Encore

'Heaven's' Unholy Mess

Hollywood's big-budget bomb opened (and closed) 14 years ago

The reviews were anything but heaven-sent. Vincent Canby of The New York Times wrote, ''Heaven's Gate is something quite rare in movies these days — an unqualified disaster.'' Others were equally bilious. In response, the film's director, Michael Cimino, and studio, United Artists, took drastic action: They decided to yank their costly epic from distribution just one day after its gala premiere on Nov. 18, 1980. Their plan — to reedit, rerelease, and recoup — would prove futile, however, making Heaven's Gate one of the most notorious flops in Hollywood history.

Heaven had become hellish two years earlier. At the start, the film was budgeted at $11.5 million. Cimino, pumped up by his Oscar for 1978's The Deer Hunter, assembled a huge cast headed by Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, John Hurt, Jeff Bridges, and Isabelle Huppert for his saga of immigrants warring with Old West land barons, and he quickly fell behind schedule at a cost of nearly $200,000 per day. Obsessive about detail, the director spent extravagantly, and numerous retakes escalated the delays and costs. Studio execs, afraid to lose their star director as well as a prestigious project, handled the crisis with kid gloves. When they did take control, it was too late.

By the time shooting finally stopped, Cimino had spent $35 million for an astonishing 200 hours of footage. Whittled down to 3 hours and 39 minutes for the opening, the magnum opus was further cut to 2 1/2 hours for the rerelease five months later: Canby called it a ''muddled compromise,'' and it flopped at the box office. Best estimate of the rock-bottom line: a $44 million loss (in 1994 dollars — $80 million).

The reverberations were felt throughout Hollywood from the moment of the New York opening. Many studios announced a new belt-tightening. At United Artists, a flurry of resignations preceded the studio's sale to MGM in 1981. ; Cimino's career was tarnished, though he would direct 1985's Year of the Dragon (on budget and on time, but not a hit) for, ironically, MGM/UA, and the unsuccessful The Sicilian in 1987.

In yet a final irony, the full-length version of Heaven's Gate was released in England in 1983 and in Paris six years later to almost unanimous praise (one British critic gushed, ''the restored version is little short of magnificent''). For some, at least, the ''disaster'' had become a ''masterpiece.''

Time Capsule / Nov. 18, 1980

The nation found out who shot J.R. on top-rated Dallas; Carl Sagan's Cosmos was an earthly best-seller; Kenny Rogers loved his ''Lady''; and Robert De Niro scored a theatrical knockout in Raging Bull.

Originally posted Nov 18, 1994 Published in issue #249 Nov 18, 1994 Order article reprints