Whatever Happened to Francis Ford Coppola?

Francis Ford CoppolaLast week was the 40th Anniversary of The Godfather. I don’t know if you saw it but the AMC channel aired it repeatedly during the week. Watching those films again, it made me wonder…

Whatever happened to Francis Ford Coppola?

The Godfather was a huge influence. I mean everyone went to see it. I remember I had a friend who was ushering at the movie theater and would sneak me in. It didn’t even matter what part of the movie you came in at, you’d just watch it from there to the end. Sometimes I’d even stay to watch the beginning of the next show. We used to refer to the film as, “the Beast.” That’s how much respect we had for it. A few years later, as a film student, Scorsese became my guy (he was the filmmaker that made me want to be a filmmaker.) The Godfather was still the benchmark and with all due respect and deference to good ol’ Marty, he never made “The Beast”.

Coppola followed up with Apocalypse Now. The stories about making that film are legendary—the enormous amounts of money, equipment, and insanity that went on in the jungles. But whether you like the film or not, you can’t help but be impressed by the enormity of the undertaking and the execution. It is unquestionably the work of a master filmmaker. And then… What? What happened? He never again fulfilled the promise of his early films. It makes me sad. What went wrong? Where did Francis Ford Coppola jump the shark?

It started with a film called One From the Heart. You’ve probably never seen it. Few people have. It was a musical fantasy set in Vegas, and even though it pioneered some video-editing techniques, it was a disaster with audiences. Then there were The Outsiders and Rumble Fish. It seemed to us as young directors as the work of a desperate filmmaker who lost one audience and was trying everything he could to connect with a new one. Next he tried a Godfather knockoff, The Cotton Club. An epic crime drama, it even had the same sort of violent montage at the end. A pale imitation and another box office disaster. And finally, Godfather 3, the last ditch effort to recapture past glory. I don’t even have to tell you what a disappointment that film was.

How did such a great filmmaker lose his way? Was it the disappointing loss of Zoetrope Studios? In 1969, Coppola decided to buck the studio system, which he felt had stifled his artistic vision. He created Zoetrope to fund off-beat films by first time directors. It didn’t work. Was it the pressure of paying off the huge financial debt in which he found himself? Coppola has declared bankruptcy three times. It’s not easy holding onto a personal vision while digging yourself out of a financial hole. Or was it the tragic death of his son? Personal tragedy has a way of putting ambitions of glory in perspective. In the end, perhaps it was just the unimaginable pressure of having to equal something as great as The Godfather.

The Godfather

It’s hard not to reflect on the somewhat tragic trajectory of his life. Early success does have its pitfalls. Compare the careers of directors like Spielberg and Scorsese. They all started out at the same time. They were part of an avant-garde group of filmmakers that were revolutionizing Hollywood. But where Spielberg and Scorsese are viable, influential, Academy Award nominated filmmakers to this day, Francis Ford Coppola has sadly vanished from the scene. I can easily imagine him filled with deep satisfaction and appreciation of what he’s accomplished. I can also imagine him with deep regret at what could’ve been. Ultimately, I’d like to think that with age comes perspective, if not wisdom, and maybe even acceptance. What do you think? Every filmmaker has to come to grips at some point with this issue of art and commerce. How have you handled it? Or how do you envision handling it? I’d like to know.

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