How One Flop Killed UA: Steven Bach’s Final Cut

Final CutFinal Cut by Steven Bach

It’s not often that a movie is qualified as an unmitigated disaster. There’s flops, sure, and the occasional stinker (see: Movie 42). Sometimes a movie is even a trainwreck, something that derails a career (see: Halle Barry’s career post-Catwoman). But a complete, total diaster? Those only come along once in a long, long while. And they might never have come bigger than Heaven’s Gate.

The late 1970s in Hollywood was the last gasps of a director-fuelled scene. Francis Ford Coppola was taking his sweet time to edit, re-edit and edit Apocalypse Now. Martin Scorsese was preparing Raging Bull, a dark movie about the troubled boxer Jake La Motta. And Michael Cimino had just won praise and acclaim for The Deer Hunter and was shopping around a new movie, a western about the Johnson County War. All three films would be released by United Artists, the studio founded by Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, DW Griffiths and Douglas Fairbanks. The first two are constantly ranked among the best movies ever released. The third would kill the studio.

Stephen Bach’s Final Cut is long look at the chaotic making of Heaven’s Gate and the downfall of a Hollywood studio. It’s  absorbing, detailed and messy. Bodies are thrown under buses, dirt is slung. After all, the downfall of United Artists is often blamed on the singular failure of Gate, but as Bach’s book shows, there was a lot more it than just that.

The late 70s were not a great time for UA, even if they had several hits. Owned by Transamerica, an insurance company that wanted to change the studio’s name to Transamerica Films, so more people would see their name. They had acclaim for movies like Last Tango In Paris or Midnight Cowboy, but these were rated X, meaning theatre chains passed. And so went a large share of the profits. And that was with movies which saw release: the editing of Apocalypse Now was a train wreck, with Coppola allegedly hiding a copy in his house to keep it away from studio execs. Their spring 1978 movie wouldn’t see release until 1979.

Meanwhile, the studio was ripping itself apart. Longtime executive Arthur Krim lost a power struggle to Transamerica and fled, along with other high-ranking execs, to form Orion Pictures. The company was unstable, as is this side of Bach’s book: executives come and go with surprisingly regularity. It’s a wonder anything got done in this messy chaos.

But things got done and UA did have some success. During this struggle, Woody Allen shot and released Manhattan, arguably his best movie. Rocky was a surprise hit and it’s 1979 sequel did even better at the box office. And several Bond movies – notably Moonraker and For Your Eyes Only – were box office hits. And while Raging Bull wasn’t a hit, it garnered critical acclaim from nearly corner.

It’s a confusing tale, but Bach is always at the centre and tries to keep things level. His book offers several points where if UA acted differently, they could still be in business. They range from everything from the unique contract they gave Gate writer and director Michael Cimino that allowed him final cut to a string of executives leaving the company to a number of risky but high-yield movie bets failing on them. They weren’t just gambling on Gate being a success: they were hoping it’d be part of a number of successful movies. Not only did none of these pan out, but they passed on some films that did.

But maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference if these pictures did get made and were successful. UA, as Bach paints it, was a chaotic organization, headed by a CEO who didn’t inspire his underlings and marred by in-fighting between executives, who constantly complained about being undercut and conspired against. It’s sometimes hard to keep track of who’s who in Final Cut because so many people quit, get fired or just change jobs.

Those coming to Final Cut looking for a detailed look at the making of Gate will be a little disappointed. It’s a book about how one of the major players in Hollywood fell apart and sold. It’s closer to Barbarians at the Gate than it is a Hollywood tell-all.  But that’s the book’s charm: Bach didn’t have a directorial background and he wasn’t there for the day-to-day shoots. Coming from him, a behind-the-scenes look at this movie would be a little suspicious. To be fair, he does have the occasional glance, like Cimino banning people from the set, shooting millions of feet of film and relentlessly battling executives over his schedule and budget. Or the lasting image of Cimino: someone determined to produce something on his own terms, even if it meant destroying it in the process. At least he’s found a willing company in Criterion, who’ve indulged him with a deluxe box set, conspicuously absent of any controversial statements (save the occasional shot at American critics).

Rating: 8/10Final Cut is a fascinating look at the inner workings of a movie company: how it interacts with the bosses, with directors and producers and how, in so many words, the sausage gets made. Or in this case, un-made. Recommended for film fans, especially those who splurged on the deluxe Criterion set and want to hear the other side of the story.




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