Does Heaven's Gate (1980) Deserve a Second Look?

On an autumn evening turning into winter (November 19, 1980), when I was still a young aspiring filmmaker, my movie publicist friend and I attended the premiere for the new film made by Oscar-winning (The Deer Hunter 1978) director Michael Cimino.

Little did we know that Heaven's Gate, the film we were about to see, and in fact this one particular star-studded screening, were about to become iconic events in cinema history...

We had heard stories that the film was long and had been expensive to produce. But we also knew that Michael Cimino was part of the new Hollywood of Coppola, Lucas and Spielberg. And that Cimino was perhaps the most serious-minded of them all - an uncompromising artist who was about to do for the mythology of the American Western what he had done for the mythology of War Movies in The Deer Hunter.

Here I was on the Upper East Side (where I rarely ventured) with a crowd that was older and hipper and more famous than me. The 80s were beginning. Ronald Reagan had just been elected, the hostages in Iran had just been released, and a new generation had taken hold of the controls in Hollywood. This was my future.

Our seats were on the aisle in the back. I watched (gaped at?) famous people schmoozing until the lights went down.

Slow and beautiful. OK. And Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken and Isabelle Huppert: A dream cast for a dark and disturbing but painterly film that finally would get the greed, ambition and isolation of the West right.

But where was the plot?

As the film unspooled the glamorous crowd became restive. The silence wasn't that of rapt attention - but of confusion.

After a time, a long time, a beautiful woman swished by me in the half-dark on her way up the aisle: Where was she going? A cigarette? A bump in the bathroom? Home?

I don't remember an intermission... but apparently there was one.

Some people left.

At the end, the crowd seemed eager to get away. It had been exhausting and enervating. No one made eye contact.

I don't remember a party. It was late. And I didn't merit an invitation. So we hailed a cab on the sidewalk across the street from Bloomingdales.

The next day, Vincent Canby - writing in the all-powerful New York Times - savaged the film: "'Heaven's Gate,' which opens today at the Cinema One, fails so completely that you might suspect Mr. Cimino sold his soul to the Devil to obtain the success of ''The Deer Hunter,'' and the Devil has just come around to collect."

Almost immediately, the venerable studio that had backed Heaven's Gate found itself unable to pay its bills. Within months UA was absorbed into MGM. A single film had brought down the studio that Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith had founded 60 years before.

And something else died that night too.

The dream of transforming the vestiges of the studio system into a powerful new force for telling personal stories was exposed as a sad (embarrassing) fantasy.

And it wasn't because of evil executives or unsympathetic critics that Heaven's Gate failed.

I was there. In the room I could sense - even while the movie was playing - that a party atmosphere was being grossly mishandled by the filmmakers. In the darkness our excitement curdled and eventually turned into hostility.

The audience wanted to be entertained. And Michael Cimino didn't care.

It was as if the makers of Heaven's Gate had contempt for the reasons that we went to the movies. This film wasn't fun - in fact it was a rebuke of fun.

Since then, a small (perhaps inevitable) group of cinephiles have rallied around the film that effectively ended Michael Cimino's career - claiming Heaven's Gate is woefully misunderstood and a neglected masterpiece.

On Sept. 21st, 2012 (31 years later) the New York Times published a piece by Dennis Lim that is part of a new effort to rehabilitate the reputation of Heaven's Gate and Michael Cimino.

Perhaps, I'm too hard-hearted. It may simply have been a mismatch between our opening night expectations and the genius of the filmmakers. But I don't think so.

I haven't seen Heaven's Gate in over 30 years - but I distinctly remember the deep dish pretension on the screen and the rising anger in the crowd. On that November night we were gathered to celebrate filmmaking and instead we were subjected to a plotless slog. The audience wanted to be entertained. But the film never soared. Instead it felt strangely distanced from its subject - as if the filmmakers had been enthralled and amazed on set - but all the audience got were pretty pictures - ostensibly about isolation and hardship.

I've thought about that night often - and how badly our willingness to meet the filmmaker more than half-way was handled.

Perhaps these lines from a true masterpiece of Hollywood filmmaking can sum up part of what went so horribly wrong:

Sullivan: I'm going out on the road to find out what it's like to be poor and needy and then I'm going to make a picture about it.
Burrows: If you'll permit me to say so, sir, the subject is not an interesting one. The poor know all about poverty and only the morbid rich would find the topic glamorous.
Sullivan: But I'm doing it for the poor. Don't you understand?
Burrows: I doubt if they would appreciate it, sir. They rather resent the invasion of their privacy, I believe quite properly, sir. -- Sullivan's Travels (1941)

Like Heaven's Gate, which was Michael Cimino's third feature, Sullivan's Travels was writer-director Preston Sturges's third feature. Given the choice, I'll throw in with Sturges and the lessons his first two films taught him about a filmmaker's duty to the audience.

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