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Father of The Godfather

Tuesday, February 1, 2000

Michael Schumacher.
Francis Ford Coppola: A Filmmaker’s Life
. Crown. 536 pages. $30.00

In 1970, an insanely ambitious 31-year-old whose grandiose effort to create a new motion-picture studio in San Francisco was proving difficult, what with all the hippies he had hired stealing his equipment to sell for drugs, got an offer from Paramount Pictures. It was a chance to write and direct the Hollywood version of a book the young filmmaker read and quickly dismissed as "a popular, sensational novel, pretty cheap stuff." The novel was full of gore and sex, which this personally conservative scion of the 1960s found tasteless and offensive — not to mention retrogressive and far too mainstream. Even though he had worked anonymously on a nudie or two in the early 1960s and a few horror movies while he learned his craft, he now fancied himself a revolutionary artist in the manner of the self-conscious geniuses of the European "new wave."

But the writer-director was in debt by $300,000 and had no other prospects. He turned to his quiet, intense assistant — a director manqué himself whose dream project was a hallucinatory epic about the Vietnam War shot on Super-8 home-movie film — and asked what he should do.

"Take it, Francis," the assistant said. "We’re broke."

The assistant, who showed here the first spark of the commercial sense that would later make him the most successful man in the history of show business, was George Lucas. The filmmaker was Francis Ford Coppola. And neither they nor anybody else who had anything to do with The Godfather would ever come close to reaching the artistic heights they achieved with a project undertaken because its director needed the money so he could make so-called "personal" films.

Now, 28 years after its release, The Godfather has firmly established itself as the single greatest achievement in the history of film. (Some still argue for Citizen Kane, but they’re wrong.) It’s the peerless cinematic epic, the story of the destructive power of love and family. Coppola jettisoned the pulpier aspects of Mario Puzo’s novel, which wasted countless pages on roman-à-clef renderings of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, to focus in on the tragedy of Michael Corleone. Slowly, magisterially and heartbreakingly, the young hero back from World War II loses his soul because he cannot escape the call of his blood — and it is the particular punishment for his father Vito, who had hoped that Michael would transcend the thievery and thuggery into which Vito had descended as a young man, that he must watch sadly as his son is inexorably transformed into a colder and more ruthless version of himself.

It was Puzo’s wily conceit that these Mafiosi weren’t just criminal bums but Roman emperors and generals in modern garb, fighting over turf and position not for money but for the greater glory of their family names. But it was Coppola who took that conceit and made it into a human drama both amazingly intimate and grandly horrifying. Coppola gives us the same kind of exquisitely careful detail in the sequence when the wounded Vito is presented hand-made get-well cards by his loving grandchildren after he is nearly assassinated as he does in the famous climax when Michael renounces Satan during the baptism of his godchild even as his henchmen are simultaneously wiping out his rivals all over New York City.

In Coppola’s rendering, even in a new world where men like Michael are free to choose the lives they wish to lead, the demands of family and tradition win out — and are so powerful that they can destroy everything that’s good in a man who had greatness in him.

The Godfather has, by my reckoning, but a single flaw — the anachronistic exchange between the newly minted Mafia chief Michael and his future wife in 1947 when she protests, "Senators and governors don’t have people killed," and he responds, with Nixon-era cynicism, "Now who’s being naïve, Kay." That’s 12 seconds out of 175 minutes, and it’s not surprising that the flaw comes when its writer-director decides to come out from behind the curtain and give the audience a little wave just to remind them that he’s there and has a Big Point to make.

The facts surrounding the production — that Coppola took it on grudgingly, found the whole experience hellish, and turned in an alarmingly brief first cut little resembling the three-hour epic we all know and love — are testimony to how accidental an art form the movies really are. Movies become works of art — which is to say, coherent and unified creative visions that enlarge our sense of humankind and the world — largely by accident. Films are often astounding works of craftsmanship, as intricate and studied in every detail as a medieval cathedral. They are brought into being with a meticulousness that would surprise most viewers; one Hollywood rule of thumb is that it takes an entire day of shooting to get two usable minutes of finished film. Audiences are fooled into believing they are watching something drawn from everyday life when they are in fact passive witnesses to studied formal pageantry staged down to the shaft of light that hits an extra’s face 30 feet behind the two central players as they kiss.

It takes hundreds of people to make a movie, and dozens of them are artists in some sense of the word — actors and writers and cinematographers and editors and costume designers and set designers, all looking for creative fulfillment and all with lots of ideas about how to get theirs.

Throughout the making of The Godfather, Coppola was not the proud leader of a team that worked as one to fulfill his vision. He was a man at war. The production was a backstabbing, back-biting nightmare, and Michael Schumacher relates this oft-told Hollywood tale well in his gentlemanly new biography of Coppola.

Coppola had to fight tooth and nail to cast the unknown Al Pacino as Michael and the has-been Marlon Brando as Vito. The Brando idea seemed particularly bizarre to studio boss Stanley Jaffe, because the 1950s legend was only 46 years old at the time and wandered around Hollywood with a long blond ponytail and a Japanese kimono. "As president of the company," Jaffe ordered Coppola, "I will no longer allow you to discuss it." In response, Coppola later said he "stood up as if I were a lawyer pleading for someone’s life," claiming that alone among the world’s actors, only Laurence Olivier could assay the role, and Olivier was sick at the time.

Then, as Schumacher relates, "Clutching his chest as if having a seizure, [Coppola] collapsed to the floor. The sight of Coppola writhing on the carpet, quite possibly suffering a heart attack as the direct result of his highly charged defense of his convictions, unnerved Jaffe to the point of caving in."

The woes never ceased. Coppola developed an ugly relationship with his director of photography, Gordon Willis, who groused constantly about how Coppola’s efforts to stage the scenes interfered with the complexities of the film’s lighting — the movie was deliberately shot in darkness to suggest the darkness of the Corleone family profession, using antiquated equipment in order to get the "dated" feel of the 1940s and 1950s. "Francis didn’t realize you can’t get art without craft," Willis said pompously. Coppola said Willis hated and misused actors because he wanted them to stand in one spot and deliver their lines like mechanics.

The director hired an editor named Aram Avakian who began spying on Coppola for Paramount, sending back bulletins about how badly the director was doing — in hopes of getting Coppola fired so that Avakian, who had directed a couple of movies himself, could take the reins. Meanwhile, Brando and James Caan, who played Sonny, spent a great deal of time on the set dropping their pants and mooning the other actors.

When the time came for Coppola to put the movie together, he submitted a two hour and 20 minute version. He did this either because he thought he had to bring it in short, so that it wouldn’t be taken away from him and edited by somebody else, or because he didn’t know what he had on his hands. Either way, the studio actually insisted he lengthen the film — perhaps the only time in history such a demand has ever been made.

It was a horrible, terrible, awful experience — but then about a year later the entire team (minus Brando) gathered together a second time to make The Godfather, Part II — by consensus the best sequel ever made. Even Gordon Willis, who had been so dismissive of Coppola, returned. Like the original, Part II won the Oscar for Best Picture. Coppola had at the same time served as executive producer on Lucas’ second film, American Graffiti — which cost a paltry $750,000 and took in more than $60 million, making it the single most profitable film up to that time.

Coppola had also used his clout to make one of those "personal" films for which he had done The Godfather for money, a highly regarded box-office disappointment called The Conversation. But, as Schumacher describes in an eye-opening chapter, The Conversation proved an even more chaotic and elusive moviemaking experience for Coppola than the giant epics he had been working on, and he ended up relying heavily on his editor Walter Murch to turn the scraps of film he had produced into a film that made even rudimentary sense. The Conversation, an unsettling film with a magnificent performance by Gene Hackman, does actually cohere — which suggests that Murch ought to be considered the Maxwell Perkins of Hollywood.

But even Murch couldn’t save Coppola from himself when the time came to make Apocalypse Now. Six years after the completion of The Godfather, when he was the most celebrated and powerful filmmaker in the world, Coppola had a nervous breakdown in the jungles of the Philippines restaging the Vietnam War, which he did not understand nor care to understand. The making of Apocalypse Now is the heart of darkness in Schumacher’s biography — and, indeed, the heart of the disaster that befell Coppola and his fellow superstar American directors in the 1970s. Freed from financial restraint and lionized by an adoring media and public as the modern-day equivalents of the poets and novelists who ruled the taste classes of the Victorian era, Coppola and other American hotshots (Peter Bogdanovich, William Friedkin, and later Michael Cimino) all went out and basically destroyed themselves making ruinously expensive vanity projects ostensibly in the name of art — but really simply because they had the power to do so.

Coppola had the audacity to compare his three-year experience filming his fascinating but unsatisfying Apocalypse Now with the 13-year tragic struggle that cost 58,000 Americans their lives. His marriage, which was unusually good and stable by show-business standards, nearly collapsed when his wife discovered he was having an affair in the Philippines and he simply refused to end it. When Martin Sheen, the star of the picture, had a heart attack on the set and had last rites administered to him, Coppola went momentarily mad. He was captured on film in a marvelous documentary called Hearts of Darkness wandering around ranting, "He’s not dead unless I say he’s dead." Sheen didn’t die, of course, but Coppola had crossed a rubicon of grandiosity with Apocalypse Now — as exemplified by his treatment of Sheen’s brush with lethe — and there was no bridge back.

Coppola chose to follow Apocalypse Now with a little musical about a few people out for the night in Las Vegas, but his outsized ambition got the better of him and he ended up spending the then-ungodly sum of $26 million (the equivalent of more than $100 million today) on a leaden trifle called One From the Heart. It had only four major speaking parts and grossed less than $1 million in a theatrical run that barely lasted three weeks. One from the Heart brought an end to Coppola’s most florid fantasy — that he could run a movie studio just like the good old days, only this time dedicated to small art films.

Still, there was something grand and noble in Coppola’s failure. What made Coppola different from almost every other Hollywood spendthrift was that he constantly put his own money on the line. He wanted artistic control and was willing to sacrifice for it. And that same money allowed him to serve as a remarkably selfless mentor to dozens of writers, directors and actors, many of whom took terrible advantage of his large-heartedness over the years.

He’s made a few good movies in the past 20 years — the little-seen Vietnam-era story Gardens of Stone, which has one of the most moving final scenes ever filmed, is a particular gem (and a particularly sad entry in his canon, as his son Gio died in a boating accident during its filming). He’s made some bad ones too. But mostly what’s happened to Coppola is that he’s become negligible — a man of immense talent who can still work in high style but can no longer think in grand scale.

The portrait of Coppola that emerges from the pages of Schumacher’s workmanlike book is of an immensely attractive man of heart and courage who somehow always thought he was made for more important work than The Godfather. And that is his tragedy, because Francis Ford Coppola made a work that cannot be equaled — a true work of art in a medium in which true works of art are almost impossible to come by — yet never really respected himself for having triumphed at so miraculous a task.