LAST OF THE BIG SPENDERS ; Thanks to His Vietnam Epic `the Deer Hunter', the World Expected Great Things from Director Michael Cimino. but Bankrupting a Studio, Becoming a Recluse and Possibly Having a Sex Change Wasn't Quite What Anyone Had in Mind. in a Rare Interview, the Volatile Auteur Tells Nancy Griffin Why Hollywood - and America - Needs Him More Than Ever

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What people are so desperately looking for now is somebody who stands for something," said Michael Cimino. And what do most people in Hollywood think Michael Cimino stands for? He is, of course, the director of The Deer Hunter, the first great Vietnam War movie. He is also the Last Auteur, the Man Who Brought Down United Artists (UA), the director of Heaven's Gate, one of the biggest disasters in the history of film. Most of all, they see the enfant terrible, now in middle age.

What does Cimino say he stands for? Uncompromising artistry, love of country, and integrity. The new patriotism has galvanised Hollywood: war movies are back, and Cimino likes to make them. He feels vindicated that last autumn, citizens everywhere were singing "God Bless America", the anthem his characters sang at the end of The Deer Hunter. He has recently published his first novel, Big Jane, about a woman who grows up on Long Island in the 1950s, sees America from the back of a motorcycle and fights in the Korean War.

Now Cimino is trying to raise money to make a bloody three-hour adaptation of Man's Fate, Andre Malraux's dense, heady novel about the squelched 1927 Communist uprising in Shanghai. "There was never a better time to try to do Man's Fate," he said, "because Man's Fate is what it's all about right now. It's about the nature of love, of friendship, the nature of honour and dignity. How fragile and important all of those things are in a time of crisis."

Cimino has never taken the easy path. Martha De Laurentiis, who with her husband Dino helped produce Cimino's films Year of the Dragon and Desperate Hours, read his script for Man's Fate and passed on it. "If you edit it down, it could be a very tight, beautiful, sensational movie," she said, "but violent, and ultimately a subject matter that I don't think America is that interested in."

Last year's re-release of Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now was bittersweet: such a brave, dark and personal film would never get financed today. Instead, what passes for a serious war film is Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down, with its sublime footage of beautiful young men in action and helicopters cruising at magic hour, and bizarrely inappropriate rock tunes to make the unremitting carnage more palatable. Michael Cimino is not - could never be - a Jerry Bruckheimer kind of director. Cimino's style is painterly and deliberate, and he's not interested in whipping up the special effects that MTV-bred audiences expect.

He is also, at 62, the latest French reclamation project. And why not? They love Jerry Lewis; they love Mickey Rourke. So how surprising is it, really, that the French also love Michael Cimino?

"I'm just tickled. I really haven't come down yet. The stars must be falling into place," Cimino said last August, sitting in his favourite breakfast hangout, Duke's on Sun-set Boulevard, in Los Angeles, a few days after he was informed that the French Minister of Culture would bestow on him the country's Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres award for his work. He would be honoured in Paris in September, at the same time that Big Jane, translated into French, was being published by the prestigious house of Gallimard.

"If you look on the wall, there is a pyramid," Cimino said, pointing a chip at a series of framed portraits behind the bar. "There's Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison. If you follow a diagonal line, you come to Michael Cimino - right above the white cups, in the black frame. And then if you go across the base of the pyramid, you come to Jimi Hendrix. It's a pyramid of American myth."

Hmmm... Which of these people is not like the others? Cimino's contribution to the culture is in serious need of some updating - and his hope is that Big Jane will start the process. "Not only did Malraux have Gallimard as his publisher, he also won this award, as did Flaubert and Gide and James Joyce and Faulkner and Styron and Jackson Pollock. …