Time Has Been Kind to Heaven's Gate
by Dennis Lim
The New York Times
Lee Kline, the technical director at Criterion, said, “It wasn’t an option to go back to the original negative because that was what was cut down to the short version.” The original 70-millimeter prints were also in poor shape. So in a costly, complicated process, the restoration team scanned each color separation negative individually and recombined them.
“Heaven’s Gate” may be a subject Mr. Cimino has avoided for years, but once he gets going, the floodgates open. He spoke fondly of the performances of Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken and Isabelle Huppert, which he feels have never gotten their due. And he recalled the genesis of the project: Researching the history of barbed wire and the cattle industry, he came upon an incident known as the Johnson County War involving cattlemen, hired killers and local ranchers. He described the epilogue — the weary hero, James Averill (Mr. Kristofferson), on a yacht off the New England coast — as “a prelude to ‘The Great Gatsby,’ ” with Averill as the mogul awaiting the arrival of the young James Gatz.
Mr. Cimino also recalled his obsessive quest for authenticity that led many to characterize “Heaven’s Gate” as a runaway production. (First budgeted at less than $10 million, the film grew to a cost of $35 million, or $44 million including promotional costs, according to Mr. Bach’s book. Mr. Cimino maintains that it was “all in $32 million.”) As he put it, “Everything was problematical”: the locomotive that had to be transported to the Montana location from a Denver museum; a horse-drawn buggy whose spokes and upholstery had to be made in different states. “The movie could not be made today, even if you threw $300 million at it,” he said. “All of that is being lost. The wagons don’t exist, the skills are gone.”
Present-day viewers may well find that time has been kind to “Heaven’s Gate,” which plays more than ever like a fittingly bleak apotheosis of the New Hollywood, an eccentric yet elegiac rethinking of the myths of the West and the western, with an uncommonly blunt take on class in America. (“It’s getting dangerous to be poor in this country,” someone says. The rejoinder: “It always was.”) But this defiant last gasp of the downbeat ’70s, opening two weeks after Ronald Reagan was elected president, was plainly a movie at odds with its time.
Reached at his home in Hawaii, Mr. Kristofferson said he believes the themes of the film, with its grim view of American capitalism, were what made it so unpalatable. “It was a political assassination,” he said. He recalled getting word that Reagan’s first attorney general, William French Smith, had told studio heads that “there should be no more pictures made with a negative view of American history.”
Mr. Kristofferson, sounding more rueful than bitter, said that the reception to “Heaven’s Gate” knocked him off the Hollywood A-list for good. “I never really recovered from that,” he said, but he acknowledged that it was worse for Mr. Cimino. “It completely destroyed him.”
Mr. Cimino continued to work, albeit infrequently; he has made four features since “Heaven’s Gate,” the last one, “Sunchaser,” in 1996. A painter who began his directing career in advertising, he said that at home in Los Angeles he rarely watches movies now (and prefers to reread Pushkin and Flaubert). But he does have a film project in mind, which he hopes to shoot in digital soon.
Ms. Carelli, who was with Mr. Cimino in Venice, said that while there remain misconceptions about the making of “Heaven’s Gate,” “I don’t want to revisit old erroneous stories and try to correct them.” She added, “Now the film finally speaks for itself, and it has the final word.”
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The Making and Unmaking of Heaven's Gate