Will Francis Ford Coppola ever see an Oscar again?

Posted by · 5:03 pm · May 13th, 2008

The first time I saw “Apocalypse Now” I staggered out of the theater stunned by what I had seen on screen. I remember sitting on Bloor Street with this burning need to tell people what I just witnessed, what I had seen and how profoundly it had galvanized my soul. At that moment I began writing about film, giving up the dream of being an actor and becoming a critic-historian. Francis Ford Coppola altered the course of my life, and his films have changed the way I see and think about movies.

He dominated the 70s unlike any other director, the leader of a movement in American cinema that would see some of the most exciting films in the history of the medium. A legend during his college days if only for his burning ambition, Coppola hit Hollywood like a ton of bricks, fizzling out the first time.  After winning an Oscar for writing “Patton” in 1970, he would direct and co-write “The Godfather” two years later, the finest American film since “Citizen Kane.”  Though the film won Best Picture, and Coppola won the Directors Guild of America Award, he lost the Academy Award for to Bob Fosse, who helmed the searing musical “Cabaret,” possibly the greatest example in the genre.

Given enormous power with the success of “The Godfather,” Coppola was now in a position to do exactly as he wanted to do, and that is what he did. “The Conversation” was next, a small personal film with Gene Hackman, superb as a professional wire tapper at the height of the Watergate era.

Original enough to be called experimental, the film was a radical departure from the operatic drama of “The Godfather” but the artistry within was no less. That same year he gave us his masterpiece, “The Godfather Part II,” which in my opinion is the finest American film ever made — the greatest film ever made — and justifiably won six Academy Awards (including three for Coppola, for producing, writing and finally for his direction).

The Directors Guild again agreed his work was the year’s best, and he had done the unthinkable — he’d made a better film than “The Godfather!” With the theme of absolute power corrupting absolutely, “The Godfather Part II” was darker, deeper, richer in tone, colder, and altogther more brilliant than the first…if that was possible.

Armed with the power to make a movie out of a phone book, Coppola headed into the jungles of the Philippines to make his Vietnam epic, the long-awaited “Apocalypse Now” which at one time was to be directed by George Lucas. Three years later, after a leading man had been fired, typhoons had wiped out the sets, Marlon Brando had behaved poorly and the new leading man (Martin Sheen) suffered a near-fatal heart attack, the film premiered at Cannes as a work in progress and earned a prolonged standing ovation.  The film claimed the Best Picture prize at the festival.

A few months later when it opened in North America, even the critics who did not care for the film could not deny its raw power and startling imagery. He had done something new, taken filmmaking to a new height with this surrealistic masterpiece. Having honored “The Deer Hunter” in 1978, there was no chance the Academy would go for another Vietnam film the following year, so despite being heads and tails above the other films of 1979, though nominated for eight Academy Awards, the film won just two, losing best picture and director to “Kramer vs. Kramer.” Four films in the seventies, each of them among the best if not the best of the decade, is not a bad track record, certainly one not another director in film history can claim to have.

Did Coppola lose his gifts as a filmmaker in the jungle?

In the years since his films have ranged from wildly ambitious and interesting like ‘Rumble Fish” to simply atrocious and something he should be embarrassed he made, like “Jack.” His “One from the Heart” was an incredibly expensive experimental film that looked great but was dull, while “The Outsiders” lacked the edge and simplicity of the book, loaded with an epic sweep it did not need, and a virtually comatose lead performance from C. Thomas Howell who was all but blown off the screen by Matt Dillon’s ferocious Dallas Winston.

“The Cotton Club” was a mess he walked into and though loaded with interesting moments, is a mess whenever Richard Gere is on screen, while “Peggy Sue Got Married” was a wonderfully sentimental and haunting time travel flick bolstered by a strong Kathleen Turner performance. “Gardens of Stone” was a muted curious effort, and “Tucker” though incredible to look at and watch due to Jeff Bridges was as much about Coppola as it was Tucker and his cars.

In the world I inhabit, in the existence of John H. Foote, there is no “The Godfather Part III”. It was never made , I have forever removed it from my mind…it is erased forever, as though it had never been made. Shame on Paramount for not ponying up the money for Robert Duvall, essential to the films as Tom Hagen, his absence forcing a rewrite that ruined the picture.

Call me nuts but I quite liked “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” which lest we forget won three Academy Awards! Of course it was not Bram Stoker’s story at all, but Coppola’s, a lush, operatic love story merged with a horror film in which the vampire is not the evil character of previous films, but a lovelorn immortal walking through time looking for his beloved. Gary Oldman was terrific, sadly the only cast member to be such.

“Jack” was simply a tragic error in judgment, “The Rainmaker” a solid film, but leaving Coppola as a director for hire.

Rich from his wine empire, having executive produced for his daughter Sofia, a gifted director and writer he returned to directing last year with “Youth Without Youth” which initially had some folks talking Oscar attention. It simply was not that strong a film, but it was daring and audacious, a return to form for Coppola…sort of.

He may never find the form of the 70s because the film world is so different now, but my God, if he could make one more great film, one more work of art before he leaves this world??? I have met him, interviewed him and loved every moment I spent with him because one is aware they are in the presence of greatness, as though the air gets sucked of the room. With one more great film, maybe just maybe, Oscar would turn his head his way. At the very least it seems an Honorary Oscar is in the mail.

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4 responses so far

  • 1 5-13-2008 at 9:46 pm

    Jordan Minnesota said...

    I agree with your assessment for the most part, although I think both “The Outsiders” and “Peggy Sue Got Married” are very good films. For all intents and purposes, I’m much more interested in what Sofia is doing these days then Francis, although I do believe he may have another great film in him.

  • 2 5-13-2008 at 10:18 pm

    tony d said...

    if lumet could come back like he did with before the devil knows you’re dead that other great 70’s director then coppola may certainly come back with something

  • 3 5-14-2008 at 4:17 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    You don’t mention “Tetro”, the film he’s currently shooting. The details on it are a bit vague, but the basic pitch – a family saga revolving around immigrant artists – does seem to be right in Coppola’s wheelhouse. And the cast is very interesting indeed – Vincent Gallo, the great Maribel Verdu, Rodrigo de la Serna (who was so wonderful in The Motorcycle Diaries), and Carmen Maura an intriguing replacement for Javier Bardem…

    Maybe this could be the one. Fingers crossed.

  • 4 5-15-2008 at 7:21 am

    Silencio said...

    I too think Bram Stoker’s Dracula was fantastic. I first saw it in high school film class. It’s loud, over the top, somewhat sloppy, but damn if it ain’t fun. I still own it, I think.

    I believe he has another one in him. But even if that never gets proven, he doesn’t need to do anything else. He’s like Stevie Wonder. We will always love him for what he did in the 70s. Nuff said.