By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
It was late on October 25 of last year that I got my last sight of Steven Bach. We had done an onstage gig together at the Writers Institute in Albany, New York: We had shown Renoir’s Partie de Campagne, all about passing time and lost illusions, and we had tried to explain to the audience how we loved the film and the idea of films like it. There had been a dinner afterward, with us at opposite ends of the table, and we hadn’t talked that much. I was to leave early the next morning to go somewhere else on the writer’s trail, but we were staying at the same guesthouse in Albany, so there was a chance of an early breakfast together. But Steven said he was tired and doubted he could make it. I wondered even then if his extreme thinness was part of the tiredness. He was too polite and too eager a companion usually to miss a breakfast, even at six in the morning. Well, he died on March 26. Turned out he had cancer and didn’t tell anyone there was anything wrong.
He would have been 69 this April. We were near enough the same age, and for about the last 20 years we had been colleagues in the same profession — writing books about the movies, teaching and offering each other the same mordant congratulations in a line from Renoir’s Grand Illusion on being among “the last of a dying generation.”
Apart from this, we were very different. Steven was born in Pocatello, Idaho, in 1940, and raised in nearby Boise, although his line (ironic, fond but quite clear) was that it had been difficult to be raised in those places. The Steven Bach of adulthood was far more likely a citizen of New York, Paris or Vienna. He was smart, sophisticated, funny, a good raconteur and a great audience (and those traits are not always in harness). He was an inspiring teacher just as he must have been an exciting colleague when he was once the head of production at United Artists.
That was in the great days of the 1970s, when UA was still alive and well with its proud logo on films like Network, Annie Hall, Apocalypse Now, Being There, Manhattan and Raging Bull. Steven never claimed to be responsible for those films, but he was part of a production team that gave them the go-ahead and watched over the results. Exactly the same could have been said for Heaven’s Gate. But more so.
That brave adventure was Steven’s baby. Like others, he had seen Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter and recognized an astonishing talent. And so United Artists had engaged Cimino to make a picture, a Western, about the Johnson County wars in Wyoming. It was always intended as an epic and a work of spectacular grandeur, but there was a moment in its history when it was just a movie like any other. Then something happened — there’s no need to take sides. Cimino believed he was a great artist — I do not dispute that, nor did Steven Bach, though it’s a burdensome caption in movies —and as he contemplated the picture it grew, in importance and self-importance. Distinguishing those two things is always vital in the picture business and murder on the ego. The budget and the landscape of Heaven’s Gate also grew. The director’s dreams of what it was about expanded (in general, it’s best if they narrow during the making) and UA was caught — hoping for a masterpiece, increasingly fearful of riding a white elephant, but aware that the project was out of control.
“Never set out to make a masterpiece,” Steven mused in later years. “Just let it happen — if it will.”
To cut a long story short, Heaven’s Gate ended up too long and expensive, bristling with warning stories in the press that it was a disaster. So when it opened, most critics already knew what to say. The picture was damned. It found no audience. It was quickly cut down, but there was no rescue. The film was written off, Steven and others were fired, and United Artists was over as the great dream begun in 1919.
I said it was a long story, and so it is. To our great good fortune, this story is told in a book called Final Cut, published in 1985, the best book ever written about the making of a movie. The author of that book was Steven Bach.
He tells the story of the production with lucidity and suspense (he was a storyteller), with sadness, fondness and great amusement. Yes, there were people to blame, he says, and Steven Bach was among them. But everybody on the disaster longed to make a great film, too. It is his detached accuracy that makes Final Cut essential reading for anyone caught up in picture production. Michael Cimino emerges as well as possible (though he was a changed man thereafter), and the reader is left to puzzle over the innate madness of film that so many hopes turned into such a battle.
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