'Heaven's Gate' fiasco: what it says about films today

The fall rush is here, and new movies are pouring onto the screen. So far, the results are fairly grim. There's little of real value, and one eagerly heralded film has already poured right back where it came from -- Michael Cimino's western disaster epic, Heaven's Gate.

Since this ungainly yarn has been yanked off the market after exactly one day of its first run -- with the promise that Cimino will recut it -- I won't review it here. Yet attention must be paid, since "Heaven's Gate" embodies a lot that's wrong with current Hollywood practices.

To begin with the basics, let's look at the money angle. Can you imagine spending $36 million on a western about a range war in Wyoming? Real masters of the western form -- John Ford, say, or Howard Hawks -- would hoot at this news. They knew how to make colorful and gripping pictures within the standard budgets of their day. What's more, these films were often deeply meaningful, despite limitations of finance, strict production codes, and studio moguls breathing down the director's neck.

Cimino had all kinds of freedom in making "Heaven's Gate." He escalated the budget from its original $10 million or so, and allegedly did what he could to prevent the studio -- United Artists -- from seeing his final cut before the last minute.

How did he get away with all this? First, because he was the boy wonder of "The Deer Hunter," which won him the 1978 Oscar as best director. Second, because the new picture was supposed to be his "personal vision," and apparently that resounding phrase frightened off the advance criticism that might have rescued the film while it was still in production. Even the usual "preview" system was bypassed, so there was virtually no outside input on the movie until its official unveiling.

I have nothing against personal visions, but $36 million is more than I would want to pay for one. Nor is Cimino the first fair-haired boy to bomb out in Hollywood lately. Steven spielberg had a huge flop with "1941." Jon Landis made less impact with "The Blues Brothers," at $40 million, than with "Animal House," at a fraction of that cost. Francis Ford Coppola hopes to break even with "Apocalypse Now," but the road out of the red will be long, bumpy, and paved with home-video sales -- without which the movie would be a permanent loser.

You might think Hollywood would rather risk a small investment than a large one, especially when the director has two or three hits under his belt rather than 20 or 30. But conglomerates run Hollywood these days, and they love to think big: The more you spend, the more you make. The trouble is, movies are less predictable than blue jeans or soft drinks. A flop is a flop, usually, no matter how huge the production or advertising budgets.

After how many repeats of "Heaven's Gate" and "1941" will this lesson be learned? That's unpredictable, too, but let's hope Hollywood lasts long enough to acquire its overdue wisdom. The tragedy of "Heaven's Gate" is not that its money was just wasted. Overspending actually contributedm to the film's failure -- by masking the vapidity of the screenplay, and by encouraging bloated pictorial values to cover weaknesses of story and character.

Though Cimino has a definite talent, the system is allowing him to fritter it away. The same will happen to other young filmmakers, overindulged with money and freedom, until common sense asserts itself at last.

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