The Godfather Returns: Francis Coppola
Francis Coppola has proved himself among the most brilliant and adventurous of American filmmakers, even if he's also been inconsistent, wrong-headed, and, ultimately, branded an under-achiever.
That's ridiculous of course. Like Orson Welles, Coppola is a prodigious over-achiever by anyone's standards except his own. He's made and lost fortunes, built his own film studio and seen it go bankrupt, rebuilt a publishing empire, and created one of the most successful wine labels in California.
The Godfather films and Apocalypse Now are firmly installed near the top in most people's lists of great movies. For myself, it was seeing Apocalypse Now three times in three years as a teenager that got me serious about cinema. (And seeing One from the Heart at the Lumiere on St Martin's Lane in 1982 got me serious about Tom Waits and Nastassja Kinski. I guess it was an impressionable age.)
Born in 1939, Coppola grew up in an artistic family. His father Carmine was a composer (he composed the score for Apocalypse Now), and his mother had been an actress. He studied drama then became one of the first film school graduates at UCLA. Even so, he learned his trade elsewhere, shooting nudie movies, then moving up to Roger Corman drive-in schlock (Dementia 13). He became semi-respectable with You're a Big Boy Now, the Superbad of 1966.
Clueless as ever, Hollywood offered him a whimsical Fred Astaire musical (Finian's Rainbow), an experience that convinced Coppola of the rot within the studio system and fired his enthusiasm for a new counter-culture cinema. His notion of an independent film studio run by the artists (ie himself) dates from this time; he formed American Zoetrope in 1969.
The Godfather came about by accident: Paramount offered the project to every director they could think of (including Elia Kazan, John Cassavetes and Peter Bogdanovich) before arriving at Coppola - at least he was Italian-American. He turned it down too, but his protégé George Lucas had bombed with his first feature, THX-1138, so funds were short. The rest, as they say, is history.
People sometimes blame Star Wars or Jaws for the modern blockbuster era, but The Godfather paved the way. It made money hand over fist, beyond any studio's wildest dreams, and Coppola was in effect a made man. The film was a phenomenon. Part I was nominated for 11 Academy Awards (it won three, including Best Picture).
In 1975, The Godfather Part II repeated the trick, this time winning six. Coppola picked up three Oscars personally, for Best Picture, Screenplay and Direction (the same year, his film The Conversation was also nominated for Best Picture and Screenplay).
What's so special about these films? Their scale and reach immediately distinguishes them from the generic gangster movies that had come before. The very notion of a three-hour gangster movie would have been unthinkable in the old days. Coppola was influenced by films from the old country: Luchino Visconti's epic melodramas Rocco And His Brothers and The Leopard: long, dense, rich tapestries that fold together two important strains in Italian culture, neo-realism and opera. In an American context, this was a paradigm shift, ushering in an extraordinary period in dramatic filmmaking that would last until the 1980s.
Of course this wasn't all Coppola's doing. Audiences were looking for answers in the aftermath of Vietnam, political assassinations, and social unrest; ditto the Hollywood studios, casting about for new business models after their declining fortunes through the 1960s. It was a generational shift too, with younger, film school educated writers and directors (Scorsese, Lucas, De Palma, Milius, Spielberg: the movie brats) replacing the old guard.
Still, Coppola set the benchmark. His success in the first half of the 1970s also extended to an Academy Award for the screenplay to Patton (1970) and producing George Lucas's hit American Graffiti (1973). With Apocalypse Now going into production he expanded his Zoetrope plans, building a state-of-the-art digital studio that was ten or twenty years ahead of its time.
The filmmakers Coppola invited in to play included old Hollywood greats like Gene Kelly; mavericks like the British genius Michael Powell; UCLA buddies like Carroll Ballard (The Black Stallion) and Caleb Deschanel (The Escape Artist); and modern European art house talents like Jean Luc Godard and Wim Wenders. It was a wonderful experiment, but it didn't fly.
Coppola's two teen art movies, The Outsiders and Rumblefish, introduced such talents as Tom Cruise, Emilio Estevez, Diane Lane, Mickey Rourke, Ralph Macchio, Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe and Matt Dillon, as well as Coppola's nephew, Nicolas Cage, all of whom went on to find some measure of fame in their careers. But none of the Zoetrope pictures hit. By 1984 the studio was bankrupt and Coppola was forced to sell his services as a director for hire.
Even as a fan of these "orphan" films (The Cotton Club; Peggy Sue Got Married; Tucker; Dracula), I'll concede they're closer to superior kitsch than art. After Jack and The Rainmaker, Coppola more or less retired from the fray to concentrate on his vineyard. Ironically he has proved a far more successful businessman outside the film industry than in it - so much so that he is able to come back and finance Youth Without Youth from his own pocket.
Coppola is putting his money where his mouth is. The closest I ever got to interviewing him was at the Marrakech Film Festival five years ago, when he told me how it was impossible to make art films in Hollywood; all business funding came with strings attached that compromised the artist. That's why he continued to lay great store by digital technology, which would, he hoped, democratize the playing field, allowing visionaries to make movies without going cap in hand to corporations. It was a passionate declaration of independence, but I remember doubting that we would ever see another Francis Coppola movie. I must say, I'm delighted he has proved me wrong.
Titles related to this article