The Deer Hunter

The Deer Hunter is a 1978 drama film directed and co-written by Michael Cimino about a trio of Russian American steel worker friends and their infantry service in the Vietnam War. The film stars Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Savage, John Cazale, Meryl Streep and George Dzundza. The story takes place in Clairton, a small working class town on the Monongahela River south of Pittsburgh and then in Vietnam, somewhere in the woodland and in Saigon, during the Vietnam War.

The film was based in part on an unproduced screenplay called "The Man Who Came To Play" by Louis Garfinkle and Quinn K. Redeker about Las Vegas and Russian Roulette. Producer Michael Deeley, who bought the script, hired writer/director Michael Cimino who, with Deric Washburn, rewrote the script, taking the Russian Roulette element and placing it in the Vietnam War. The film went over-budget and over-schedule and ended up costing $15 million. The scenes of Russian roulette were highly controversial on release.

The film won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director and was named by the American Film Institute as the 53rd Greatest Movie of All Time on the 10th Anniversary Edition of the AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies list.

Awards

Academy Awards record

  • Best Supporting Actor, Christopher Walken
  • Best Director, Michael Cimino
  • Best Editing, Peter Zinner
  • Best Picture, Barry Spikings, Michael Deeley, Michael Cimino, John Peverall
  • Best Sound, Richard Portman, William L. McCaughey, Aaron Rochin, C. Darin Knight

Golden Globe Awards record

  • Best Director, Michael Cimino
  • BAFTA Awards record
  • Best Cinematography, Vilmos Zsigmond
  • Best Editing, Peter Zinner
  • Lead up to Awards Season

Allan Carr, film producer and "old-fashioned mogul", used his networking abilities to promote The Deer Hunter. "Exactly how Allan Carr came into The Deer Hunter's orbit I can no longer remember," recalled producer Deeley, "but the picture became a crusade to him. He nagged, charmed, threw parties, he created word-of-mouth – everything that could be done in Hollywood to promote a project. Because he had no apparent motive for this promotion, it had an added power and legitimacy and it finally did start to penetrate the minds of the Universal's sales people that they actually had in their hands something a bit more significant than the usual." Deeley added that Carr's promotion of the film was influential in positioning The Deer Hunter for Oscar nominations.

On the Sneak Previews special "Oscar Preview for 1978", Roger Ebert correctly predicted that The Deer Hunter would win for Best Picture while Gene Siskel predicted that Coming Home would win. However, Ebert incorrectly guessed that Robert De Niro would win for Best Actor for Deer Hunter and Jill Clayburgh would win for Best Actress for An Unmarried Woman while Siskel called the wins for Jon Voight as Best Actor and Jane Fonda as Best Actress, both for Coming Home. Both Ebert and Siskel called the win for Christopher Walken receiving the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

According to producer Deeley, orchestrated lobbying against The Deer Hunter was led by Warren Beatty, whose own picture Heaven Can Wait had multiple nominations. Beatty also used ex-girlfriends in his campaign: Julie Christie, serving on the jury at the Berlin Film Festival where Deer Hunter was screened, had joined the walkout of the film by the Russian jury members. Jane Fonda also criticized The Deer Hunter in public. Deeley suggested that her criticisms partly stemmed from the competition between her film Coming Home vying with The Deer Hunter for Best Picture. According to Deeley, he planted a friend of his in the Oscar press area behind the stage to ask Fonda if she had seen The Deer Hunter. Fonda replied she had not seen the film, and to this day she still has not.

As the Oscars drew near, the backlash against The Deer Hunter gathered strength. When the limos pulled up to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on April 9, 1979, they were met by demonstrators, mostly from the Los Angeles chapter of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. The demonstrators waved placards covered with slogans that read "No Oscars for racism" and "The Deer Hunter a bloody lie" and thrust pamphlets berating Deer Hunter into long lines of limousine windows. Washburn, nominated for Best Original Screenplay, claims his limousine was pelted with stones. According to Variety, "Police and The Deer Hunter protesters clashed in a brief but bloody battle that resulted in 13 arrests."

De Niro was so anxious that he did not attend the Oscars ceremony. He asked the Academy to sit out the show backstage, but when the Academy refused, De Niro stayed home in New York. Producer Deeley made a deal with fellow producer David Puttnam, whose film Midnight Express was nominated, that each would take $500 to the ceremony so if one of them won, the winner would give the loser the $500 to "drown his sorrows in style."

51st Academy Awards

The Deer Hunter won five Oscars at the 51st Academy Awards in 1979:

  • Best Picture (John Wayne's final public appearance was to present the award).
  • Best Director (Michael Cimino)
  • Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Christopher Walken)
  • Best Film Editing
  • Best Sound (Richard Portman, William McCaughey, Aaron Rochin, Darin Knight).

In addition, the film was nominated in four other categories:

  • Best Actor in a Leading Role (Robert De Niro)
  • Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Meryl Streep)
  • Best Cinematography (Vilmos Zsigmond)
  • Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen (Michael Cimino, Deric Washburn, Louis Garfinkle and Quinn Redeker).

Golden Globes

  • Cimino won the film's only Golden Globe for Best Director.

Other nominations the film included Best Motion Picture - Drama, De Niro for Best Motion Picture Actor - Drama, Walken for Best Motion Picture Actor in a Supporting Role, Streep for Best Motion Picture Actress in a Supporting Role, and Washburn for Best Screenplay - Motion Picture.

Poster: