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Don Winslow: Marquee Values & My Night At Heaven’s Gate

Don Winslow

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Editor’s Note: Don Winslow is the author of bestsellers including The Power of the Dog, The Winter of Frankie Machine, The Force and others. In a week in which William Morrow publishes his novella collection Broken, Winslow has agreed to write a week’s worth of original columns on his experiences in Hollywood. Today’s piece is for my money perhaps the best piece of writing I’ve read on Deadline, and it was worth agreeing to wear a New England Pats shirt for the whole week (hostage pic below). – MF

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Marquee Values & My Night at Heaven’s Gate

By Don Winslow

November 19, 1980.

A date that will live in in-filmy.

The premiere of Heaven’s Gate.

I was there.

I’d been living in New York City attempting to be a writer with no discernible success, and was making my living as the assistant manager of the Sutton Theatre on 57th Street east of 3rd Avenue. In the spring of 1980, I took a Kerouac-style sabbatical and headed west with my friend Dave Horowitz, ending up in a town named – I kid you not – Beyond Hope, Idaho. (It was three miles beyond Hope, Idaho.) I helped run a few cattle and stripped bark off logs, but my most macho job was driving vans of salad dressing to towns around Glacier Park. (Without men like me, pilgrim, there would have been no Thousand Island in Libby, Montana.)

Now the prospect of spending winter in a town that had officially given up hope was bleak (although one winter there gave me one of my favorite sights – a drive-in movie marquee, half-buried in snow, which read F—K YOU TIL SPRING), so I called up my old boss in the movie theater chain, Herb Millman, who was then managing Cinema 1 on 3rd Avenue, a prominent premiere house. He was actually glad to hear from me because they were about to open a major new film called Heaven’s Gate, there was a little tension around it, and he could use a guy with my experience. And did I know where Horowitz was, because he needed a good usher – which, as it turned out that night, he did.

So we worked our way to New York and reported to the theater on November 18, 1980 – aka Catastrophe Eve.

“A little tension around it”?

You know that tired saying “you could cut the tension with a knife”?

There hasn’t been a blade forged that could cut this tension. You couldn’t cut this tension with a blow torch. You couldn’t cut this tension with any of the cool stuff James Caan used to crack safes in Thief.

I’d worked premieres before. I did The Great Train Robbery, Animal House, The Shining, so I was used to stressed-out studio executives, nervous directors and jittery actors. Those of us who worked in the theaters prided ourselves on our jaded attitude toward celebrities – we had them coming in all the time, too often expecting free tickets for themselves and their entourage. (Although one cold December day I walked outside and found Sean Connery and his wife waiting patiently in line to buy tickets to his own movie, and John Belushi used to show up to entertain the people waiting on line for Animal House.)

So I was usually inured to their goings-on, it had little to do with me. I was making $155 a week, my only interest in the success of the film was (if memory serves) the 1/2 of 1% of the concession sales I got as assistant manager. (Movie theater managers always hated getting Woody Allen films, because the well-heeled audience went out to dinner before or after the movie and didn’t buy from the concession stand. The marijuana-fueled crowds for Animal House, on the other hand, were an economic boom to the popcorn business.)

But I couldn’t ignore the stress around Heaven’s Gate – it was palpable. I heard that the film ran three hours and forty minutes, limiting the number of shows you could run in a day – a financial disaster to the theater – and making sure we’d all be getting home very late at night, actually early in the morning. It was way over budget, reportedly costing United Artists $30 million – a lot of money in those days. A worse harbinger was that the marketing people kept changing the window display in the front of the theater – a sure sign that they didn’t know what the movie was.

But I was excited about the film. I’ve always loved Westerns and heard that this one was shot in my old stomping grounds in western Montana. I felt connected to it, I’d lived and worked in its locations. Part of it was shot in Wallace, Idaho, which owed its supply of Ranch dressing to me.

The day arrived.

Life imitating cinema, it started with heavy rain that then turned to slashing sleet.

We were all warned to be on our toes and look our best. We had our tuxedos pressed and looked, as usual, like undertakers at a cheap funeral – not knowing that we were actually undertakers at a very expensive funeral.

I don’t remember much about that afternoon. I recall that there was press screening – with the usual terrified hush when Vincent Canby came in – I remember there was some sort of crisis about Kris Kristofferson’s pants, to wit, his not having any (which Steven Bach confirms in his great book, Final Cut) and I remember that we set up a champagne bar in the lobby.

That night, though, is indelible.

As per any premiere, the limousines rolled in, the celebrities emerged, we struggled to keep the autograph seekers and paparazzi on the other side of the velvet rope and got soaked doing it, we settled the disputes about who got to sit where.

Oh yeah, and we broke up a fist-fight.

Just before the movie started some jerk hit his girlfriend and a guy – a big guy – a few rows behind got up and punched him.

And kept punching him.

I ran down to haul him off the jerk. Now, I’m 5’6” and a buck-thirty, and had about as much effect on this big guy as a sneeze in a hurricane. I don’t even think he knew I was there. Luckily, David Horowitz was 6’6” and came in behind me. Together, we got the big guy (“I won’t stand for a man hitting a woman”) off the jerk, and were going to throw both of them out when Herb informed me the big guy was a VIP.

“Who is he?” I asked. I once threw an inebriated Robert Altman out of my theater, and I liked Robert Altman.

“I don’t know,” Herb says. “But we can’t throw him out.”

We threw the other guy out.

He wanted to go anyway, to attend to the, uhh, blood.

The warm-up act over, the movie started.

As it turned out, we should have stayed with the fight.

It was awful.

Total silence.

Yawns.

Snide, contemptuous laughter.

Twenty minutes later, I left the theater went into the lobby, and saw a man standing alone, his face in his hands, mumbling, “What am I going to do? What am I going to do?”

I found out later it was the director, Michael Cimino.

Intermission arrived, and the crowd came out like stunned cattle. They milled around, mostly ignoring the champagne bar, avoiding eye-contact. A few of the more brazen snuck out into the sleet. It would have been an Irish wake, except that no one was drinking or telling funny stories about the deceased.

A gaggle of studio executives and theater-chain people were huddled in a corner and they were engaged in an animated conversation, otherwise known as an argument. Hands were being waved, fingers pointed, and for a few seconds I thought I was going to be in another brawl and started looking around for Horowitz.

When intermission ended and what was left of the audience dutifully filed back in, Herb called me over and told me to get some ushers and change the marquee.

“To what?” I asked.

I actually thought the marketing people had changed the movie’s title.

“To the next movie,” he said.

“The next movie?” I asked. “Herb, this one’s been running an hour and a half.”

“They’re closing it,” he said. “Tonight. Change the marquee.”

I don’t remember what the next film was, but people leaving the theater that night walked out under a marquee that didn’t read Heaven’s Gate or even F—k You Til Spring, and I’ve always wondered if Cimino noticed it.

I felt bad for him.

As I recall, the gaggle met again, changed its collective mind, and the next morning we changed the marquee back to Heaven’s Gate.

It lasted for a week.

The few people who came did so out of macabre curiosity, to see if a film could really be as bad as the critics said.

The reviews were vitriolic – gratuitously vicious. A trimmed-down version of the film opened the next April and didn’t do well. Recent re-evaluations have been far kinder, and I agree with them.

There’s a post-script to this story.

Sixteen years later, the director Richard Donner was going to do a film of one of my novels. For some reason, the subject of Heaven’s Gate came up and he mentioned he was at the infamous premiere.

“So was I,” I said, and explained that I worked there.

He looked at me oddly. “Do you remember a fistfight?”

“I sure do.”

“That was me,” Donner said. “I saw this guy hit his girlfriend and…”

November 19, 1980.

I was there.

Buy Winslow’s book here.

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