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Books: Watching the Deal Go Down: FINAL CUT

5 minute read
Jay Cocks

“Dreams and Disaster in the Making of Heaven’s Gate” is the subtitle of this funny, bright and twice-shy book, but that, as the citizens of Hollywood like to say, is just “powerful marquee.” Steven Bach was head of worldwide production at United Artists, and Final Cut is really a frontline memoir of studio stewardship, a bemused but unbowed recollection of skirmishes on film sets, hand-to-hand combat in the screening room and trench warfare throughout the executive corridors. The book has a huge cast of characters, but no clear winners or losers, and no heroes, including the author himself. Film students take note. Most jobs in and around movies are perfect paradigms of a no-win situation. Bach wisely quotes Screenwriter-Novelist William Goldman’s maxim about the movie business: “Nobody knows anything.”

But everybody talks, and occasionally someone says something worth hearing. Bach, for instance. A former teacher who ascended to a top position in an outfit founded 66 years ago by Charles Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, Bach skimps, oddly, on the details of his own career. If he is reticent about his biography, however, he recounts the nutball velocity of studio decision making with brio. No book since Lillian Ross’s Picture has such knowing portraits of studio bosses. There are vivid cameos of executives like Chris Mankiewicz, gadfly son of one of movietown’s first families, who keeps insisting at a staff meeting that a certain hot literary property possesses the approximate worth of a piece of excrement. “Everybody knows that,” acknowledges his weary boss. “It’s about whether we want to make a goddamn deal.” Within months, Mankiewicz is aced out of his job, his boss has been the recipient of a triple-bypass operation, and United Artists, under the leadership of Bach and others, is undertaking a western originally called The Johnson County War and budgeted at $7.5 million. Some $28 million more and a couple of title changes later, Heaven’s Gate would invite almost unprecedented calumny from critics, flame out at the box office and, Hollywood believed, bring down United Artists.

Heaven’s Gate is the book’s centerpiece, not, marquee to the contrary, its sole subject, and for Bach the making of the movie becomes an exercise in delusion and delirium. United Artists needs a hit and prestige. Michael Cimino has just won two Oscars for The Deer Hunter. Bach and his executive counterpart David Field like the whole project, and practically everyone is convinced the filmmaker will stay on budget. The deal is done.

Everything goes smash, but not in the show business sense of the word. Cimino, months over schedule, ends up with 1.3 million ft. of film to edit, “the equivalent,” Bach writes, “of more than 100 normal-length feature films.” The finished product, meant by contract to be no more than three hours in length, turns out closer to four and is reviled by the New York press. Withdrawn, shortened, re-edited, the film is rereleased to no avail. The bloodletting in its climactic battle scene is nothing compared with the carnage that ensues at United Artists. Previously observed operating along the far edges of the action, Norbert Auerbach takes over as president. He immediately overrides the advice of his production staff and decides to make Yentl. And why not? Barbra Streisand has sung him the score and suggested he would be just right for the role of her father.

Streisand reneges, or Auerbach misunderstands. In any case, Bach is canned, United Artists is sold to MGM, and La Ronde, Hollywood executive-style, continues. Bach writes about all these shenanigans with due sardonic edge, and includes deft vignettes about Robert De Niro, Woody Allen, Peter Sellers and Martin Scorsese. But his portrait of Cimino, who did not cooperate in the writing of the book, strains for a balance that Bach finally cannot strike. He berates Cimino for rampant egomania and describes a conflict of interest regarding the director’s choice of a location. Land that United Artists had cleared and improved with an irrigation system turned out to belong to the filmmaker. But Bach later states emphatically that Cimino’s sole ambition was “to create … a work of lasting art.”

That aim, at least, has become a little easier to judge, now that the dust has settled. Heaven’s Gate did not help United Artists, but it did not wreck it either. It was the symbolic point on which the company finally foundered, while the film itself, for which Bach has little remaining regard, endures. It was ecstatically reviewed in London when the uncut version was released there in 1983 and actually brought a few dollars’ profit into the distribution coffers. Technology will ultimately settle the score. The full version of Heaven’s Gate is available at the neighborhood video store in two cassettes that are about the size and heft of Final Cut. The book is good, but, as it turns out for once, the movie is even better. The business will not appreciate the irony, nor is it likely to learn lessons from any of this. Final Cut makes a fine textbook and a strong caution, but Hollywood, a place of exalted and expensive vanity, has always had a tough time looking at itself in the mirror. –By Jay Cocks

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