Schooled in low-budget filmmaking, Francis Ford Coppola (born 1939) has gone on to direct some of the most financially successful and critically acclaimed movies in U.S. cinematic history.
Francis Ford Coppola, director of The Godfather and its two sequels, would be considered one of the masters of modern cinema based on those credits alone. But the writer/director/producer has been behind the scenes on numerous commercial and critical successes outside the gangster genre. Coppola's uncommon craftsmanship has enabled him to make a dizzying variety of films, from low-budget labors of love to mainstream Hollywood crowd-pleasers. All his projects have the earmarks of a Coppola production: a respect for storytelling and a passionate commitment to the filmmaker's art. It was these qualities that led David Thomson, in his Biographical Dictionary of Film, to say of Coppola: "No one retains so many jubilant traits of the kid moviemaker."
Coppola was born in Detroit, Michigan on April 7, 1939. His father, Carmine, was a concert flautist who played with Arturo Toscanini's NBC Symphony Orchestra. His mother, Italia, was an actress who at one time had appeared in films. Coppola's younger sister Talia would later follow in her mother's footsteps into the world of film acting, changing her name to Talia Shire and starring in the film Rocky alongside Silvester Stallone. A few years after his birth, Coppola and his family moved to the suburbs around New York City, where he would spend most of his childhood.
All the Coppola children were driven to succeed in show business and the arts. Leading by example was Coppola's father, who had achieved success as a musician for hire but longed to compose scores of his own. Francis seemed the least likely to redeem his father's promise, however. He was an awkward, myopic child who did poorly at school. At age nine, he was stricken with polio. The illness forced him into bed for a year, a period during which he played with puppets, watched television, and became lost in an inner fantasy world. After his recovery, he began to make movies with an eight millimeter camera and a tape recorder.
While a student at Great Neck High School on Long Island, Coppola began to study filmmaking more formally. He soon became enamored with the work of Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein. Coppola also trained in music and theater to round out his education. In 1956 he enrolled at Hofstra College in Hempstead, New York on a drama scholarship. Here he acted in and directed student productions, and founded his own cinema workshop. So determined was Coppola to direct his own pictures that he once sold his car to pay for a 16-millimeter camera.
After graduating from Hofstra, Coppola moved to the West Coast to attend film school at the University of California—Los Angeles (UCLA). But he was impatient to escape the classroom and start making his own films. He signed on to direct an adult movie, which caught the attention of low-budget impresario Roger Corman. Corman hired Coppola to work on his movies as a jack-of-all-trades. Coppola's strong work ethic prompted Corman to allow him to direct his own picture. The result was Dementia 13 (1963), a gory horror movie Coppola had written in three days and shot for $40,000. That year, Coppola married Eleanor Neil, his set decorator on the picture.
Coppola submitted his next film, You're a Big Boy Now (1966), as his master's thesis at UCLA. The sweet coming-of-age drama anticipated the style and themes of The Graduate and received many positive reviews. Warner Brothers selected the promising young filmmaker to direct their big-budget musical Finian's Rainbow. But the subject matter took Coppola away from his strengths and the film was savaged by critics. The Rain People (1969) represented Coppola's attempt to return to "personal" (not to mention low-budget) moviemaking. A somber travelogue about a housewife on the run, the movie was made up as the crew went along, evidence of Coppola's flair for the experimental.
Coppola might have remained in an avant-garde rut were it not for his next project. As co-writer of the mega-hit biopic Patton, Coppola earned an Academy Award and added considerable luster to a tarnished reputation. Paramount Pictures next asked him to take the reins on its screen adaptation of Mario Puzo's best selling novel The Godfather. It would prove to be Coppola's greatest triumph.
Filming The Godfather posed many challenges. Coppola fought hard to retain control of casting decisions. He also resisted studio attempts to cut his budget and make the setting more contemporary. Italian-American groups protested the depiction of organized crime in the original screenplay. Even Coppola's own crew at times lost faith in his ability to control the mammoth project. Nevertheless, he steered the movie to completion.
The Godfather tells the sweeping story of the Corleone crime family, focusing on the ascension of young Michael Corleone to control of the family's empire. It is a violent epic on the scale of classic American films like Gone with the Wind. Propelling the drama forward are powerful performances by Marlon Brando and newcomer Al Pacino. At its release in 1972, critics were floored by the film's depiction of America's criminal underworld. The film became a sensational hit with moviegoers as well, and the The Godfather swept the Academy Awards that year. Coppola was a winner in the Best Director and Best Screenplay categories; suddenly he was the toast of Hollywood.
Now a wealthy man thanks to the success of The Godfather, Coppola could at last pick and choose his own projects. In 1974 he made The Conversation, an edgy drama about secret surveillance. He returned to the world of organized crime with 1974's The Godfather Part II, which continued the Corleone family saga through the 1950s and, via flashback, to the early 1900s. The intricate storyline resonated once again with critics and moviegoers alike. Coppola accepted a second Academy Award statuette as Best Director of 1974. The haunting score, by Nino Rota and family patriarch Carmine Coppola, also took home an "Oscar."
Coppola's next project was Apocalypse Now, an ambitious film about the Vietnam War. But the expensive production was bedeviled by bad weather, budget overruns, and the bizarre behavior of its star, Marlon Brando. The release date was pushed back repeatedly as Coppola struggled to come up with an ending for the film. When it finally reached the screen in 1979, the film was hailed by many critics as a visionary masterpiece. It was nominated for several Academy Awards and did well at the box office. But many in Hollywood never forgave Coppola for letting the project get so out of control. For many years, Coppola could not get funding from a major studio to make his movies.
Unable to make mainstream movies, Coppola instead crafted independent films which he released through his own Zoetrope Studio. These pictures, including Rumble Fish (1983) and The Cotton Club (1984), received mixed reviews and had many wondering if Coppola was a spent force in the industry. He did manage to create a hit with the offbeat Peggy Sue Got Married (1985), about a woman who travels back in time to her own high school days, but the project seemed like a work-for hire. Closer to Coppola's heart was Tucker: The Man and His Dream, a 1988 biopic about a maverick automaker who could have been a stand-in for the director himself.
In 1990 Coppola completed The Godfather Part III. While not as lavishly praised as the previous two installments, it nevertheless was a box office success and won back the confidence of the major studios. While receiving mixed critical response, his Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) helped solidify Coppola's comeback. This lush, gory version of the horror classic was undermined by some poor performances but widely praised for its visual style. Audiences flocked to see stars Winona Ryder and Keanu Reeves, made the film a major hit, and returned Coppola to the ranks of "bankable" directors.
As the 1990s rolled on, Coppola continued to turn out Hollywood productions. The comedy Jack (1994) utilized the talents of Robin Williams, while The Rainmaker (1996) adapted the work of best-selling novelist John Grisham. Finally out of debt and at ease working for the major studios, Coppola in his late 50s seemed content with his cinematic legacy. He expanded his interests into publishing in 1997 with Zoetrope Short Stories, a magazine dedicated to literary, not Hollywood, material. "Coppola is hoping to revive the literary tradition of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, … and maybe make a good movie in the process," noted Leslie Alan Horvitz in Insight on the News. In 1998 Coppola helped launch the first Classically Independent Film Festival in San Francisco, California; films shown included One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Diner. Out-side the film industry, Coppola is the owner of a California winery that produces wine under the Niebaum-Coppola label.
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