Born: April 7, 1939, Detroit, MI
I knew he had a future in film.
The son of composer Carmine Coppola, Francis Ford Coppola was raised in a New York suburb among a community of Italian-Americans. After earning a master’s degree from the UCLA film school, he worked on several soft-core porn films for Roger Corman; then in 1968, he was offered his first directorial stint, the disappointing Finian’s Rainbow. But Coppola bounced back. At just thirty-one years old, he won his first Oscar, for the screenplay of Patton (1970), and was approached by Paramount for a film adaptation of a story about a family of immigrants.
Editor’s note: The essays of Scott Smith’s 1998 book, The Film 100, are being republished in their entirety here on Keyframe, not as the last word on cinema, but as a starting point for further discussion. Please join the conversation. To view the entire Film 100 list and find links to all the essays, please visit Reintroducing the Film 100.
Paramount had been approached in 1970 by author Mario Puzo, who was peddling a twenty-page screen treatment entitled Mafia. He wanted $12,500 for a script and the rights to have a novelization published independently. Paramount agreed, and while Coppola struggled to cast the leading roles for nearly eight months, Puzo hammered out a book. By the time the director was ready to begin shooting, Mario Puzo had a bestseller called The Godfather, which had already sold seven million copies.
The Godfather (1972), starring Marlon Brando, became an instant cinema classic, won the Best Picture Oscar, and was the highest-grossing film in movie history. Better still, it was solely responsible for the revival of the gangster movie, a formerly beloved genre that had been lifeless for twenty-five years. Coppola had been asked by leaders of Italian American organizations to refrain from using the terms “Mafia” and “Cosa Nostra,” so Puzo skillfully substituted the word “family,” and refocused the picture to be an intimate portrait of generations shaped by a criminal legacy. Hundreds of films that used Mafia subplots would feel compelled to strictly follow the “code of honor” conventions established in The Godfather.
Coppola’s fame and fortune skyrocketed. He wrote the screenplay for The Great Gatsby (1974), then wrote and directed The Conversation (1974), which garnered the Palme d’Or at Cannes. It seemed Coppola was at the top of his game. So why, many people asked, would he stoop to taking on a sequel?
The Godfather Part II (1974), a bold telling of parallel stories spanning more than eighty years, sent shock waves through the industry. Filmmakers were amazed that a sequel could be so powerful. Traditionally, sequels were frowned upon by directors, who felt they were traveling old territory for commercial gain exclusively. But Godfather II was such an elegant companion to the original that the two films looked as if they had been shot together, then edited apart. Legendary director Billy Wilder called the sequel “certainly among the five best American pictures ever made.” Producer Philip D’Antoni said he felt a deep sense of regret that he had declined the follow-up to The French Connection after seeing Coppola’s master handling of the elaborately constructed story, which he cowrote with Puzo. Godfather II became the most successful sequel ever, taking in $28.9 million in domestic receipts. It scooped up six Oscars, including one for Robert De Niro. It became the first sequel to win Best Picture, and the first time two actors were awarded Best Actor Oscars for the same character (Brando and De Niro both won honors for portraying Vito Corleone). Shamefully overlooked by the Academy was the artful photography of Gordon Willis, which arguably influenced more cinematographers than any film since Citizen Kane.
The Godfather films eventually earned more than $800 million combined, and echoed the previous attempts of D.W. Griffith and Edwin Porter to simultaneously build dramatic tension and advance a story by intercutting separate storylines. The slew of Mafia films that followed were pathetic imitations, including The Godfather Part III, Coppola’s own disappointing reunion.
Next, Coppola turned Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness into Apocalypse Now (1979), a brilliant $30 million war movie that struck an emotional chord at Cannes, where it won the Palme d’Or; it also won two Oscars, for sound and cinematography. Apocalypse did for Vietnam battle epics what Godfather had done for the gangster genre. The Vietnam War had been presented as a patriotic mission in The Green Berets (1968), then movie audiences discovered the psychological horrors of war in Coming Home (1978), The Deer Hunter (1978) and other films that dealt with returning soldiers. But Apocalypse, which used a slow and steady stream of disturbing, chaotic images and mesmerizing dialogue to establish the idea of an ever-present enemy, broke a Hollywood taboo by depicting the true nature of combat. The film’s vivid graphic battle scenes set the ground rules for all Vietnam War films that followed, including Casualties of War (1989) and Platoon (1986).
The decade of box office disasters that followed unfortunately established Coppola as a modern-day Erich von Stroheim. One from the Heart (1982) was a $26 million preoccupation, and forty different drafts of The Cotton Club (1984) couldn’t put any jazz into the $48 million sinker. Steady directorial efforts on Peggy Sue Got Married (1986), Gardens of Stone (1987) and Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988) did nothing to save Coppola’s American Zoetrope production company from $30 million in debts and a 1990 bankruptcy. Perhaps the sole artistic high point during this period was his direction of The Outsiders (1983) and Rumble Fish (1983).
In weighing the considerable contributions of Coppola, one must consider the opportunities he provided an impressive group of young actors. Among those whose careers got started under Coppola’s guidance are Matt Dillon, Diane Ladd, Mickey Rourke, Rosanna Arquette, Nicolas Cage, Patrick Swayze, Laurence Fishburne, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez and Tom Cruise. Just as Corman had done for him, Coppola set new talent loose on Hollywood.
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