H

is career has been anything but consistent, but we remember great directors for their highest highs. Indeed, in the latter half of the 20th Century, very few films come anywhere close to the soaring, operatic vision of "The Godfather," "The Godfather: Part II" and "Apocalypse Now." He's made other great films, but if a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, Francis Ford Coppola's brain is as big as they get.

Born in the unlikely city of Detroit in the auspicious movie year of 1939, the future director was destined to be highly creative. His father, Carmine, was a composer and later a flautist for the NBC Orchestra in New York. Also, like many of his generation, including fellow film school brat Martin Scorsese, young Francis was struck by polio in his childhood. Isolated from other children, he found refuge in a fantasy life, watching movies on television and developing an early interest in puppetry. Eventually, however, his larger-than-life personality took hold and making movies became his obsession. A move to the West Coast was inevitable.

After making a couple of instantly-forgotten sex comedies, Coppola apprenticed with exploitation master Roger Corman, who would also wind up mentoring Scorsese and Peter Bogdanovich, among many others. The horror picture, "Dementia 13," was followed by his first mainstream feature, "You're a Big Boy Now." It prefigured later coming-of-age sex comedies, including "The Graduate," and may have also served as the only senior thesis ever to emerge from UCLA with studio financing. That was followed by a studio gig writing a biopic about a controversial figure from World War II. Coppola was fired, but enough of his work was retained that he got to share the 1970 screenwriting Oscar for the Best Picture winning "Patton" with veteran screenwriter Edmund H. North ("The Day the Earth Stood Still").

Coppola's next two directorial assignments, a relatively well-regarded drama called "The Rain People" and the lackluster musical, "Finian's Rainbow," were a lot less successful. He initially wasn't all that much more successful as a producer, founding his still-extant  American Zoetrope and producing George Lucas's unsuccessful feature debut, "THX-1138." Fortunately, their next film together, "American Graffiti," did a little better.

At this point, honestly, there was no particularly good business or creative reason why Paramount should have hired Coppola to adapt a super hot property like Mario Puzo's hugely popular pulp crime novel, "The Godfather," to the big screen. However, several well-known directors, including Sergio Leone ("The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly"), had already turned the project down and the instinctive and mercurial young producer Robert Evans was sold on Coppola.

Even so, Coppola faced opposition from a highly skeptical studio structure and was nearly fired during the production. He wasn't. "The Godfather" redefined the gangster film for a new era, combining a sort of twisted glamour with shocking violence, operatic drama, black humor, and a riveting family saga. Phrases like "an offer he couldn't refuse" permanently entered the language and actual criminals started to copy the behavior and clothes styles they saw in the film. Hollywood was stunned when "The Godfather" lost several Academy Awards to the brilliant but less epochal realist musical, "Cabaret." "The Godfather" won only three Oscars, but one of them was for Best Picture.

He might have lost the little gold man for directing to the equally talented Bob Fosse, but Coppola was now a  filmmaking superstar. His next film, "The Conversation," won the Palm D'Or at Cannes – the second most prized award in all of cinema. Then Coppola topped it all with "The Godfather: Part II," proving to the world that a sequel could actually match or, in this case, top the original in the view of many (including the guy writing this bio). This time, there were no award disappointments. Coppola became a multiple Oscar winner with one film. But how to top that?

As chronicled in the documentary, "Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse," Coppola's' decision to take over the hugely ambitious, long-gestating war film and literary adaptation, "Apocalypse Now," from longtime friends and colleagues George Lucas and John Milius very nearly destroyed the sanity of its director and almost killed its lead actor, Martin Sheen. Still, after monumental setbacks and delays, the film was another instant classic despite many flaws, and another commercial success.

Coppola's vast ambition stopped working in his favor, however, when he, ironically enough, attempted to lighten the mood and reduce the scale with a semi-musical romantic comedy called "One From the Heart." Coppola's decision to try to create a more stylized version of Las Vegas in the studio, when the real one was a few hours' drive away, was widely decried. The movie bombed and the Coppola winning streak was broken.

The director bounced back to some degree with "The Outsiders" and, later, "Tucker: The Man and His Dream," but his involvement in another highly problematic big budget flop, "The Cotton Club," didn't help his reputation. His last chance to really reclaim the limelight in a major way, 1992's  much ballyhooed "The Godfather: Part III," did well commercially but was received with disappointment. In particular, he was widely criticized for his decision to give the film's crucial role, originally cast with Winona Ryder, to daughter Sofia Coppola. Coppola kept working, but the trend was not good. The Vietnam drama, "Gardens of Stone," was mostly ignored, while "Bram Stoker's Dracula" and "The Rainmaker" did well enough with critics and audiences, but there was no doubt that the hugely influential Coppola of the 1970s was long gone. On the other hand, his Northern California winery was doing rather well.

Following a ten-year break after the release of the John Grisham adaptation, "The Rainmaker," he returned with a pair of modestly budgeted films that aroused even more modest interest, 2007's "Youth Without Youth" and 2009's "Tetro." Admirers still await that so far elusive critically acclaimed "return to form." A commercial hit or a new award winner seems almost too much to ask for.

No matter, Francis Coppola has made at least five or six undisputed classics. He is also undoubtedly delighted to be partially eclipsed by the filmmaking success of his writer-director daughter Sofia, ironically the former whipping girl of Coppola's most famed filmic disappointment. The Coppola name is in no danger of being forgotten.

The Best of the Best

"The Godfather"

The GodfatherFrom the opening scene, where Marlon Brando as the aging Vito Corleone affectionately strokes a purring kitten and agrees to perform a small act of rough justice for an ungrateful undertaker, audiences were seduced into rooting for the most ruthless of criminals. Movies – not just gangster movies – were never quite the same. The audience follows the progression of young Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) from idealistic ex-GI, to brave Mafia prince, to utterly ruthless calculating king with rapt attention and still-controversial sympathy. The then all but unknown Coppola combined grand soap opera,  shocking levels of violence and bloodshed, emotional resonance, an intriguing political sensibility, and the highest of cinematic style to fashion a truly epic blockbuster. Mario Puzo's novel was a huge hit, but widely dismissed as a second-rate potboiler. Coppola's movie is widely recognized as both a grand entertainment and a true work of the cinematic art that posits some of the thorniest ethical paradoxes in the history of the movies. The Corleones aren't nice, but then, what about most governments and corporations?

"The Godfather: Part II"

The  Godfather: Part IIEven more than today, the conventional wisdom among Hollywood insiders and film fans alike in 1972 was that sequels might be commercially successful, but were never as good as the original. The difference was that, up to that point, it was actually more or less true. However, with a huge hit under his belt and a great deal of the Corleone saga left to tell, Coppola defied all expectations with a film that is darker, brittler, flashier, and even more brilliantly compelling and thought provoking than the one that preceded it. This is the movie that contrasts the almost idealistic underpinnings of the Corleone family – including a star-making performance by newcomer Robert De Niro as the young Vito Corleone – with the full-blown corruption of the family even as Michael attempts to maintain what he sees as a sort of integrity. Still, the bone-chilling murder of a prostitute to blackmail a viciously bigoted senator and the inevitable fate of the pitiful but sweet-natured Fredo Corleone (the late John Cazale) makes it clear that the Corleones exist in the most opulent circle of hell.

"The Conversation"

The ConversationMade between the first two "Godfather" films, this thriller-cum-character study is as small and claustrophobic as the two films around it are expansive. Inspired by Michelangelo Antonioni's "Blow-Up" and a probable influence on Brian DePalma's "Blow-Out," Coppola's film is vastly more humane and vastly more involving than either. Gene Hackman, a truly great film actor, portrays one of his greatest characters, emotionally stunted San Francisco audio surveillance expert Harry Caul. Caul tries to avoid all strong human contact and commitment, but he thinks his client might be planning to kill his young wife (Cindy Williams) and her lover (Frederic Forrest), and he's just a little too decent to ignore it. The result is an existential crisis on more than one level. Featuring brilliant editing and sound design by Walter Murch, very much a genius in his own right, "The Conversation" may not be as well known as Coppola's "Godfather" films and "Apocalypse Now," but it remains one of the most devastating thrillers ever made.

The Most Underrated

"Rumble Fish"

Rumble FishAn acknowledged world class director nearly ten years prior, Coppola described this follow-up to his overtly old-fashioned but youth oriented hit, "The Outsiders," as his "student film." Another adaptation of a novel by young adult stalwart S.E. Hinton but rated R for honestly portrayed violence, cursing, and sexuality, it was filmed in glorious, expressionistic black and white by the great cinematographer, Stephen Burum, and contained a great deal of surrealistic imagery and odd storytelling. Not very surprisingly, the film received cat calls at screenings and, despite being perhaps Coppola's best post-"Apocalypse" film, it received only a limited release and made next to nothing. Who cares? With a hugely charismatic early performance by Mickey Rourke alongside Matt Dillon, Dennis Hopper, Diane Lane and future superstar (and Coppola nephew) Nicholas Cage, and a brilliant score by Police drummer Stewart Copeland, it's a little like "Rebel Without a Cause" remade by poet-director Jean Cocteau ("Beauty and the Beast," "Blood of a Poet"). That's a very good thing, by the way.

What Were You Thinking?

"New York Stories"

New York StoriesFew directors have had that "what was he thinking" question asked as often as Coppola. Certainly, the casting of his daughter, Sofia, in a very important role in "The Godfather: Part III" was hugely questionable. The 1997 movie "Jack," starring Robin Williams as a child with a rare disease which turns him into a 40-year-old was roundly panned, but was actually intended as something of a reflection of the tragically short life of Coppola's late son, Gian-Carlo. Still, the worst half-hour or so of film in Coppola's career almost certainly has to be "Life Without Zoe." The nearly unwatchable, highly stylized but almost moronic comedy about an insufferably precocious emancipated child a la "Eloise" was largely written by the then-teenage Sofia Coppola. Her best work as a screenwriter was definitely still ahead of her. Let's face it: the director of the greatest family saga in American cinema is helpless before the power of  familial love.

Memorable Quotes

THE GODFATHER

Michael Corleone: My father made him an offer he couldn't refuse.
Kay Adams: What was that?
Michael Corleone: Luca Brasi held a gun to his head, and my father assured him that either his brains or his signature would be on the contract.

Peter Clemenza: Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.

Luca Brasi: Don Corleone, I am honored and grateful that you have invited me to your home on the wedding day of your daughter. And may their first child be a masculine child.

Michael Corleone: If anything in this life is certain, if history has taught us anything, it is that you can kill anyone.

APOCALYPSE NOW

Lt. Colonel Kilgore: I love the smell of napalm in the morning. You know, one time we had a hill bombed, for 12 hours. When it was all over, I walked up. We didn't find one of 'em, not one stinkin' dink body. The smell, you know, that gasoline smell, the whole hill. Smelled like...victory. Someday this war's gonna end.

Photojournalist: What are they gonna say about him? What are they gonna say? That he was a kind man? That he was a wise man? That he had plans, man? That he had wisdom? Bullshit, man!

Captain Willard: Every minute I stay in this room, I get weaker, and every minute Charlie squats in the bush, he gets stronger.

Captain Willard: Everyone gets everything he wants. I wanted a mission, and for my sins, they gave me one. Brought it up to me like room service. It was a real choice mission, and when it was over, I never wanted another.

THE OUTSIDERS

Johnny: Stay gold, Ponyboy. Stay gold

Randy: You can't win. You know that, don't you? It doesn't matter if you whip us, you'll still be where you were before, at the bottom. And we'll still be the lucky ones at the top with all the breaks. It doesn't matter. Greasers will still be Greasers and Socs will still be Socs. It doesn't matter.

RUMBLE FISH

Steve: I don't know why someone hasn't taken a rifle and blown your head off.
The Motorcycle Boy: Even the most primitive of societies have an innate respect for the insane.

Benny: Time is a funny thing. Time is a very peculiar item. You see when you're young, you're a kid, you got time, you got nothing but time. Throw away a couple of years, a couple of years there... it doesn't matter. You know. The older you get you say, "Jesus, how much I got? I got thirty-five summers left." Think about it. Thirty-five summers.

THE GODFATHER, PART III

Michael Corleone: Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in.

Famous Last Words

In a sense, I think a movie is really a little like a question and when you make it, that's when you get the answer.

If the movie works, nobody notices the mistakes... If the movie doesn't work, the only thing people notice are mistakes.

You ought to love what you're doing because, especially in a movie, over time you really will start to hate it.

Basically, both the Mafia and America feel they are benevolent organizations. And both the Mafia and America have their hands stained with blood from what it is necessary to do to protect their power and interests.

['The Godfather, Part II'] seemed like such a terrible idea that I was intrigued by the thought of pulling it off.

My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam. It's what it was really like. ... There were too many of us. We had access to too much money. Too much equipment. And little by little we went insane.

I just feel that at a certain point you have to go back to the beginning again. The best thing for me at this point in my life is to become a student again and make movies with the eyes I had when I was enthusiastic about it in the first place.

I bring to my life a certain amount of mess.

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