Leave Him to Heaven: R.I.P. Steven Bach, 1940-2009
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.
Of course, history has been its own reward. Once the fuss died down, it was easier to see that Heaven’s Gate was an astonishing thing. Yes, it is too long — the opening Harvard scene might go altogether, allowing the film to start as James Averill (Kris Kristofferson) arrives in Wyoming. But over the years, the film’s reputation has steadily improved, and I heard Steven say on a few occasions that he reckoned he might live to see the word “masterpiece” descending on it like one of Wyoming’s great sunsets. Alas, not quite, but nearly.
The Bach fired from UA was in his early 40s, at which time he might have become a great creative executive. But he was wounded and as he went away to write Final Cut, the writer and the teacher emerged. He began to teach, at Columbia and Bennington, where he was famous for gently scolding young people for ignoring films made before they were born. As a writer, he moved on from Final Cut to three large biographies — on Marlene Dietrich, Moss Hart and Leni Riefenstahl. In all of these, his research was prolonged and ingenious, his knowledge of the business unrivaled and his human sympathy always felt.
Of his three subjects, I’d guess he felt the most for Moss Hart. He adored Dietrich (and had studied with her mentor, Josef von Sternberg) but knew she was a monster, too, just as he knew his essential duty with Riefenstahl was to reveal a liar. Alas, the Moss Hart book was the least impressive, largely because Steven wasn’t able to get as deep into Hart’s sexual double life as he wished. Hart was married, but he was gay. Steven, too, was gay, and I think his many friends knew that, but it was not a thing he talked about much. I don’t know why, but it may be that Idaho had told him over and over again that such things were not for public discussion.
I knew Steven as a colleague in the business of writing those books. We only saw each other occasionally, for we were sited on opposite coasts, but we had a busy correspondence about all matters filmic, and we were part of a small corps of writers who helped each other with contacts, research clues and the overall worry that young people today don’t care about movie history. Along the way, we dedicated books to one another and we compared notes. We found it increasingly hard to mount such books or to make them successful. We had a dream, the two of us, that one day we might do an anthology of Hollywood gossip. It was to be called, “As Mary Astor said ...” But, of course, we sighed, there’s hardly a publisher who knows who Mary Astor was.
In his last year or two, he was playing with a book on Noël Coward and we talked about it because I was English and had a mother who cherished every word from Coward’s lips but who probably never dreamed he was gay. It would have been a great subject, just as Steven’s Dietrich book is so merry and happy with the idea of the great Marlene playing herself, and always getting into frantic tie-breakers.
My life is lopsided without him, and I am too old to find new friends now. The older you get, the more you realize that friendship is the great subject and the great vulnerability, nearly as good and bad as having children.
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