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Coppola: Driven by debt into greatness

Memo to: Francis Ford Coppola

From: Peter Bart

SAN FRANCISCO — You’ve always been a gracious, if complicated, individual, Francis, but there’s one trait I find especially appealing: In an industry of fierce deal-makers, you are an absolutely terrible businessman. The latest evidence: Your old friend, George Lucas, will generate a billion dollars from the revival of the “Star Wars” trilogy. By contrast, “The Godfather” has just been re-released by Paramount in celebration of its 25th anniversary, and you’ll make zip from that exercise.

Nor is this a new experience for you. When you and I first met a quarter of a century ago, you were running your little company, American Zoetrope, in San Francisco. It was a remarkable company that attracted extraordinary talent, but you, nonetheless, found a way to get $500,000 in the hole. No wonder you later made a movie about a brilliant but financially inept automobile pioneer named Tucker. It was your closest stab at self-analysis.

When we started our initial conversations about “The Godfather,” I reminded you as often as possible about this debt. You were reluctant to take on the task of directing the film and I was having a difficult time persuading you to change your mind. I even asked the ever-cautious and reserved Lucas to reinforce the point that, whatever your reservations, the film would help you dig out from under your debts.

You finally succumbed, of course. Ironically, had you been an adept businessman, you might never have done the movie, which stands as your noblest achievement.

If one sign of genius is the ability to make your weaknesses work for you, then you surely have mastered that art, Francis. I couldn’t help think about all this as I viewed “The Godfather” again here last week in the company of such cast members as Al Pacino, Jimmy Caan, Alex Rocco and Talia Shire.

From the vantage point of a quarter of a century, does the picture stand up? Absolutely. At the moment of its initial release, the expectations were that it would merely be a pop picture based on a pop novel. Over the years, it has taken on the stature of a true American classic. Indeed, had it been placed in a time capsule and released today, it would surely sweep the Oscars.

But what impact did it have on you as a filmmaker, Francis? You have reiterated to friends over the years that the pic was a decidedly mixed blessing. Let’s put aside the fact that the actual shooting of the movie was a tortuous process, steeped in studio backbiting and intrigue. The hard reality is that most great pictures are nightmares to create; for some perverse reason, happy shoots seem to result in lousy movies.

WHEN I FIRST MET YOU, Francis, you wanted to make small but adventurous movies like “The Conversation” and your pal George’s “American Graffiti.” You wanted to be a San Francisco filmmaker who channeled Hollywood’s resources into a unique niche of moviemaking. In some ways, you aspired to build what Miramax ultimately became.

In Michael Sragow’s thoughtful March 24 piece about you in the New Yorker, he quoted you as acknowledging that the 1972 film “inflamed so many desires. After ‘The Godfather,’ there was the possibility of having a company that could one day evolve into a real major and change the way we approach filmmaking.”

In other words, the success of the pic turned you from a filmmaker into a capitalist. One of the things that first interested us both in “The Godfather,” you’ll recall, was that the saga of the Corleone family was a sort of warped metaphor for the capitalist system. Perhaps the saga of Francis Coppola is a much more vivid metaphor. “Behind every great fortune there is a great crime” was the Balzac quote that Mario Puzo placed at the front of his novel.

Success brought you wealth, power and freedom. It enabled you to preside over your vineyards in Napa, your resort in Belize and even, from time to time, your Zoetrope studio in Hollywood.

It also fucked with your head. As someone always prone to overreach, the sheer magnitude of your money and power exacerbated this propensity. Though you made some brilliant pictures, like “Apocalypse Now,” your failures became monuments of excess — “The Cotton Club” and “One From the Heart,” for example. “The Godfather” not only raised the bar on your expectations, it also raised expectations of critics and indeed of the public toward your work.

SEVERAL IMPORTANT CRITICS, upon seeing “Jack,” the little movie you made with Robin Williams last year, not only knocked the movie but also called you to task for attempting a project that was modest, rather than monumental. I could hear your plaintive voice in the background shouting, “You see, I’m trapped!”

But what a glorious trap. Watching you move among your family and your cast last week, you seemed your old self, at once content and edgy, pleased with your achievements, yet frustrated that they weren’t even more imposing.

Even Balzac would be envious, Francis. If “The Godfather” was the great crime behind your great fortune, you have nothing to complain about.

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