Francis Ford Coppola 101
The circumstances that allowed Francis Ford Coppola, a young and unseasoned director, to make 1972’s The Godfather, a gangster epic of enormous ambition and scale, has become the stuff of legend: Between more experienced directors passing on it and studio boss Robert Evans’ instinct that an Italian-American should direct it, Coppola got the job, under what he presumed was the assumption that Paramount could push him around. And he nearly lost the job at several points along the way for a variety of reasons, from controversial casting decisions (the studio wanted Ernest Borgnine in the Marlon Brando role) to production hiccups to dailies from cinematographer Gordon Willis that came back so dark they seemed completely unusable. It’s one of those rare occasions in Hollywood when the system breaks down and a masterpiece accidentally slips through.
But greatness often arises from the friction between obdurate forces, and the battles between Paramount and Coppola are part of the film’s creative fabric, which thrives on conflict. Based on Mario Puzo’s novel, The Godfather moves on deliciously pulpy stories of mob hits and a decapitated thoroughbred, but Coppola’s distaste for the gangster genre keeps nudging the movie in another, far richer direction. Wary of enforcing stereotypes about Italians and Sicilians, Coppola turned the luxuriant saga of the Corleone crime family into a metaphor for American capitalism and the utter ruthlessness with which business gets done in their adopted country. In the end, Paramount got the violent, commercially appealing shoot-’em-up they wanted and Coppola got the subtext and cultural authenticity that transformed The Godfather into a classic.
Among the unforgettable contributions: A peerless cast (Brando’s gravitas as the boss, Al Pacino’s quiet calculation as his successor, the push-and-pull between the tempestuous James Caan and the taciturn Robert Duvall); Nino Rota’s evocative score; the famed cross-cutting between a baptism and a series of coordinated assassinations; and the exquisite balance between violent setpieces and the behind-the-scenes machinations of the powerful men who orchestrate them. There’s also, above all, an emphasis on family and ritual that would resurface throughout Coppola’s life and career, all starting with a wedding that’s as much about joyful ritual as it is about the poisonous secrets and insularity that propel the Corleones toward tragedy.
If there’s anything more improbable than The Godfather’s creation, it may be 1974’s The Godfather Part II, which risks diminishing the original film by extending the story by popular demand. Once again, Coppola gets a boost from Puzo’s pungent stories of mob business, revenge, and internecine squabbles, and once again, he latches onto much larger themes than gangsterism. For starters, Part II is one of the greatest films ever about the immigrant experience: Flashing back to young Vito Corleone (played as a young man by Robert De Niro), a frail boy making the journey from Sicily to Ellis Island, the film offers up iconic images of the poor and huddled masses seeking entrance into a country that’s full of promise and portent.
From there, Coppola depicts young Vito’s rise to power as a harsh commentary on American promises of opportunity and upward mobility, which are realized here through Darwinian means. Both prequel and sequel, Part II juxtaposes Vito’s tenacious fight for survival and leverage—and the quest for vengeance that motivates it—with Michael’s soul-withering adventures as head of the Corleone family. The larger scope allows Coppola to tour various periods and settings—New York City in the early 20th century, Cuba on the brink of Batista’s demise, the steadfast traditions of the “Old Country”—and the cutting between Vito and Michael reveals the many different forms of inheritance one passes on to the other.
In between the two Godfathers, Coppola dusted off a script of his that he’d long wanted to shoot: 1974’s The Conversation, an elliptical exploration of how voyeurism impacts identity. Gene Hackman stars as a surveillance expert who prides himself on professionalism, and on not getting personally involved with his cases. But when Hackman begins to worry that he’s recorded evidence of a murder plot on his latest job, he falls into a stew of self-doubt and paranoia, driving away the few people left in his life as he tries to parse the meaning of the words on his tapes. The Conversation features a tour-de-force performance by Hackman, who does most of his acting by reacting, fumbling inarticulately for the words that will explain what he’s doing without giving away too much of himself. The movie is also a tour-de-force piece of directing by Coppola, who strips his own script down to the bone, working to suggest who Hackman is and what’s happening to him without leaning too much on dialogue. Instead, The Conversation offers a series of tense, perfectly wrought moments, adding up to a character sketch at once specific to its protagonist and applicable to everyone who’s ever felt a little spooked and alienated.
The Conversation is also significant in Coppola’s career for what it represented, coming as it did right after one of the biggest hits in the history of film. Because Coppola started his career in the early ’60s, a few years before the “New Hollywood” wave rolled through, he became a de facto mentor to a lot of the youngsters then trying to get their own start in the business. It was a role Coppola relished, and his avuncular nature led to the founding of American Zoetrope, which Coppola conceived as being a safe place for this new generation to explore the art of cinema, free from big studio pressure. Through Zoetrope, Coppola produced George Lucas’ THX 1138 and American Graffiti, and then The Conversation, which was Coppola’s first project with his own company. It was a hell of a statement of purpose: an uncompromising yet accessible masterpiece, right out of the box.
Coppola carried that can-do/look-at-me bravado over to his first post-Godfather II project: Apocalypse Now. Zoetrope stalwarts Lucas, John Milius, and Carroll Ballard had all been involved with the film as proposed writers and/or directors at various points—each excited by the idea of adapting Joseph Conrad’s psychological adventure novel Heart Of Darkness into a guerrilla Vietnam War movie. But by the mid-’70s, Lucas was making Star Wars, Milius had become a studio hand, and American Zoetrope was foundering, so Coppola claimed Apocalypse Now for himself and headed to the Philippines to shoot it with a big cast and big effects, looking to make a semi-improvised art film on a blockbuster budget, and maybe re-spark the imagination of his whole co-opted generation.
Some moments in Apocalypse Now succeed thrillingly at just that marriage of abstraction and money, such as the mesmerizing, unblinking opening shot of a jungle going up in flames. But Coppola bows to the rigid demands of the narrative, which sees a Special Forces operative played by Martin Sheen heading upriver to confront an unhinged colonel played by Marlon Brando. The movie is partly about how the U.S. war machine arrives equipped with American excess, and as Coppola famously pointed out in his 1979 Cannes press conference—preserved in the George Hickenlooper/Fax Bahr/Eleanor Coppola documentary Hearts Of Darkness—Apocalypse Now’s production mirrored its theme. Too many disposable resources and too much fear of failure distorted a simple idea, making it simultaneously pretentious and plain. Only occasionally does Coppola let the story’s episodic structure and the crutch of Sheen’s narration (written by war correspondent Michael Herr) give him the license to explore pure cinematic texture, in sequences where the action curdles into absurdity. Ultimately though, any flaws in Apocalypse Now—compounded by the exhausting 2001 “Redux” edition of the film—are massively overshadowed by the stunning images that Coppola captured through his sheer chutzpah. Cineastes can continue to discuss and debate the film that might’ve been, if not for commercial demands and Coppola’s various hesitations, but the Apocalypse Now that exists is still remarkable, and still sends the message the director intended: “Here’s what can be done. Now you try it.”
Though Coppola had dabbled in exploitation and B-movie work-for-hire in the early ’60s, the 1966 romantic comedy You’re A Big Boy Now is in many ways the first “real” Francis Ford Coppola film. Adapted from a David Benedictus novel (and shot as Coppola’s thesis film at UCLA), You’re A Big Boy Now stars Peter Kastner as a naive manchild set loose in New York, under orders from his stern father Rip Torn to grow up, while his mother Geraldine Page demands that he stay away from girls and cigarettes. (“If you don’t smoke until you’re 21 you get a special no-smoking present,” she tells him, while taking a drag of her own.) Divorced from context, You’re A Big Boy Now may look like one of the hundreds of excessively wacky and whimsical youthsploitation films that came out in the ’60s—especially given Kastner’s goofy romanticism, exemplified by his habit of roller-skating through the city while daydreaming about black men playing bagpipes.
But You’re A Big Boy Now predates a lot of the ersatz Hollywood twee-fests that cluttered up cinemas at the end of the decade, and it’s also a lot truer in its depiction of how innocence gets dashed in a city filled with painfully lonely people. The movie is more the spiritual predecessor to the grubby early Brian De Palma satires than to pap like How To Commit Marriage or Butterflies Are Free. (In fact, a scene where Kastner roams through the smut shops of Times Square while the plaintive harmonica of The Lovin’ Spoonful plays on the soundtrack looks and sounds an awful lot like John Schlesinger’s Oscar-winning Midnight Cowboy, made three years later.) You’re A Big Boy Now is also a clear predecessor to pretty much every movie Coppola has made since. Here’s where The Coppola Method takes hold, as the director uses Benedictus’ book as a jumping-off point for wild improvisations and experiments, not caring overmuch about whether the jagged pieces he forges will fit together neatly, so long as they’re sharp.
After detouring into a big-budget studio project with the well-meaning-but-flawed Finian’s Rainbow, Coppola re-joined the “New Hollywood” generation he’d helped inspire and made the moody 1969 road picture The Rain People, starring Shirley Knight as a housewife who has an existential crisis and drives off aimlessly after she discovers that she’s pregnant. As with You’re A Big Boy Now, The Rain People represents the kind of filmmaking that Coppola has always claimed he’d planned to spend his career doing: small-scale, loose, and of-the-moment. The Rain People is every bit as inventive visually and structurally as You’re A Big Boy Now. As Knight makes her way across the country—with good-hearted, brain-damaged ex-jock James Caan as her hitchhiking passenger—Coppola fills in the backstory via quick, shock-cut flashbacks, using them to break up the lyrical mood he spins during the long driving sequences. (The lush, dreamy Ronald Stein score also goes a long way toward establishing the movie’s tone.) Coppola plays around with fragmented frames and shifting focus, looking for ways to express in an image what’s not immediately present in the dialogue—presaging what he’d later do even better in The Conversation.
In the absence of a pre-existing story, The Rain People can seem a little adrift at times, as Coppola struggles to get into the head of a woman who wants nothing to do with middle-class respectability but can’t articulate why. Yet here, on the cusp of what’s about to be a decade of masterpieces, Coppola is already showing a commitment to truth as his primary artistic goal. As quirky as You’re A Big Boy Now is, it’s also fundamentally honest about love and sex, and strives to be as euphemism-free as the times would allow. The Rain People goes even further than Big Boy, with frank talk about abortion and adultery. Even Caan’s character is more like something from a novel than from the movies of the time. He’s a wounded hulk, sent into the world with $1,000 by his former friends, who feel kindly toward him as a one-time sports hero, but don’t want to take care of him any more. What Caan means to Knight changes as the movie rolls on. Does he represent the open spirit and new freedom she craves, or is he the dependent she’s not sure she wants? It’s difficult to make an entire movie about this kind of ambivalence, but Coppola does just that, and credibly so, by finding the emotional resonance in every moment. There are few more heartbreaking scenes in ’60s cinema than the one in The Rain People where Knight tries to leave Caan behind by finding him a job hosing down penned-in chicks and bunnies at a non-SPCA-approved petting zoo.
As the excesses of the auteur-friendly ’70s led Hollywood executives to assert more control in the ’80s, Coppola often seemed to make two different films at once—the one the studio hired to him to make and the one that satisfied his own creative initiatives. Coppola’s 1983 adaptation of The Outsiders, the first of two collaborations with author S.E. Hinton, seems disengaged with Hinton’s story about blue-collar “Greasers” and richie-rich “Socs” squaring off in ’60s Tulsa, Oklahoma. The rivalry between the two sides has all the street authenticity of a tuneless West Side Story—and a church fire that brings two Greasers, exiled for killing a Soc, back to Tulsa as heroes, is as a dreadfully clumsy deus ex machina—and the performances from his cast of future stars (Matt Dillon, Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, Tom Cruise, Diane Lane, and Emilio Estevez among them) are variable. But Coppola’s affection for the period is palpable, rendered in gorgeous color cinematography and a soundtrack that gives the film a dreamy allure despite itself. What sticks is not the angst and violence of sensitive young toughs but a hermetic world of drive-ins and choreographed rumbles that seems sprung from a James Dean movie.
The tag “hermetic” also applies tenfold for Coppola’s 1984 crime drama The Cotton Club, which found him reteaming with writer Mario Puzo and producer Robert Evans for an expensive period gangster film intended to bottle the old magic of the Godfather movies. When it didn’t happen—in part because of Richard Gere’s ineffectual performance as a musician inadvertently snared by a volatile mobster and in part because Puzo’s stories here seem like warmed-over gangster lore—critics dismissed The Cotton Club as a dull, hubristic museum piece with none of the vitality of the earlier classics, and audiences stayed away in kind. Yet distanced from the impossible expectations of the time, the film has its share of pleasures, mainly in Coppola’s scrupulous recreation of the famed Harlem club itself, with its cavalcade of high-kicking, toe-tapping dancers and electrifying Jazz Age combos. It’s another case of Coppola fetishizing period detail while other areas of the film lie fallow, but when the period is as impossibly rich and decorous as this one, his achievement is far from negligible.
After a string of films in the ’80s that either flopped at the box office or left critics cold (or both), Coppola scored a certified hit with 1986’s Peggy Sue Got Married, a winsome comedy starring Kathleen Turner as a middle-aged sad-sack who passes out at her 25th high-school reunion and wakes up back in 1960. Working from a script by Jerry Leichtling and Arlene Sarner, Coppola found himself in the thick of the mainstream movie trends rather than leading the way, as he joined the mob of high-concept body-switching, time-travel, and high-school movies that were then common. But with Peggy Sue, Coppola aimed for something a little sweeter and less cutesy than a Back To The Future with wrinkles. Between Turner’s genuine delight at seeing her family and friends in their younger days, and Nicolas Cage’s exaggerated but effective performance as her squeaky-voiced high-school sweetheart, Peggy Sue Got Married drives home the importance of perspective. What mattered to the teenage Peggy at first seems wonderfully silly to the adult version, though the longer the heroine lives in the past, the more she gets drawn into the deeply felt melodrama of high-school life, and the more she realizes that Cage is less of a buffoon than she’d assumed from living with him for decades. Though Peggy Sue Got Married is undeniably a crowd-pleaser—set in the same kind of squeaky-clean “backlot America” as the other nostalgia-fests of its era—it’s no less committed to truthfulness than The Rain People or The Conversation. Coppola shows a keen eye for the details of 1960, both culturally and in terms of how people of different generations relate to each other. When the heroine has her epiphany about how good she actually has it as a grown-up, the movie arrives at the happy ending honestly. (Plus, what a cast: Helen Hunt! Jim Carrey! Joan Allen! Marshall Crenshaw!)
Peggy Sue Got Married would stand as Coppola’s best film of the ’80s were it not for 1988’s Tucker: The Man And His Dream, a woefully under-seen biopic of Preston Tucker (played by Jeff Bridges), an independent automobile designer and manufacturer who was crushed by his more monied competition. The parallels between Tucker’s company and Coppola’s American Zoetrope are evident, but never overstated. Like Coppola, Tucker was a charismatic dreamer who roped his family, his friends, and outside investors into his plans, based on his boundless confidence and demonstrable skill, only to reveal that he’d over-promised, and had underestimated the forces that automatically align against anyone bucking the status quo. Since the ’60s, Coppola had been brainstorming ways to capture the Tucker saga, at one point imagining it as an avant-garde musical, blending classic Hollywood techniques with experimental theater. When the project languished, Coppola’s former protégé George Lucas came on board as producer and primary financial backer, encouraging Coppola to drop his fussier artistic ambitions and just tell the story. Which isn’t to say that Tucker: The Man And His Dream lacks style. It’s breezy and boisterous, full of low-angle shots and jazzy montages that create the impression of an old-fashioned promotional film. And Coppola keyed on the aspects of Tucker’s life that he would’ve found most personally resonant in 1988, emphasizing the support Tucker got from his savvy wife (played by Joan Allen), his combative-but-fruitful relationship with his collaborators, and how often he had to compromise his vision to make deadlines. In a case of life imitating art (which was itself imitating life), Tucker stalled at the box office. But its reputation has grown over the decades, because it’s such an entertaining movie, and one that never loses its cheery tone even as it’s depicting what’s essentially an American tragedy.
The popularity of John Grisham’s legal thrillers prompted adaptations once or twice annually in the mid-’90s, and by the time Coppola, in director-for-hire mode, signed on to do 1997’s The Rainmaker, the Grisham formula—underdog lawyer bucks the system, wins—had been run into the ground. Coppola handles it capably, getting a good performance from Matt Damon as an idealist grad thrown into the shark-infested waters of personal-injury law and a better one from Danny DeVito as his pugnacious, insurance-giant-busting partner. But a romantic subplot involving a battered wife (Claire Danes) feels tacked-on and there’s no escaping the impression that Coppola is just going through the motions, however deftly. Seen today, the one novelty of The Rainmaker is its activism: Focusing on the case of a predatory insurance company that denies coverage to a young leukemia sufferer, the film makes the kind of argument that brought the health-care bill across over a decade later. So consider it one small shot to the bow.
Is there a more curious entry in Coppola’s filmography than 1968’s Finian’s Rainbow? Here was a future iconoclast at 29, firmly embedded in the counterculture, dusting off a 1947 musical featuring a pot of gold and a leprechaun during a tumultuous time for the country. He even dragged the 69-year-old bones of Fred Astaire out of semi-retirement to play a cheery Irish rogue who travels to the whimsical state of Missitucky to bury his gold in Rainbow Valley near Fort Knox, where he expects it to multiply. Yet it would be wrong to dismiss Finian’s Rainbow as a naive piece of Hollywood revivalism, aimed at those seeking to escape to a more innocent time in American culture and movies. Insisting on investing the genre with a more realism—an approach that doesn’t entirely mesh with the airy material—Coppola turns Rainbow Valley into something like a color-free hippie commune, full of bright, singing, dancing denizens whose bliss is threatened by harassing cops, a bigoted senator, and other such materializations of The Man. It doesn’t work as more than a footnote in Coppola’s career—the lone early evidence that he could even handle a production of The Godfather’s scale—but Astaire proves he’s still got it.
With Finian’s Rainbow, Coppola tried to make a fantastical story look real; with the 1982 musical One From The Heart, he went the opposite direction. Much like his pal Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York, Coppola’s homage to the artificiality of the Hollywood musical takes its core more from John Cassavetes than Charles Walters, following Terri Garr and Frederic Forrest as a bickering Las Vegas couple who split up on their fifth anniversary to pursue idealized romances with Raúl Juliá and Nastassja Kinski, respectively. After the hard slog of Apocalypse Now, Coppola intended One From The Heart to be a quick, light project: a genre exercise that would allow him to experiment with some new techniques in shooting and editing, using the newly developed “video assist” to preview scenes on the spot. But as with Apocalypse Now, Coppola struggled with the weight of expectation, especially as the shoot dragged on and as he sank more and more of his own money into elaborate sets. The movie was such an enormous flop that it derailed Coppola’s vision for American Zoetrope, and set him on the course of being a director-for-hire for much of the next decade-plus.
Frankly, it’s hard to argue that One From The Heart deserved a better fate. In all his tinkering with the look of the film, Coppola failed to pay enough attention to the script or the performances, leaving some very good actors to flounder their way through banal, under-written conversations in a story that goes nowhere. But just because the movie may have deserved to fail doesn’t mean it’s not worth seeing. The idea of placing largely non-glamorous people in a glamorous milieu is a good one, and translates to some poignant moments as the Tom Waits/Crystal Gayle songs on the soundtrack play forlornly against everyday scenes of arguing and sex. And Coppola’s staging is frequently awe-inspiring, as he uses neon lighting and scrims to make the ordinary appear magical, and to forge connections between the characters. If Coppola had made this movie as cheaply and quickly as he’d intended, he might’ve preserved all that’s special about One From The Heart without carrying around the bloat, or the stink of catastrophe.
Halfway through shooting The Outsiders, Coppola and S.E. Hinton decided to keep the crew in Tulsa and make 1983’s Rumble Fish immediately afterwards, writing the script bit by bit on the days they weren’t shooting. Coppola considered Rumble Fish “the carrot” for finishing The Outsiders, and for better or worse, it’s the far more personal and experimental of the two, like an avant-garde rebuke to his own movie. Shot in beautiful black and white—save for a tank of colorful tropical fish done through rear projection—Rumble Fish plainly exposes the hastiness of the writing in its half-realized story of a young hoodlum (Matt Dillon) wrestling with the outsized legacy of reformed older brother (Mickey Rourke). It also finds Coppola firmly in directing-from-his-trailer mode, with Dillon, Rourke, and Dennis Hopper (as their boozing father) acting Method circles around each other. But it’s as radical a studio film as Coppola has ever been allowed to make, devoting large swaths of its running time to impressionistic images of damaged youth set to Stewart Copeland’s agitating experimental score. Not surprisingly, it flopped, and even less surprisingly, it’s been fervently embraced by Coppola auteurists, who rightly point out techniques that allude to the French New Wave while moving the medium forward.
Had Coppola replaced the dialogue track from Bram Stoker's Dracula with silent-movie intertitles—a gesture that would have synced well with his frequent nods to cinema’s infancy and use of old-fashioned camera tricks—it might have been a masterpiece. As it stands, his beautifully ornate gothic romance has some of the worst performances in a career that’s hosted more than a few of them, from Keanu Reeves doing Keanu Reeves as Jonathan Harker to Anthony Hopkins hamming it up as Van Helsing. (Gary Oldman’s melancholy Dracula is the happy exception, though even his haunted expressions would translate just as well without dialogue.) It was Coppola’s stated intent to adapt Stoker’s novel more closely than any previous version—hence the possessive in the title—but it hardly matters when the drama is so poorly tended. What matters is that Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a technical marvel, brought to life by costume designer Eiko Ishioka’s wild flights of fancy, Roman Coppola’s nifty in-camera visual effects, and a score, by Wojciech Kilar, that engulfs the film in a dreamy romanticism that the actors can’t conjure on their own.
After Jack and The Rainmaker drove him deep down the studio well, Coppola didn’t return to filmmaking for a full decade, during which time he labored over (and eventually abandoned) an ambitious project called Megalopolis, produced a few movies for MGM (and his gifted progeny), and explored other ventures in the wine and literary business. When he came back with 2007’s Youth Without Youth, it was entirely on his terms: No longer beholden to Hollywood, Coppola financed the movie himself and enjoyed total creative control, which for an impulsive artist like him can be a mixed blessing. Adapting a novella by Mircea Eliade, a Romanian philosopher and religious historian who occasionally channeled his ideas into fiction, Youth Without Youth follows a 70-year-old linguist (Tim Roth) in 1938 Romania who tries to commit suicide, but gets hit by a lightning bolt that transforms him into a man 30 years younger. His efforts to further his study of the origins of language while pursuing romance make for labored, clunky drama, dogged by Europudding accents and concepts that never take flight. Still, in contrast to something like The Rainmaker, it’s at least a failure of ambition and proof that Coppola had recommitted to finding new forms of cinematic expression.
Since One From The Heart, Coppola’s idea of a personal film has been so wrapped up in the aesthetics of stage and screen that it can seem like the contrary—he’s a filmmaker, after all, so it stands to reason that his passions are embedded in artifice. Though touted as Coppola’s first original screenplay since The Conversation, 2009’s Tetro references the many tributaries of his family history, but its story of estranged brothers and Oedipal strife are as old as the theater itself, and their creative rivalry lends the film another distancing layer of meta sheen. It’s the product of a great dreamer and aesthete, rather than an authentic emotional experience—a gorgeous, crystalline bauble that really catches the light. Shot mostly in luminous black and white, Tetro doesn’t have Youth Without Youth’s philosophical ambition, but it’s the most wholly satisfying of his recent spate of indie projects. Coppola may not be invested in the operatic drama he whips up, but he’s keenly interested in the whipping-up part, and that’s enough.
Francis Ford Coppola’s latest venture into indie-land also extends his late-career journey into his own head, though Twixt is more overtly entertaining than Youth Without Youth or Tetro (if still not quite sharp enough to be wholly satisfying). Val Kilmer stars as a horror writer who stops off in a creepy small town on a book tour, and discovers a murder-mystery that involves Edgar Allan Poe, a creepy preacher, a hotel full of dead girls, a grizzled sheriff, and a group of teenagers heavily into the occult. Kilmer sticks around, looking for inspiration for a book (and for the hefty advance such an idea could bring him). But as he works into the night, getting increasingly hammered, he has strange visions that relate both to the case and to a tragic incident from his past. Meanwhile, Coppola revisits his days making gothic horror and B-movies. (Twixt is in 3D, but only for two scenes, for which the audience is cued with a William Castle-like “put on your glasses now” effect.) He riffs too on the difficulties of the creative process, by forcing himself to look back at the real-life accidental death of his son Gian-Carlo, 25 years ago. On the whole, the film is a curious trip down memory lane, anchored by a weird performance by a chubby Kilmer. It’s never dull—and it’s occasionally funny—but as with the films that immediately preceded it, Twixt is strangely lacking in command. It’s Coppola trying things out: a split-screen here, a Lynchian interlude there. He’s working from his gut, but not quite enough from his head.
Coppola’s largely forgotten 1987 drama Gardens Of Stone could be called a companion piece to Apocalypse Now: Where the earlier film was about madness on the ground in Vietnam, this one is about the bodies that come back to Arlington Cemetery, where members of the Old Guard lay them to rest. Where the earlier film turned the war into a surreal odyssey into the heart of darkness, this one is as straightforward as a three-volley salute. And where the earlier film was urgent, vital, fucked-up, and alive in every frame, this one is austere and inert, obsessed with military rituals that Coppola clearly finds moving but exert no dramatic charge whatsoever. (Imagine the wedding sequence in The Godfather if it were only the wedding and about one-quarter as compelling.) The only signs of life come from the easy camaraderie between James Caan and James Earl Jones as longtime friends who met on the Korean front, share the same love/cynicism about the military, and like to relieve tension with pranks and gallows humor. Contrast that with a brutal turn by D.B. Sweeney as a restless young go-getter who’s determined to fight in Vietnam, no matter how pointless the sacrifice. There’s something touching about Coppola trying to simply, earnestly, and respectfully address the human cost of our misadventures in Vietnam, but Gardens Of Stone plays against his strengths.
The first thing everyone mentions when they talk about 1990’s The Godfather Part III is Sofia Coppola’s famously awful turn as Michael Corleone’s daughter. This is unfair, not because Ms. Coppola isn’t terrible—boy is she ever, looking every bit the shy teenager dragged onstage against her will—but because the film itself has such a thin rationale for existing. “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in,” goes Pacino’s most quoted line, which doubles as meta-commentary on Coppola’s reluctant continuation of a series he left behind 16 years earlier. In the past, the director’s reluctance to make films celebrating gangsterism had been a key creative component, feeding stories of mob hits and criminal calculation into rich themes of family, capitalism, and the immigrant experience. For Part III, Coppola seems drearily content to play the director-for-hire role Paramount expected of him from the start. There’s potential in Michael Corleone’s thwarted attempts to go legitimate and rebuild his relationship with his children—and some harsh commentary about the Catholic Church getting into the absolution business—but the Pacino of 1990 was an entirely different actor than the Pacino of the early-to-mid-’70s, and like him, the film becomes a pale echo of its former glory.
Coppola has often chalked up the spottiness of his post-Apocalypse output to financial pressures, which he claims forced him to go back to being a hired hand instead of an auteur. But his filmography doesn’t really bear that out; there aren’t too many examples of outright hackwork or impersonal films on Coppola’s résumé. It’s more that Coppola stumbled by trying to imagine what a non-genius director might do. That’s the best explanation for “Life Without Zoë,” Coppola’s contribution to the omnibus feature New York Stories. Based on an idea by his daughter Sofia, “Life Without Zoë” is a pale imitation of a second-hand rumor of a silly kid-pic, starring Heather McComb as a wealthy pre-teen who tries to solve a mystery with the help of her equally fashionable classmates. Had Coppola committed to the bit, and tried harder to make a children’s movie from the perspective of a child, he might’ve come up with something bright and charming yet still true. Instead, the film is slow-paced and cartoony, which is a bad combination. “Life Without Zoë” has its heart in the right place, but it’s tone-deaf about the world of outrageous privilege in which it’s set, and the short-film format keeps it from developing as fully as it might have.
Still, “Life Without Zoë” is merely a frustrating missed opportunity, while the 1996 “family comedy” Jack is a full-on shit-show, and easily the worst movie Coppola has ever made. Robin Williams plays the title character, a preadolescent boy with a disease that causes him to age at four times the normal rate. The movie starts with Jack’s birth and then jumps ahead to the moment when he starts public school late, at the age of 10. As played by Williams though, Jack behaves as though he could be anywhere from 4 to 14. One minute he’s clinging to his stuffed animals; the next he’s setting his farts on fire. He has all the toys and games a boy could want, but he’s baffled by the rules of basketball. By and large, Williams does a credible job of approximating a child’s behavior, but his Jack is generic, not a specific boy of a specific age. The actual 10-year-olds in the movie fare little better. Jack’s companions talk like miniature adults (cracking wise, using buzz words) and act like miniature high-schoolers (hitting on girls, wearing cool clothes). For a movie that’s ostensibly about what it’s like to be a kid, Jack is disappointingly dim about how children actually behave.
It’s also clueless about what kids will want to watch. Scenes of Williams eating worms and spaghetti, coupled with a jack-in-the-box score by Michael Kamen (think Peter And The Wolf meets Manhattan Transfer), seem to tint Jack as a children’s movie, but the film gradually becomes a grim, adult-themed essay on mortality. And though the movie is squeamish on the subject of Jack’s sexual awakening, it ultimately gives the issue more screen time than is really necessary—especially in a creepy scene at a bar, where Jack flirts with a friend’s mother and talks women with a swinger. Many of these flaws can be laid at the feet of screenwriters James DeMonaco and Gary Nadeau, but at the end of the day, this was Coppola’s baby—his flabby, awkwardly developed baby. Jack was dedicated “to Gia” (Coppola’s son, who at that point had been dead for 10 years), and it’s safe to assume Coppola signed on to this project as a way of meditating on how fleeting life can be. To that end, Coppola achieves some lyrical, if obvious, effects: clouds streaking across the sky, the life cycle of a butterfly, whatnot. Unfortunately, DeMonaco and Nadeau’s screenplay revives the overworked Hollywood idea that adults need to be more childlike, which to professional screenwriters seems to mean thinking more about boogers than one ordinarily would.
Many of the great auteurs of the ’70s hailed from the Roger Corman school of filmmaking, but not all of them graduated with honors. The peculiar 1963 psychological horror film Dementia 13—generally considered Coppola’s debut feature, albeit with numerous asterisks and qualifications—got produced for cheap in Ireland from leftover locations and funds, but even then, Corman considered it unreleasable and brought in a more reliable house director, Jack Hill, to shoot some more scenes. Corman wanted a quick Psycho knockoff, only with an ax instead of a knife, but Coppola delivered something totally unsatisfying and amateurish in some respects and twisted and inspired in others. The muddled plot follows a Janet Leigh figure (Luana Anders) who doesn’t inform her rich mother-in-law of her husband’s recent death in a bid to get herself written into the will. When she arrives at the family castle, though, she faces psychoses deeper than her own, most revolving around the mysterious death of a little girl many years before. For those patient enough to wade through some stultifying scenes, there are pockets of greatness in Dementia 13, including an opening scene on a dark lake where Anders’ husband suffers a massive heart attack and a corker involving her failed attempt to unnerve her mother-in-law by having the dead girl’s toys surface on the family pond. Had he made it a decade later, with the proper resources and know-how, Coppola would have nailed it.
Beyond Dementia 13, it’s difficult to categorize Coppola’s early work, because he had such an unusual apprenticeship. One of the original “film school brats” who shook up the Hollywood hierarchy in the ’60s and ’70s, Coppola was a graduate student at UCLA at the same time that he was pumping out low-budget exploitation films (such as the 1962 nudie-cutie Tonight For Sure) and working as a jack-of-all-trades for Roger Corman (for whom he re-edited, re-dubbed, and shot new footage for foreign imports like The Bellboy And The Playgirls and Battle Beyond The Sun). None of these are “Coppola films” per se; they’re more exercises in craft that Coppola completed on his way to making the fully accomplished You’re A Big Boy Now.
Coppola also made industry connections in the late ’60s—and kept his bills paid—by working as a staff writer for the production company Seven Arts, which at that time was in a partnership with Warner Bros. In addition to uncredited rewrites, Coppola got his name on the scripts for Seven Arts’ This Property Is Condemned and Is Paris Burning?, and later won an Oscar for his efforts on 20th Century Fox’s Patton. Though Coppola’s draft was re-worked before the film hit the screen, Patton still bears his stamp, from the blunt language of educated warriors to the time-hopping structure.
Via American Zoetrope (and other outlets during AZ’s lean years), Coppola has also been a prolific producer, helping filmmakers as eclectic as George Lucas, Paul Schrader, Tim Burton, Wim Wenders, and Akira Kurosawa get their movies into theaters in the United States. He’s been especially helpful to his own progeny, lending his name and support to films directed by Roman and Sofia Coppola, who in turn he claims have inspired his recent return to from-the-hip independent filmmaking.
Lastly, while Coppola has largely steered clear of the for-a-lark music-video and TV episode assignments that so many other directors of his generation have taken on, he did helm the “Rip Van Winkle” installment of his pal Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theater, and he directed the 3D theme park short Captain EO for Michael Jackson, which seemed to be his way of showing George Lucas (who co-wrote the script) how terrible a Star Wars movie could be if he really tried.
1. The Conversation
Between the two Godfather movies, and in the wake of the Watergate scandal, Coppola wrote and directed a thriller that bottled the paranoia and disillusionment of the time while also commenting on the deceptions of the filmmaking process itself. At its center is a career-best performance by Gene Hackman as a surveillance expert who finds himself unable to tell the truth from the terrifying narratives that swirl inside his head.
2. The Godfather
Just on its own merits, The Godfather is a towering achievement: a wildly entertaining gangster epic full of memorable characters, indelible scenes, and a deep sense of tragedy. That it was helmed by a relatively inexperienced director—who was part of a generation pushing for ragged, “small” films—makes The Godfather nothing short of a cinematic miracle.
3. The Godfather Part II
Here, Coppola underlines and strengthens all the “mafia business is equivalent to American business” themes inherent in the first movie, and marries them to a melancholy tone and deliberate pace that showed how American blockbusters could be the equal of any European art film.
4. Apocalypse Now
Sometimes the circumstances behind the creation of a work of art leave an indelible stain: In order to adapt Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness into a statement on the Vietnam War, Coppola needed to go down that river with his protagonist and allow some of his madness to seep into the movie. Had Apocalypse Now been made on time and on budget with no production hassles, that would have been the true boondoggle.
5. Tucker: The Man And His Dream
One of Coppola’s most stylized films is also one of his bluntest, revealing what happens to individualists who dare to try something new. (Spoiler alert: They’re ground up in the great machine of commerce.) It’s at once Coppola’s most plainly autobiographical work and his most purely exhilarating. Tucker expresses what may be the abiding lesson of Coppola’s life and art: Life is cruel and unfair, and to be savored.