Most critiques of Francis Ford Coppola’s career interweave film criticism with biography and produce an account of a wasted genius, a failed wunderkind, a director who had a few great years, produced some magnificent movies, but slid further and further downhill as time passed. With the publication of this article, I am pleased to report that any and all announcements of Coppola’s artistic demise are not only premature, but flat-out wrong.
What actually happened was that Francis Ford Coppola did what any great and original artist does: he went in directions unanticipated by his critics. For his transgressions Coppola was made to pay over and over again. But not here. I want to praise Coppola, not bury him, and while I can only touch on a portion of his genius, I hope I can inspire others to look carefully at a body of work that is one of the most significant of recent times.
For me, Coppola is the most talented and interesting filmmaker to come to prominence in the 1970s. He began his career (as many filmmakers did) by working with Roger Corman. His first film, Dementia 13 (1963), was made with equipment and sets borrowed from another Corman picture on which he worked as dialogue director. Coppola was also a sought-after screenwriter and script doctor (he won his first Academy Award for his contributions to the screenplay of Patton ).
But even at the beginning of his career, Coppola was bending the rules of Hollywood filmmaking. For The Rain People (1969) he loaded crew, actors and equipment into station wagons and drove cross-country to tell the story of Natalie Ravenna (Shirley Knight) and her journey of self-discovery (the first of many such journeys undertaken by Coppola characters). He also founded American Zoetrope, the production company that gave many film artists both a home and help at the start of their careers, among them George Lucas whose THX 1138 (1971) and American Graffiti (1973) were produced with Coppola’s assistance.
Coppola Values Family
Coppola is fascinated by families – their members, structures, dynamics, rules and rituals. These families come in all shapes and sizes: those created by birth (The Godfather) and social forces (The Outsiders), as well as those springing from shared goals (Tucker: The Man and His Dream) and random circumstance (Apocalypse Now). Coppola is intensely interested in how people are able (or unable) to live and work together.
The most famous Coppola family is the Corleones whose history he chronicles in The Godfather trilogy – a series of movies made over a period of 18 years (1972–1990). The Corleone’s story has become part of American folklore not merely because Coppola knows how to spin a good yarn (though his command of cinematic technique plays a large role in the success of these films), but because the trilogy also tells the story of American expansion and capitalism in the twentieth century (the films span a period from 1901 to 1979). The Corleone’s saga is a tale of both a family and a nation.
The films follow a progression from the paternalistic rule of Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) to the corporate approach of his son Michael (Al Pacino) to the ruthlessness of Michael’s nephew Vincent (Andy Garcia). While all three men are capable of deadly acts (both by their own hands and via the hands of others), each succeeding Don Corleone is differentiated from his predecessor(s) by his increasing distance from any sense of familial or social responsibility. By the time Vincent assumes the role of Don Corleone, any pretense to munificence is gone: he is interested in the accumulation of power and money only in so far as they might serve his private ends.
The geography of the films is also marked by a distinct progression: from the local (New York City in The Godfather ) to the national (The Godfather Part II ) to the international (The Godfather Part III ). As I watch the Corleone family go from a neighbourhood operation to an international player in the worlds of business and finance, I sense parallels to the corporate behemoths that began their dominance of America and the world during the decades covered in these films – a time marked by the slow but inevitable replacement of mom-and-pop businesses with giant multinational corporations – a happy homogenising of nations and cultures in the name of profit.
Coppola visualises this process in the scene where Michael names Vincent his successor in The Godfather Part III. As he exits, Michael stops for a moment to look back at the new Don, and the doorway Michael pauses in dwarfs him so completely (as do many of the sets and props in the film) that you realise that the family started by Vito and enlarged by Michael is now too big for any single person to control and direct. No matter who holds the title of Don Corleone, the family will continue to exist and expand, much the way global corporations grow and encroach on the world no matter who is chairman or CEO.
If The Godfather and The Godfather Part II (along with The Conversation ) made Coppola an overnight star, they also created a problem: where could Coppola go from here? Once a director ends a movie with a man arranging for the execution of his own brother, how much more tragic can he get? Coppola had explored depths most artists rarely approach, never mind plumb with such artistry this early in their careers.
Coppola’s response was to begin to look for signs of hope amid the despair. While he never shied away from serious or even grim material in his subsequent films, Coppola now focused on searching out those instances of possibility that occur in life, moments that must be recognised and cherished. After The Godfather Part II, Coppola set off on a new, riskier path that made for intricate and interesting films, but also resulted in critical snubbing and neglect. The wunderkind had lost it, and the world needed to be told about it.
The Search for the Possibility of Hope
Had Coppola contented himself with just being a master of the family film (in all its permutations), his works would be acclaimed as paradigmatic examples of movies that explore and dissect the workings of systems. But Coppola had greater ambitions: he embedded within these systems stories of people (usually men) going through journeys of maturation and discovery. These journeys can be physical (Apocalypse Now) or temporal (Peggy Sue Got Married), comic (You’re A Big Boy Now) or musical (One From The Heart). But whatever form they take, Coppola sets out to capture the stages by which a person comes to know and accept himself and make peace with the demons that plague him.
While Michael Corleone’s journey lands him in a hell of his own making, Coppola’s next film, Apocalypse Now (1979), introduces a note of hope that will sound (at varying decibel levels) over the course of his subsequent work. Captain Willard’s trip up river to Colonel Kurtz’s compound is also a journey into Willard’s self as he tries to understand both the Vietnam War and his role in it. At the conclusion of the film, after he has killed Kurtz (Marlon Brando) and declined to become his replacement, Willard (Martin Sheen) turns off the radio in his patrol boat, refusing to respond to the insistent voice calling itself “Almighty”, and thereby hinting that he may have found the new path that eluded Kurtz who merely recreated in the jungle the world and systems he had sought to escape. Coppola ends the film with this brief glimpse of hope – not much, but a start nonetheless.
Hope grows a tad more vibrant three years later in One From The Heart (1982), Coppola’s loving rethinking of the Hollywood musical. The film tells the story of Frannie (Teri Garr) and Hank (Frederic Forrest), a mismatched couple in Las Vegas who break up for the umpteenth time at the start of the film. They then both proceed to embark on a night of adventure with new partners. The movie ends with Frannie getting on a plane for Bora Bora with her just-met love, while Hank returns home alone. Frannie’s escape is the most positive ending since Coppola’s second feature You’re A Big Boy Now (1966), a sweet-natured ’60s comedy chronicling the misadventures of Bernard Chanticleer (Peter Kastner) as he leaves his suburban home, gets his own apartment in New York City, and experiences both the world and women for the first time.
But Frannie’s escape is not quite as carefree as Bernard’s. Will this new love work out or will it eventually fail? While we may not know the answer to this question, Coppola asserts the value of Frannie taking this step and finding out for herself. To emphasise its worth, Coppola concludes the film by having Hank return to the house they had shared and gather up Frannie’s clothes in order to burn them. But before he can start the fire, he looks up and sees Frannie standing in the hallway, presumably having chosen to come back to him. But clearly, this reversal is Hank’s fantasy as Coppola has shown us Frannie getting on the plane, the door closing, and the plane pulling away from the gate and taking off. For Coppola, the alternative to taking chances and exploring is to be left with illusions as your only companions.
In addition to being a wistful musical fable, One From The Heart is also a technical marvel. Coppola shot the entire film on a sound-stage which allowed him to achieve a myriad of wonderful effects including one where scenes appear to melt into one another. As Frannie and Hank’s night of adventure unfolds, Coppola moves back and forth between their experiences. But instead of employing standard cross-cutting techniques, Coppola has one scene fade out as the next one lights up either behind, beside or in front of the one that is just ending. In addition to imparting a sense of the flowing nature of time and space, this technique also foregrounds for the audience how each partner remains a powerful presence in the other’s mind, even as they both explore the possibilities of the new.
Coppola continues his exploration of new filmic techniques and the possibility of escape in his next two films: The Outsiders (1983) and Rumble Fish (1983). Though released separately, the films are most rewardingly viewed as a diptych – a before and after picture of gang life in Tulsa, Oklahoma in the early 1960s (1).
The Outsiders is the more conventional of the two films and tells the story of Ponyboy Curtis (C. Thomas Howell), his brothers and their fellow Greasers (kids from the wrong side of the tracks) and their run-ins and confrontations with the Socs (kids from the right side of the tracks). Filmed with opulent style and circular in narrative structure, the film ends with Ponyboy discovering his voice as a writer (and a path to freedom) as he composes a paper for school about his life as an outsider.
Rumble Fish is a more expressionistic work set in a post-gang world afflicted with fear and unease: the vitality of The Outsiders has been supplanted with bleakness. While Rumble Fish has its own budding-author character in Steve (Vincent Spano), this film centres on Rusty James (Matt Dillon) who anxiously awaits the return of his brother, the fabled Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke). In this film, the rich, saturated colours of The Outsiders give way to stark black-and-white imagery, and the close-knit bonds between the Curtis brothers devolve into the jagged familial relationships of Rusty James, Motorcycle Boy and their alcoholic father (Dennis Hopper). While Ponyboy is able to escape by undertaking an aesthetic journey and turning his pain into art, Rusty James must go on a trip of a physical nature – he must leave Tulsa and make his way to the California coast, the place his brother hoped, but failed, to reach.
In these films Coppola examines the possible avenues of escape available to the outsiders of American society, those people existing on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. Once again, the hope he presents is qualified, but real. But even though he is now dealing with characters of a less epic stature than those of The Godfather films and Apocalypse Now, Coppola does not tone down his stylistic brio. He renders these characters and their stories with the same emotional and artistic bravado that he brought to the tales he told about the Corleones and Colonel Kurtz. Echoing Linda Loman, Coppola is unafraid to proclaim “attention must be paid.” No matter the social status of his characters, Coppola treats them all with the same intense regard and respect. He is an artist who champions equality even as he documents with precision the corrosive inequities of society.
Coppola’s populism is an often overlooked aspect of his filmmaking. Not only does he approach all of his characters with equanimity, he also seeks to enfold as many viewers as possible in his warm celluloid embrace. Consequently, Coppola has little (if any) use for irony. He wants to make films that stir the heart and the mind in equal and careful measure. What is remarkable to me is how over the course of his career he is able to strike (much more often than not) an eloquent aesthetic balance between the intellect and the emotions, deftly navigating between the Scylla of sentimentality and the Charybdis of abstraction. What allows Coppola to avoid these twin perils (which often prove fatal for other directors) are his gifts for harmonising the various cinematic elements at his disposal. His films are composed of a series of sequences that build to carefully situated crescendos where style, emotion and intellect all come together to envelop a viewer in some of the richest experiences the movies have to offer. Coppola never prolongs these moments: almost as soon as a crescendo is reached, it is dispersed, and the film moves on to its next scene.
For me, an outstanding example occurs in The Godfather Part II at the New Year’s celebration in Cuba when Michael grabs his brother Fredo’s (John Cazale) head in both his hands, kisses him on the lips, and says (in the loudest, most intense whisper in screen history): “I know it was you Fredo. You broke my heart. You broke my heart.” Fredo breaks away from his brother and stumbles backward out of the frame. Michael looks after him, and then Coppola cuts to a wide shot of the ballroom and the dancing, swaying crowd.
As with a favourite passage of music, I happily anticipate this scene’s approach and never fail to be excited by its arrival. For me, Coppola’s films are full of such moments – gorgeous crescendos to be savoured anew with each re-viewing of his work.
Coppola in the (So-Called) Wilderness
After three consecutive critical disappointments, Coppola was written off. The remainder of his output in the 1980s is regarded as pedestrian at best, the work of a once mighty auteur reduced now to director-for-hire status. Needless to say, I dissent from this view.
With his next quartet of films – The Cotton Club (1984); Peggy Sue Got Married (1986); Gardens of Stone (1987) and Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1998) – Coppola continues to explore the themes and motifs that have engaged him since the beginning of his career. In these works, men and women continue to make journeys: Peggy Sue Bodell (Kathleen Turner) faints at her 25th high school reunion and wakes up to find herself back in her senior year of high school, while Preston Tucker (Jeff Bridges) searches for a better way to build safer automobiles. Systems are also analysed and critiqued: the complicated, often dangerous intersection of race, ethnicity, wealth and crime in 1920s New York City; the unacknowledged web of aspiration, envy and disappointment enmeshing suburban America; and the cutthroat business environment of post-World War II Detroit.
Personally, I have always had a special affinity for Gardens of Stone. Returning to the time of the Vietnam War, Coppola makes a movie that feels as if it is in contestation with itself – opposed to the war and the destruction it causes and lives it takes, but at the same time respectful and admiring of the soldiers who fight in it and follow the orders they are given. The film presages present day arguments about the necessity to support the troops even if one opposes the war they are prosecuting.
Reflecting the (possibly) irresolvable nature of this dilemma, Coppola fashions a film of ragged, uncomfortable edits that refuses to settle down into a smooth rhythm. When he intercuts actual war footage with the film’s narrative material, Coppola makes no attempt to achieve seamless transitions. He wants to keep the audience off-balance throughout, and the final shot – two military lifers (James Earl Jones and James Caan) saluting crisply as they stand stiffly at attention and stare straight ahead – offers no sense of closure or resolution: it may well be the most disconcerting image in Coppola’s entire oeuvre.
The movies Coppola made in the 1980s are a varied lot – two teenage dramas about gangs, a musical featuring quarrelsome leads, a gangland saga with musical numbers, a fantasy involving time travel, a war picture set on the home front, and a biopic about a maverick automaker filmed as if it were a promotional film for the cars themselves. But for all their differences, these films are clearly the work of one man and his unique vision and style. To refer to them as “underrated” or “misunderstood” or “neglected” is to damn them with faint praise and ignore their brilliance. What is needed is serious engagement with the films Coppola made in the 1980s so that the full scope of their accomplishment can be measured.
Vampires, Lawyers and Beyond
Following the success of The Godfather Part III, Coppola made the most freewheeling film of his career – Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). A huge hit for him, the film represents Coppola at his giddiest as he deploys every trick of cinematic legerdemain he knows, all the while sharing his joy with the audience. Of all his films, Dracula is the one least concerned with social issues (though some critics detect allusions to the AIDS crisis in the film’s story of love, sex, and infected blood). But overall, the film is Coppola’s testament to what can be accomplished when a man who is fluent in both the uses of a movie camera and the early history of cinema is given artistic freedom and $40 million.
His other two movies of the 1990s – Jack (1996) and The Rainmaker (1997) – are more sober affairs in which Coppola adopts a classical style to tell the stories of Jack (Robin Williams), a boy who ages at four times the normal rate and Rudy Baylor (Matt Damon), a newly minted lawyer facing a legal juggernaut in his first case. Once again the audience watches characters embark upon journeys – Jack’s quest to have as rich a childhood and adolescence as he can before he dies of premature old age and Rudy’s battle against the high-powered legal team arrayed against him (the most daunting system a young lawyer could face). While Jack and Rudy emerge victorious, both films are suffused with an awareness of the passing of time (another important theme in Coppola’s work). But Coppola never calls for his audience to despair. Instead he urges them to acknowledge and embrace the transitory nature of existence, and resist the urge to cling to those things which have faded away or never even come to pass.
The Return of an Auteur
When I first started thinking of writing about Coppola and his career, I hit upon what I thought was the perfect ending for this article. Jumping off from the fact that he had not made a film in almost a decade, I was going to cite a line from Rudy Baylor’s voice over at the close of The Rainmaker:
There’s no doubt about it, I’m hot. In fact, I’m so hot after this case there’s no place for me to go but down. Every client I ever have will expect this – the same magic, nothing less. And I could probably give it to them . . . if it didn’t matter how I did it.
I then planned to assert that this passage contains Coppola’s final thoughts on Hollywood filmmaking as well as his goodbye to it. But making one of those detours I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, Coppola announced in late 2005 that he was about to start making a new film. Entitled Youth Without Youth, it would be shot in Romania and based on a novella by Mircea Eliade.
So much for my nice, tidy ending. But I don’t mind. It is a small price to pay for the news that there will be a new film from Francis Ford Coppola in 2006. I, for one, will be there on opening day.
- When I write about The Outsiders, I am referring to the version released in 2005 and called The Outsiders: The Complete Novel. The second version incorporates footage Coppola was forced to cut from the original because of concerns about length and possible homoerotic overtones. Coppola also re-edited some sequences and replaced the score written by his father with various songs popular during the time period depicted in the film. While Coppola did a marvellous job carving a coherent work out of his original cut, the restored release reveals The Outsiders to be among his best films.
Feature Films as Director
Dementia 13 (1963) also writer
You’re A Big Boy Now (1966) also writer
Finian’s Rainbow (1968)
The Rain People (1969) also writer
The Godfather (1972) also writer
The Conversation (1974) also writer/producer
The Godfather Part II (1974) also writer/producer
Apocalypse Now (1979) also writer/producer
One From The Heart (1982) also writer/producer
The Outsiders (1983)
Rumble Fish (1983) also writer
The Cotton Club (1984) also writer
Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)
Gardens of Stone (1987) also producer
Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988)
New York Stories (segment: Life Without Zoe) (1989) also writer
The Godfather Part III (1990) also writer/producer
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) also producer
Jack (1996) also producer
The Rainmaker (1997) also writer
Apocalypse Now Redux (2001) also writer/producer
The Outsiders: The Complete Novel (2005)
Youth Without Youth (2006) also writer/producer (anticipated)
Distant Vision (2015)
Television Film as Director
“Rip Van Winkle” (episode of Faerie Tale Theatre) (1984)
Feature Films as Writer
This Property is Condemned (Sydney Pollack, 1966)
Paris brûle-t-il? (Is Paris Burning?) (René Clement, 1966)
Patton (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1970)
The Great Gatsby (Jack Clayton, 1974)
Feature Films as Producer/Executive Producer (select)
THX 1138 (George Lucas, 1971)
American Graffiti (George Lucas, 1973)
The Black Stallion (Carroll Ballard, 1979)
Kagemusha (Akira Kurosawa, 1980) (international version)
Hammett (Wim Wenders, 1982)
Koyaanisqatsi (Godfrey Reggio, 1983)
Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (Paul Schrader, 1985)
The Secret Garden (Agnieszka Holland, 1993)
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (Kenneth Branagh, 1994)
Don Juan DeMarco (Jeremy Leven, 1995)
The Virgin Suicides (Sophia Coppola, 1999)
CQ (Roman Coppola, 2001)
Jeepers Creepers (Victor Salva, 2001)
Lost in Translation (Sophia Coppola, 2003)
Kinsey (Bill Condon, 2004)
Marie-Antoinette (Sophia Coppola, 2006)
Feature Documentary as Subject
Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper, 1991)
Ronald Bergan, Francis Coppola, Orion Books, London, 1998.
Nick Browne (ed.), Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Trilogy (Cambridge Film Handbooks), Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2000.
Jeffrey Chown, Hollywood Auteur: Francis Coppola, Praeger, New York, 1988.
James Clarke, Coppola, Virgin Books, London, 2003.
Eleanor Coppola, Notes On the Making of Apocalypse Now, Simon & Shuster, New York, 1979.
Peter Cowie, Coppola: A Biography (Updated Edition), Da Capo Press, New York, 1994.
Peter Cowie, The Apocalypse Now Book, Da Capo Press, New York, 2001.
Karl French, Apocalypse Now: A Bloomsbury Movie Guide, Bloomsbury Publishing, New York, 1998.
Jon Lewis, Whom God Wishes to Destroy: Francis Coppola and the New Hollywood, Duke University Press, Durham, 1997.
William Malyszko, The Godfather, York Press, London, 2001
Wesley Morris, “The Phoenix”, Film Comment, March/April 2002. Available on-line at Film Comment (accessed March 12, 2006).
Gene Phillips, Godfather: The Intimate Francis Ford Coppola, University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, 2004.
Gene D. Phillips and Rodney Hill, Francis Ford Coppola: Interviews (Conversations With Filmmakers Series), University of Mississippi Press, Jackson, 2004.
Michael Schumacher, Francis Ford Coppola: A Filmmaker’s Life, Crown, New York, 1999.
Articles in Senses of Cinema
Reflections on Coppola, Director’s Cuts and Apocalypse Now Redux by Maria San Filippo
The Conversation by Brenda Austin-Smith
Notes on The Conversation by Megan Ratner
Film Directors – Articles on the Internet
Many links to articles on Coppola can be found here.
“Francis Ford Coppola” by Michael Sragow
“Francis Ford Coppola: Interviews”
Book review in Flickhead.
Discussion on the DVD “restoration” of the film.