This is actually a book review; it can be found in Kael’s collection Hooked.
When a new, inexperienced administration at United Artists gave the go-ahead to Michael Cimino’s Western Heaven’s Gate, the project, which had been turned down by executives at other studios (and by at least one of the previous administrations at United Artists), was clearly booby-trapped. The new management team, put in position by the officers of U.A.’s conglomerate parent, Transamerica, were aware of the risks, but their predecessors, who had left, en bloc, to form Orion Pictures, jeered at them in the press, and they were overeager to establish themselves by coming up with a slate of films that would confer prestige on them. Proposed at seven and a half million dollars, eventually budgeted at roughly eleven and a half million, and written off finally at forty-four million, Heaven’s Gate brought nothing but torment to the executives of United Artists, which is now virtually defunct. (Transamerica, humiliated by the publicity, sold the company to Kirk Kerkorian’s M-G-M, which wanted it because of its distribution apparatus, and dismantled the production side.) About the only good that has ever come from the movie is the new book Final Cut: Dreams and Disaster in the Making of “Heaven’s Gate” (Morrow), by Stephen Bach—perhaps the best account we have of American moviemaking in the age of conglomerate control of the studios, and (though this isn’t made explicit) in the druggy age.
Stephen Bach was part of the new U.A. team, and was head of production when Heaven’s Gate was premièred, late in 1980—the book might be called Apologia pro Fiasco Suo. It’s that, but it’s considerably more than that. There are a lot of emotions bumping into each other under the surface of Bach’s precise, thoughtful, sometimes hilarious and macabre story. He begins by describing the formation of United Artists, in 1919, by Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D.W. Griffith; outlines the steps that led the company to become a subsidiary of Transamerica in 1967; and then gets into the whole Heaven’s Gate debacle. That picture is only a part of what is going on at the studio, though—it’s one debacle among many. (There are also imagined future triumphs, but the regime and the company didn’t last long enough.) Bach is particularly good in his observation of how the marketing and distribution people start taking over the decision-making process about what films should be given the go-ahead—a power grab that’s also taking place at other studios and helps to explain why we’ve been getting so many teen pix in the last few years. And the choices that were made by the U.A. team are covered in an interlocking series of fine, juicy anecdotes indicating why U.A. turned down what it did and financed what it did, and why it lost projects it wanted and had to settle for others.
The book is a short course in the realpolitik of how projects come to be accepted; it’s set in a cutthroat business, where betrayal is the rule, not the exception. It takes Bach a while to grasp that, and his loyalty and affection go to the man who doesn’t fit the pattern. The hero of Bach’s story isn’t Bach. It’s shy Andy Albeck, the new president of United Artists—not because he was the right man for the job (he wasn’t) but because he treated his staff and the people he dealt with fairly and considerately. Bach’s greatest contribution may be his recognition that even in the movie business there are decencies that transcend success or failure. (Neither he nor Albeck is still in the business.) That’s what gives the book its distinction: it has the touching, melancholic quality of a story told by someone who knew he was on a sinking ship but felt honor-bound not to try to save himself.
As I see it, Bach—intelligent and knowing as he is—wasn’t the right man for his job, either. From his own description of the day-to-day workings of United Artists, it appears that there was a vacuum of leadership even before the decision was taken to make Heaven’s Gate, and that he was part of that vacuum. In all probability, Michael Cimino could read Steven Bach a lot better than Bach could read Cimino. And if Cimino could, others could, too. The new management team looking for projects that would redound to U.A.’s glory and keep Transamerica proud and happy were perfect patsies. The movie business attracts flimflam artists, megalomaniacs, and pathological liars from all over the world; the essential part of the head of production’s job is having the instincts and the experience to know what and whom to say yes to. And in a period when—because of the widespread consumption of pills, cocaine, and God knows what—stars’ and directors’ track records may not be a valid guide to how they will perform next time, the executive needs genius instincts. And he has to exercise them before a picture beings rolling, because once it starts he has about as much control over the director as a hospital administrator has over a doctor during surgery.
When Cimino’s picture is out of control and is costing the company a million dollars a week, Bach is in a terrible bind. His account of the steps he takes—talking to an eminent director about possibly replacing Cimino, asking advice from an eminent producer, and so on—makes for good reading. But what he’s doing is remarkably tepid and ineffective. Obviously, if he fires Cimino, whose last picture, The Deer Hunter, has just won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, he and the other officers of U.A. will be vilified in the press and go down is history as hatchet men and philistines. But he doesn’t seem to be doing anything but wasting time giving people in the Hollywood community the chance to sympathize with him. When you get down to it, Bach conveys an impression of connoisseurship, erudition, and understanding while misunderstanding the problem: he’s the problem. He doesn’t do much except wring his hands until the last weeks of filming, when it finally registers on him that he has to show some force. By then, Cimino, who’s utterly dedicated to his amorphous vision, has shot over two hundred hours of film.
Bach looks back to a golden age in the fifties when the heads of United Artists “were able to draw upon a pool of thoroughly trained, knowledgeable professionals to whom independence was not synonymous with indulgence, self- or otherwise.” He looks back to the time “before poetic license had become the intellectual justification for all manner of creative licentiousness.” This hokey nostalgia isn’t worthy of him. When he complains about “licentiousness” and lack of discipline, he’s really saying that he couldn’t handle Michael Cimino. Maybe nobody could have, but the members of the U.A. team were the ones who said yes to him, because they thought they could. I admire the sensitivity and taste that Steven Bach shows in this book, but these are not the qualities that make a studio head. Whether artists have self-discipline or not, executives are supposed to be disciplined people with the strength and the smarts to impose discipline on others when it’s needed. That’s what they draw astronomic salaries for.
The New Yorker, August 12, 1985
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