Heaven's Gate

9th May 2003 at 01:00
Hollywood just loves superlatives. Imagine it advertising a new movie as merely OK if you're aged 16 and like American actors. Or another as a bit of animation that'll keep the kids quiet until they finish their popcorn.

No way, honey.

Common sense and rationality are not what Tinseltown is about. One set of people who would have yearned for a little low-key criticism of their work were those behind the 1980 film Heaven's Gate. Yes, the movie had its faults - director Michael Cimino's ego had been rather over-egged since his success with The Deer Hunter.

But its not unusual faults proved unusually fatal. Heaven's Gate took more than three-and-a-half hours to crawl through the story of Harvard graduate Kris Kristofferson's attempts to build bridges between immigrants and settlers in 19th-century Wyoming. It lacked human interest, failed to engage viewers' sympathies, and had gone horribly over budget with costs soaring from $11 million to $44m.

It was also self-indulgent. A graduation dance filmed with twirling actors and swirling cameras went on long enough to make audiences feel sick.

Cimino, in pursuit of a masterpiece and reluctant to compromise, had scenes shot and reshot up to 40 times.

He employed 150 carpenters to build the huge sets, and actors were trained in anything from horse riding and dancing to bullwhipping. Lead actress Isabelle Huppert was even sent to a bordello to fine-tune her performance as a local madam. Every one of the thousands of extras, never mind the horses, were given period costumes. When the film was released the critics enjoyed themselves. Perhaps reacting against Cimino's stardom - stardom that they, of course, had conferred on him - they tore Heaven's Gate apart.

It was the "biggest flop of all time".

The film died in three days. It took its historic studio, United Artists, with it, and it changed the way Hollywood worked. No longer were arty-farty directors to be given their head. Sequels and remakes became popular.

Everything was to be strictly controlled by studio bosses in thrall to test audiences. And that perhaps was the real blunder.

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