Francis Ford Coppola 1939–
American filmmaker, producer, and screenwriter.
The following entry presents an overview of Coppola's career. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 16.
Francis Ford Coppola is both an acclaimed and a controversial director. His adaptation of Mario Puzo's novel, The Godfather (1972), made him a powerful Hollywood force and also a magnet for criticism. In addition to directing, Coppola is a producer and the head of Omni Zoetrope (formerly American Zoetrope), a studio he started in 1969 to help young filmmakers produce their work.
Trained in film at the University of California at Los Angeles, Coppola worked with Roger Corman as an assistant director and writer. Corman offered him his first opportunity to direct on Dementia 13 (1963). The film was not well received, however, and his next film, You're a Big Boy Now (1966), was overshadowed by Mike Nichols's The Graduate, released at the same time. In retrospect, many critics find You're a Big Boy Now a fresh, zany look at the disillusionment and joys of growing up. In 1968, Coppola directed his first—and perhaps his last—musical. His version of Finian's Rainbow (1968) was released amidst a barrage of negative reviews. All during production, Coppola was plagued by the problems of an inexperienced filmmaker attempting to create a large-scale musical. Warner Brothers, however, dealt the death blow. The studio, sure of the film's success, expanded the 35mm print to 70mm to give it the aura of a grandiose musical. In the process, however, Fred Astaire's feet were cut off the bottom of the screen. When his next film, The Rain People (1969), received a lukewarm critical reception, Coppola's future looked questionable. When first asked to direct the film version of Mario Puzo's novel The Godfather (1972), Coppola turned it down. He only reluctantly agreed the second time because he needed the money. While Part I was in production, Coppola fought for three things: Marlon Brando for the part of Don Corleone, Al Pacino for the part of Michael Corleone, and the adaptation of the film as a period piece rather than setting it in the present. Because of these aspects of the film, among others, Coppola transformed what some considered a strictly sensational novel into an epic of family loyalty within the world of organized crime. The film ended up propelling Coppola to the top of Hollywood's elite directors. Several of Coppola's productions have been plagued with problems and controversy. The filming of Apocalypse Now (1979) became infamous for its difficult production and skyrocketing costs. The collapse of one of its stars, Martin Sheen, made reworking several of the scenes impossible and caused Coppola to add the last-minute voice-over narration. The filming of The Godfather, Part III (1990), also went well over budget due to time restrictions and obligations to deliver to the studio for a Christmas release. The last-minute replacement of the ill Winona Ryder with Coppola's daughter Sophia drew criticism and the usual difficulties on the set due to an inexperienced actress. Coppola has won numerous awards, including the Golden Palm Award at the Cannes Film Festival for The Conversation in 1974. Director's Guild Awards as best director in 1972 and 1974, and several Academy Awards.
Coppola's groundbreaking The Godfather, traces the fortunes and misfortunes of the Corleone family, prominent members of the Italian mafia in New York City. The story's main focus is on Michael Corleone as his American and Italian ideals conflict and he changes from a peripheral figure to the head of the family business. The Godfather, Part II (1974) takes up Michael's story again as he heads the family during its declining years. His story is juxtaposed to flashbacks of his father Vito Corleone, the original don, as he leads the family into its ascendancy. Vito represents the old values of family and loyalty while Michael has taken the family away from these traditional values to pursue a more corporate, capitalistic success. In the end, Michael's attempts are unsuccessful and the family is left in a shambles. The Godfather, Part III goes beyond the world of organized crime and American capitalism to include international finance and intrigue at the Vatican. Michael begins to regret his life and goes looking for redemption through the Catholic Church. Among Coppola's more personal, lower budget films is The Conversation (1974), which traces the mental breakdown of a professional wiretapper who loses his professional detachment and becomes overcome with paranoia. Apocalypse Now uses the novella Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad, as the organizing principle through which Coppola looks at the Vietnam War. Captain Willard is sent by the American generals to assassinate the renegade Colonel Kurtz, who has led a group of soldiers into the jungle and begun to wage his own kind of war. The major conflict between the generals and Kurtz is the role of morality in the fighting of a war. Willard represents the mediating principle in the film between these two opposing sides. Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) represents his vision of the vampire myth and is characterized by elaborate, stylized costumes and a beautiful, youthful Hollywood cast.
Several critics complained that Coppola's The Godfather glorified and romanticized the mob in America and violence in general. Although Coppola tried to address this concern with less violence and a more pessimistic ending in The Godfather, Part II, critics still found his portrayal of Vito Corleone as too sympathetic and idealized. There is much disagreement about which of the Godfather films is superior, some claiming Part I, others Part II and most agreeing that Part III was one part too many. There is general agreement, however, that Coppola forever changed the gangster genre and that his Godfather saga left a permanent mark on the American psyche. Jack Kroll summed up the first two films' success saying, "Godfather I and its sequel were that rarity, a tremendous critical and box-office success that earned its studio, Paramount, a total of $800 million, plus nine Oscars and a permanent place in American culture." Many reviewers complain that Coppola does not live up to his stated message in his films, especially in Apocalypse Now, which some reviewers said left Coppola's view of America's involvement in Vietnam unclear. Leonard Quart and Albert Auster asserted, "Coppola's strength as a director is not psychological revelation or personal intimacy. It's the pictorial and metaphoric, the strong narrative and the ambitious conception which distinguish his work." Some reviewers have concluded that Coppola strives too hard for box-office success and feel it compromises his artistic vision, but Stephen Farber takes a different view. He stated, "… Coppola is the rare movie tycoon who is also a serious artist, and his best work compares with the best being done anywhere in the world."