Bizarre Life of the Deer Hunter Genius; as the Controversial Film Is Released on DVD, We Reveal the Dark Side of Director Michael Cimino

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Byline: CHRISTOPHER GOODWIN

HOLLYWOOD'S modern day Howard Hughes makes a rare appearance, albeit a strictly aural one, in Britain this week. Michael Cimino, hailed as the most exciting new directorial talent at the end of the Seventies when his second film, The Deer Hunter, won five Oscars, has seldom been seen outside the ornate gates of his LA mansion in recent years. When he has ventured out, his bizarre, androgynous appearance - shockingly different from the hefty, bearded man who triumphantly held those Oscars aloft - has fuelled rumours that he is a preoperative transsexual. Many have even taken to calling him "Michelle" Cimino.

This week the strange, reclusive, 64-year-old Cimino pops up providing a director's commentary to the British DVD release of the movie that featured Robert De Niro and made stars of Meryl Streep and Christopher Walken.

Ostensibly, Cimino is simply defending his Vietnam epic (in its day it was derided as a "racist, Pentagon version of the war" by Jane Fonda).

But insiders believe that Cimino may be seizing the opportunity to redeem himself in the eyes of Hollywood.

For, just two years after The Deer Hunter, Cimino's career was to crash as dramatically as it had soared. He spent $44 million - $34 million of that over budget - on Heaven's Gate, a rambling three-hour Western that took just $1.5 million at the box-office.

It bankrupted United Artists and effectively ended an era of creative freedom that had spawned such brilliant young auteurs as Francis Ford Coppola, Paul Schrader, Peter Bogdanovich and Martin Scorsese.

Cimino's name became synonymous with megalomanical excess. His obsessiveness - he filmed 53 takes of Kris Kristofferson cracking a whip, for example - became the stuff of legend and ushered in today's era of play-safe blockbusters and sequels. The fallen hero became a joke.

"I look at it now as an assassination," says Kristofferson. "Poor Michael, it was like watching your baby ripped up in front of you, then having it blamed on you."

Since his spectacular downfall Cimino has made a few small films, but nothing he actually wanted to make. And strange rumours about Cimino have circulated in Hollywood, fuelled by the dramatic change in his appearance.

Once dark and heavyset, "the new Michael Cimino has his hair teased into a Rod Stewart shag with sprigs of bangs hanging over his forehead," wrote Vanity Fair. "It's very blonde. His eyebrows are groomed into arches. His nose looks almost petite. His lips are puffed up as are his cheekbones. There are no visible wrinkles on his forehead. …