Hitler goes to Hollywood

Francis Ford Coppola

June 30, 2000

As we settle comfortably into the new millennium, the generation that gave us exciting and innovative film-makers such as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Robert Altman and George Lucas seems very long ago and far away. Film consumed the young and, as Susan Sontag put it,"film was no less than a secular religion". The 1960s and 1970s were a rebellious period and Coppola, the subject of this biography, was one of the most rebellious. When he arrived on the scene in the early 1960s, Hollywood seemed vulnerable. The industry was at its lowest point and out of touch with a new and younger audience. Though his attempt to compete with Hollywood by establishing his own production company, American Zoetrope, was a glorious failure, it gave us something to cheer for and the belief that there were alternatives to the Hollywood system.

But Hollywood is in a triumphant mood these days. It has conquered the world cinema market and developed the skill to co-opt any potentially defiant talent to its ranks. Even the unpredictable Harvey Weinstein of Miramax fame is now happily part of the Disney family. So what went wrong or, as some might think, right for Coppola?

We learn that Coppola knew from childhood that he was going to create entertainment. Struck down by polio and bedridden at age nine, he turned his interests to making his own TV studio, secretly wiring the entire house to record the family conversations (as he later did in his film The Conversation ) and arranging music to go with the family home movies he had re-edited. Later at Hofstra University he staged and wrote the school's first musical. He made short films. According to his fellow students, Coppola was unstoppable and the great Russian film-maker Sergei Eisenstein was his god. Then came UCLA film school. This was 1960 and film schools were the new way into the movie industry. After a couple of student films his teacher and film director Dorothy Azner put him in touch with the legendary producer Roger Corman for whom Coppola directed and wrote a cheap horror movie, Dementia 13 . He won the prestigious Samuel Goldwyn Award for a script he wrote in one night.

This was the beginning of professional script writing. He adapted Carson McCullers's Reflections in a Golden Eye and Tennessee Williams's This Property is Condemned . What occurred next changed Coppola's life. He wanted to write and direct his own movie so he took all his savings hoping to make a killing in the stock market but instead lost it all. He was forced to take an assignment writing the script of Patton , which turned out to be a huge success and gave him the opportunity of writing and directing You're a Big Boy Now . Asked in an interview how he managed to convince a big Hollywood company to allow him to write and direct his first major movie on his own terms, Coppola replied: "I pattern my life on Hitler in this respect. He didn't take over the country. He worked his way into the existing fabric first." Coppola had tricked Hollywood into believing he was one of them.

His next film was a bizarre choice, the film version of the Broadway musical, Finian's Rainbow . The film was a disaster but it gave him the opportunity of meeting a young trainee working on the movie, George Lucas. When the film was completed he convinced Lucas and a small group of friends to move to San Francisco and set up American Zoetrope. Coppola was the Pied Piper and the new generation of aspiring young film-makers was in awe of him. This was going to be the production company that would take on Hollywood. It backed Lucas's THX 1138 and American Graffiti but it was not long before American Zoetrope was on the verge of bankruptcy. To hold off the creditors, Coppola reluctantly accepted another directing job, The Godfather. It made Coppola the first superstar director. He could write, direct, produce, repair any piece of equipment, a true Renaissance man. What followed was The Conversation , The Godfather Part II , Apocalypse Now and numerous Academy awards. He bought his own film studio in the heart of Hollywood. None of it seemed enough for Coppola and the final straw was One from the Heart , eventually bankrupting American Zoetrope. Coppola seemed out of control. He still had not proved himself as the "personal film-maker" who could do it on his own terms. There followed a series of jobs as a hired director to pay off the debts. What was the self-destructive element of Coppola's character that drove him to irrational acts? He was not alone in his compulsive battle against authority but his is the most interesting case study because of the heights of his success and the depths of his failures. He represented a yearning for personal expression in American cinema that seemed doomed to failure.

In his thorough, well-researched and workmanlike book, biographer Michael Schumacher strives with such determination to confirm and protect Coppola's reputation that he fails to get under his skin and show us all sides of this erratic, megalomaniacal and gifted man. This book and many other recent film biographies give considerable professional detail but seem incomplete and lacking when it comes to insight into the reasoning behind the decisions. With personalities like Coppola it does not seem enough to know what happened: we want to know why. To obtain a more complete portrait of Coppola, it would be useful to read this book in conjunction with Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind.

Sandy Lieberson, former president of 20th Century-Fox, has produced more than 30 films and documentaries.

Francis Ford Coppola: A Film-maker's Life

Author - Michael Schumacher
ISBN - 0 7475 4678 9
Publisher - Bloomsbury
Price - £20.00
Pages - 536

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