Magazine article USA TODAY

The Fall of Francis Coppola

Magazine article USA TODAY

The Fall of Francis Coppola

Article excerpt

THE RELEASE of Francis Ford Coppola's latest film, "Bram Stoker's Dracula," for all its box office success, is the last nail in the coffin (the bad pun is the only appropriate metaphor) for a director whose sagging career has been the subject of much speculation and concern for more than a decade. There has been the sense among critics for some time that there is a shallowness to Coppola, one of the stellar "movie brat" directors who gained prominence (with Martin Scorsese, Brian DePalma, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and others) during the 1970s. While his "Godfather" films quickly suggested that he was among the more serious of the lot, the notion that there might be less to him than meets the eye has dogged his career--and been reinforced with a steady stream of box office and critical failures. The Coppola story is important as a parable about the "New Hollywood"--a hyper-commercial industry that privileges spectacle over substance and confuses artiness with a genuine sensibility.

The decline of Coppola has been inexorable--grindingly slow, but always apparent. The "Godfather" films were championed mightily, and rightfully so, particularly by critic Pauline Kael, who termed them national treasures. "The Godfather II" in particular is a significant contribution to the world cinema, a poignant allegory about the immigrant experience and the betrayal of the American Dream.

"Apocalypse Now" began the Coppola controversy. Although the film found its audience amid very mixed reviews and has taken its place among the key movies about the Vietnam War (and even enjoys a certain kind of cult status), it was responsible for sowing doubts about Coppola as man and artist. The extended production through the mid to late 1970s seemed to be as much self-promotion and myth-building about the director as the legitimate consequence of a string of bad luck (typhoons that destroyed sets, actors who were fired or otherwise left the production, etc.).

"Hearts of Darkness," the documentary by Eleanor Coppola about the making of the picture, works to confirm many suspicions. Subtitled "A Filmmaker's Apocalypse," it is supposed to be a tribute to a rather crazed, larger-than-life artistic personality, with Coppola compared to kindred spirits like Orson Welles and Joseph Conrad. Instead of portraying a tortured genius ruthlessly pursuing his vision a la Poe or Van Gogh, his wife's film reveals Coppola as an adolescent, fumbling jerk.

It is after "Apocalypse Now" that Coppola began to drift, possibly because of all the critical attention in the wake of a project that seemed not worth the effort expended on it. (It almost bankrupted him, suggesting to corporate Hollywood the director's arrogance, caprice, and poor administrative abilities.)

Certainly his lousy management skills had little to do with the debacles of "One from the Heart," "The Cotton Club," and "Tucker: A Man and His Dream. …

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