Francis Ford Coppola is, if anything, a paradox. The highs and lows of his career chart the trajectory of the New Hollywood era : the first of the film school directors to make his name as an auteur, the first to show such promise that he was often referred to as a 'genius', and also the first to crash and burn. Coppola has spent twenty years making films that, for financial and aesthetic reasons, continuously, and in a very public way, betray his initial promise. The rise and fall of his career can be mapped against the rise and fall of New Hollywood and the auteur cinema of the 1970s. Coppola provides an interesting case study of the twin pull of art and commerce in contemporary Hollywood.
Early European Influences and Pulpy Origins
Taking his middle name from the 'Ford Sunday Evening Hour', a television series on which his father was musical arranger, he was also one of the first American directors to feel the influence of the emerging post-war European new waves. From the outset, Coppola demonstrated a drive and audacity to get things done, to take risks. Coppola's drive landed him a job working for B-movie maestro Roger Corman, who has quite weirdly bought up the North American rights to a Soviet sci-fi film. One of Coppola's first jobs was to re-edit this film and dub on English-language dialogue.
The pulpy, low-budget origins that these early career moves demonstrate under-cut to some degree the latter-day narrative of Coppola's artistry and singular vision. Working for Corman gained Coppola his first real chance to direct a proper film. While in Europe working as an assistant on The Young Racers (1963), Coppola wrote a quick proposal for Corman, arguing that with the crew already on location, it made sense to shoot a second film, thereby reducing costs. On the basis of only one finished scene, Corman agreed- on one condition that the word 'dementia' appear in the title to help sell the film.
Coppola's Dementia13 is something like a mixture of Agatha Christie novel and Hitchcock's Psycho (1960). Dementia13 is predictable, and, except for its reliance on pulpy origins, does not foreshadow the kind of films that Coppola would eventually make. The difference is that, as his career progressed, Coppola stopped relying on pulp and transformed it instead. Moving away from the Corman stable, Coppola began to make his name in Hollywood as a script-writer for some films, the important one being Patton (1970).
The Rise of Hollywood Auteur
During working on a set of a film in Warner Bros. studio Coppola met a young intern named George Lucas - his future protege and American Zoetrope partner. The Rain People, Coppola's personal film is a largely improvised road-trip movie featuring future mainstays James Caan and Robert Duvall. The film was distinctive in that both the crew and the characters within the film itself were on the trip.
Until this point, while well respected for his visual flair and for his scripts, none of Coppola's films had been successful. This is one of the many reasons that Paramount producers famously did not want Coppola to direct the film of the best-selling novel to which they had the rights: Mario Puzo's The Godfather. Yet it is for the Godfather trilogy - along with Apocalypse Now - that Coppola is best known, and it is the trilogy that lies at the heart of claims for Coppola as the key New Hollywood auteur.
Godfather Films : Combination of Generic And Aesthetic Themes
The three Godfather films paint a sweeping portrait of American capitalism in the guise of telling the saga of the life of the Corleone family of Mafiosi. Yet, what is most compelling about the trilogy is not the detail that Coppola, Puzo and their collaborators bring to the films, nor the visual richness with which both New York and Sicily are painted; rather, it is the 'grand' nature of the narrative itself that gives the trilogy its strength. Indeed, it is the way in which the 'grand' is combined with other generic and aesthetic motifs that makes the Godfather trilogy a decisive break with classical Hollywood cinema.
Furthermore, the influence of the 'European New Waves' can be seen in the narrative structure of the The Godfather and Godfather Part II. The Godfather films changed many things: the role and power ascribed to the director as auteur, the kind of films produced by the studios, and the face of Hollywood itself. Indeed, the revenue from the Godfather films allowed Coppola for the first of many times to try and set himself up, in this case with Lucas, as an independent producer under the title of American Zoetrope.
Let's see about his paranoid, claustrophobic classic 'The Conversation', his grand design 'Apocalypse Now' and the later self-deprecating movies of his in the next part.