Authorexecobit: Steven Bach

Heaven’s Gate is one of those legendary Hollywood disasters that actually lives up to its reputation. Yep, it’s ambitious, telling the story of a Wyoming range war in the style of Soviet social realism. It looks like money has been thrown on the screen: writer-director Michael Cimino built a town complete with working street-car. It’s incredibly long, clocking in at nearly four hours. At times it’s inexplicable, as when half-an-hour is spend watching a Harvard graduation scene that was actually lensed in Oxford. It’s also unbearable.

Steven Bach was the United Artists studio executive who fell on his sword when Heaven’s Gate was released in 1980. Its $7.5 million budget had nearly quintupled. Cimino’s magnum opus was jeered out of theatres. Its failure led to United Artists’ collapse, and the death knell was sounded for the second golden age of Hollywood cinema. But Bach had the last laugh with 1985’s Final Cut: Dreams and Disaster in the Making of Heaven’s Gate, an account which has become a textbook on how not to make a film. Bach died of cancer in Vermont last Wednesday, aged 70.

During the 1970s, Bach was a key player in that creative outburst by film-hungry USC graduates and New World Pictures alumni. His production company Pantheon Films produced The Parallax View and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, which is currently being remade by Tony Scott. He worked to carry on United Artists’ tradition as an artist-friendly studio and scored many of the 1970s’ artistic triumphs. As the worldwide boss of UA, Bach had his fingers on films like Woody Allen‘s Annie Hall, Martin Scorsese‘s Raging Bull and Ivan Passer‘s Cutter’s Way (released the same year as Heaven’s Gate and everything that movie is not).

But in Hollywood, you’re only as good as your last film. Bach enjoyed a fruitful second act as a biographer and academic. His Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl was a clear-eyed account of the film-maker’s complicity with the Nazis that Publishers Weekly described as “a lively, incisive look at a compelling and somewhat appalling figure.” He also wrote books on Moss Hart and Marlene Dietrich.


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