, she surely would never have phrased it that way, but one wonders if the sentiment in Pauline Kael’s heart for Howard Suber’s contribution was any different.
But in 1979, what at least one (and probably both) of them didn’t know was that Cimino was about to do more to kill the auteur era than Kael’s printed barbs ever could.
Accounts vary about the actual making of Heaven’s Gate. Some say it was a disaster. Other contend it was a smooth, though very long process. But objectively, there’s no getting around the fact that there were problems. At the end of the first six days of shooting, Cimino was five days behind schedule, and had already spent $900,000. For that money, he only had a minute-and-a-half of usable footage. Two weeks into shooting, he was getting about a minute worth of usable movie for every million dollars he was spending. He had shot about two hours’ worth, but of that, the director would only approve just three minutes.
Even Cimino’s most loyal defenders don’t deny that his was an extremely long, meticulous process. Kris Kristofferson guards Heaven’s Gate to this day, but concedes that Cimino shot 53 takes of the actor cracking a bullwhip while laying in bed; a complex scene with many other actors that involved a complicated resetting every time. Kristofferson had to be specially trained with the implement, but as anyone versed with one will tell you, it’s not hard to hit yourself in the face while doing this, and he did. To anyone who’s seen the movie, this is surprising, because there’s nothing special about the action in Heaven’s Gate. It looks as unremarkable as anything in the most unimagined westerns of the time. Punches land out of our direct sight with an unrealistic smacking sound effect, and so on. Much of the action is on par with an episode of Gunsmoke.
But the method wasn’t limited to action sequences. Dialogue got the same treatment, or worse, but it wasn’t like the director was taking repeated cracks at achieving his very specific vision. Actor Brad Dourif, who—along with Kristofferson, Bach, and Field—appeared in the 2004 documentary Final Cut: The Making and Unmaking of Heaven’s Gate (based on Bach’s 1985 book of the same name), described it like this: ““it was like workshopping on film. we did the happy version, we did the crying version. We did the furious version.” Cimino would even spend hours selecting the right extras for a shot. Here, a callback to Hitchcock is in order—that director was famous for being meticulous, but also for meticulously planning ahead of time, down to what every shot would look like. He would appear on a film set with the whole movie already completed on paper, and the matter was simply getting it from there into a film canister. He also, as already stated, could work on what others considered a modest budget.
By the time United Artists finally stepped in three months later, Cimino has burned through 18 million dollars, and the movie was nowhere near done. He had begun with a budget of $12.5m, but it carried an implicit promise that he was working with a blank check. His contract lacked certain basic protections that would have incentivized finishing on time. Now, the studio put its foot down: 25 million and not a penny more, and if he screwed this up he would forfeit final cut, a director’s right to approve the final version of the movie. Plus, they fired Carelli, so she could no longer run interference for him. Cimino, to his credit, sped up and completed the work on time. But, as with The Deer Hunter, a scandal was brewing that would soon unfold in the pages of a newspaper, and this time, nobody at the Pentagon could stop it.
Les Gapay was a former Sacramento Bee and Wall Street Journal correspondent who had moved to Montana for a change of pace. There, he operated a cherry orchard, and kept writing on a freelance basis. In this latter capacity, he tried to get on the set of Heaven’s Gate to cover the production. Gapay was told Cimino’s set was closed to the press. Undeterred, he enrolled as an extra, and began to record his observations.
This is a classic Hollywood loophole that remains unclosed. Movies simply need people to fill the frame, and there is no time or resources to vet them. This is how I got on the set of Wolfgang Petersen’s The Perfect Storm as a sixteen year-old. This is also how, after being fired (by fax, this was 1995) as director of the preposterous The Island of Dr. Moreau, the eccentric Richard Stanley was able to infiltrate the production disguised in full costume and makeup as one of the “dog-men.”
Gapay’s account first ran in the Los Angeles Times on September 2, 1979, but his musings would soon spread nationally. According to Gapay, Heaven was a dangerous place to be: there was a multitude of injuries; people fell out of wagons, they were stepped on by horses. In the account, a fight nearly occurs between an extra and a crew member, when the latter instructs a wagon driver, “If people don’t move out of your way, run them over.” Gapay himself falls out of a wagon, and on another day is stepped on by a horse. An X-ray would reveal a crushed toe. One extra withdrew himself and his family from the production after there were 16 accidents in one day. At times, extras in closed quarters were forced to wear heavy wool garments in excessive heat and smoke used for effects, some of whom fainted. They were forced to work from 5am to 11pm, with only one meal, for which they were charged $3 in 1979 dollars. Cimino balked at observing what are completely standard union rules about breaks and meals.
There were also tremendous clashes between the movie and the National Parks Service, with the former repeatedly violating boundaries the latter set (reportedly at Cimino’s direction) and eventually being barred from Glacier National Park entirely. Among these (many) violations, Cimino broke the conditions of a shooting permit that allowed him to use one cow carcass in a scene by excessively butchering it and spreading its entrails. The Park Service was concerned about luring bears in the area. A ranger discovered three cows being butchered and their insides being spread around a tent set. But some locals criticized the Park Service for overreacting, because Heaven’s Gate was a boon to the otherwise quiet local economy. It was a complicated struggle of economic interests not unlike the plot of the movie.
But the most memorable parts of Gapay’s report are the surreal ones. At one point, a group of locals tosses Cimino into the mud, a symbolic harbinger of his impending career trajectory. In an extended version of Gapay’s account published in The Washington Post, he goes into great detail about Cimino’s craft:
In one typical scene, Cimino moves some suitcases around and orders a prop man to “give that man some glasses and put a wedding ring on that woman’s hand.” In another scene he spends several minutes having an assistant move around socks drying beside a fireplace. He remembers from one day to the next if an extra is slightly out of place. “You had a cigar yesterday,” he tells one extra in a cockfight scene.
This account contains my favorite line: “‘Cimino interviewed 300 horses for this movie,’ quips one crew member.” That would be funny, and it is, but it becomes much less so when cast in the light of a controversy that would emerge later about Heaven’s Gate: animal cruelty. Despite Cimino’s pickiness over horses, he does not appear to have valued the animals very much. This is a portion of what appears on the American Humane Society’s “Humane Hollywood” website about the film:
The animal action in the film includes an actual cockfight, several horse trips, and a horse being blown up with a rider on its back. People who worked on the set verified more animal abuse, such as chickens being decapitated and steer being bled in order to use their blood to smear on the actors instead of using stage blood.
To be clear, because those words actually minimize it: one of the accusations against Heaven’s Gate is that a living horse was actually dynamited to death, and that this footage appears in the final film. If the filmmakers wished to defend against these accusations and many others, their tools were limited to do so. They settled lawsuits by the owners of animals. The AHA had been barred from supervising the animal action on the set, and later protested the movie. It was the result of the Heaven’s Gate fiasco that the Screen Actors Guild and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers now contractually authorize AHA oversight of all animals used in filmed media. When the film is shown in England, the British Board of Film Classification mandates that these scenes be removed.
Once filming wrapped (and after traveling to England to complete the film’s complex “Harvard 1870” opening, which adds nothing to the movie), the editing process began. Cimino was contractually obligated to deliver a version of the film that ran between two and three hours. Cimino submitted a workprint to the studio which reportedly ran for 325 (five hours and twenty-five) minutes. If this length worried executives, he assured them that it was “about fifteen minutes longer than the final cut would be.” The version you can stream today is 220 minutes, and as a person who has seen it, I am shocked that there exists a version of this movie that is longer. After much fighting between Cimino and UA (during which time his firing was put back on the table), the director eventually delivered this shorter version, and a premiere date (a year late) was set for November 1980.
But it was all for Cimino’s art. Many masterpieces have had to break a few eggs. So what’s the final product like? In The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote the words that would go down in history: “an unqualified disaster,” the critic called Cimino’s opus. The critical reception was almost universally negative. It was all the haters of The Deer Hunter forging an unlikely alliance with all of that film’s defenders, for the common cause of rejecting Cimino’s pretentious, flat, disaster-piece.
Today there is a competing historical narrative that says Heaven’s Gate was never given a fair hearing. This view holds that the bad press from Gapay and others prejudiced critics and the public so much that there was no way this film could succeed. These people claim to like it, and some believe it to be a masterwork. This is (sigh) especially true in France. Don’t believe them. If you don’t believe me, see this movie for yourself. Or at least try to. See how much of it you can get through. Right now, it’s available to on-demand from the Starz Network.
It is true that the movie is often beautiful to look at, because of Zsigmond’s cinematography. But imagine the most breathtaking view you’ve ever seen. Or even the most breathtaking five views you’ve ever seen. Now imagine being forced to look upon these views for five hours and twenty-five minutes, without much else to command your attention, and you will have a notion of the experience Michael Cimino wanted to subject filmgoers to. At three hours and forty minutes, it’s somehow not any less like this analogy.
The actors are not bad. Sam Waterston gives grand orations that presage what Law and Order fans would come to love more than a decade later. Kirstofferson performs admirably, where he can, and Jeff Bridges is interesting. Cristopher Walken is especially compelling, though he seems distinctly a creature of the 1950’s, not the 1890’s. Huppert’s English was mostly understandable to me.
But the writing is awful. The dialogue spans a spectrum oscillating between needless and pretentious, rarely finding a comfortable position in between. If the results of the WGA arbitration were not enough, this film stands as a testament to the fact that Deric Washburn was the actual genius behind The Deer Hunter, along with Zsigmond’s cinematography and the actors’ excellent work. To experience a trip through Heaven’s Gate really endorses Pauline Kael’s view of the auteur, and Cimino in particular.
Like Jaws and Star Wars, Heaven’s Gate made history. Just not the kind you want to make. The final price tag on the film was $44m. It went on to gross a mere $3.5m worldwide. It was exactly the inverse profitability of the kind of movies that started the New Hollywood, and as I said at the outset, Heaven’s Gate is regarded by many as the film that killed it.
It did kill United Artists, in a sense. The loss forced parent Transamerica to sell the studio, resulting in a merger with rival MGM, which ended the style of management there that had led to UA’s Oscar-winning streak, but also to Cimino’s wreck. For many years that followed, through many corporate restructurings and sales, the studio made mainstream fare almost exclusively. Heaven’s Gate marked the end of an era, not just for UA, but for cinema as a business. And it is a business, even if it is a business that produces much more quality art than say, the office supply manufacturing business.