By John H. Foote
Each year when the esteemed American Film Institute (AFI) announces its annual Lifetime Achievement Award winner, I hope to hear the name Francis Ford Coppola. For 30 years I have listened for his name, for 30 years I have been disappointed.
Three times I have interviewed Coppola, and each time the airs gets sucked out of the room when he enters, walking slow, deliberate and I knew I was in the presence of greatness. Yet he is a humble man, remarkably so considering his staggering accomplishments, most in the seventies. The second time I spoke with him, he was unnerved by his wearing of brown shoes (not black) with his immaculate black suit, having forgotten to pack them. With just his work in the seventies he stands as one of the greatest filmmakers in film history, yet still is not an AFI Lifetime Award recipient.
Scorsese is there, so are George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, all three contemporaries of Coppola, all three a part of the Beach House gang. You see there was a time, sometime before 1970, a group of upcoming film directors gathered in a beach house in Malibu rented by Canadian actress Margot Kidder several years before she was Lois Lane in Superman (1978). On a warm Sunday afternoon, you could walk in and see Francis Ford Coppola holding court, likely in the centre of the room, brashly talking about his plans for the future, his hope to make films free of studio interference. At his side, listening intently, taking in every word was an intense young man who rarely smiled, George Lucas. Seducing all the new women in the cottage was burly Brian De Palma, while John Milius surfed the beach.
Sitting quietly in a corner, listening, never missing a sentence Coppola said was awkward young Steven Spielberg, the most socially inept man in the group. Arriving late, with flowers for the ladies, dressed immaculately in a pristine white three piece suit, was diminutive Martin Scorsese, talking film with a machine gun delivery that exists to this day.
Flash forward to the Academy Awards in 2007, and three of the men from that cottage stood centre stage to present the Academy Award for Best Director. Coppola, rarely making films at that point having achieved staggering wealth through his winery in Napa Valley, was now sporting a white beard and much heavier. Lucas, having just completed his Star Wars prequels, was also white haired, the only man in the trio without an Oscar as Best Director but two billion dollars in the bank. And Spielberg, two-time Best Director winner, the three men now the grand old men of film. Obviously the Academy was very sure of who the winner would be, otherwise a very embarrassing situation would have taken place. Together they presented a long overdue Oscar to their dear friend Martin Scorsese for his electrifying crime film The Departed (2006). The four men had come a long way from that beach house, afternoon chili, and planning the future of American film. Incredibly, they were each a few short years from major breakthroughs and for Coppola, a dominance of a decade not seen before.
His financial struggles have been legion, the stuff of Hollywood legend as he amassed a fortune, spent it, and so it went on. After his great work in the seventies, films for the ages, he was by the end on the eighties a director for hire. Yet today he is free of the studios, any studio, having created a personal fortune of over $400 million dollars, largely through his winery which produces world class wine and have made Coppola very wealthy indeed.
Through the seventies Coppola would direct four films, two of them Best Picture winners, all of them so nominated, with one Best Director win for him, and two other nominations. Each of the films can lay claim to being among the very best of the decade. The Directors Guild of America awarded Coppola their Best Director award twice, nominating him for the other two, while he won two Golden Globes for Best Director and the 1974 Best Director award from The National Society of Film Critics.
The films – The Godfather (1972), The Conversation (1974), The Godfather Part II (1974) and Apocalypse Now (1979) – all stand among the finest American films ever made. In addition to directing the films, Coppola co-wrote and co-produced all but The Godfather. In addition he produced the massive hit American Graffiti (1973) for his friend George Lucas, another Best Picture nominee, won his first Academy Award for writing Patton (1970), and wrote the script to The Great Gatsby (1974) which failed but not because of Coppola.
In all his four films received a total of 32 Academy Award nominations, Coppola himself being nominated for 11 for the films he directed, 13 in total. He would win Oscars for Best Director for The Godfather Part II, Best Screenplay shared with Mario Puzo the The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, and both films won Best Picture, giving Coppola five Academy Awards in the seventies. Finally, in addition to directing masterpieces, he created American Zoetrope, meant to be a haven for young directors to make their visions for less than one million dollars, free of studio interference.
In his own unique way you might call Coppola the Godfather of American cinema in the seventies.
He was brash, confident, (some thought arrogant) and brilliant and he knew it. So did the studios he got into business with. Paramount wanted his films, because they understood what they were getting each time.
When he was hired to direct and co-write The Godfather for Paramount Pictures, he knew he had been hired because Paramount felt they could control him because he was young, he was hungry. How naive they were, thinking they could control a young Coppola who understood The Godfather was his shot. When the studio tried to force actors such as a Rod Steiger, Laurence Olivier or Ernest Borgnine on him as Don Vito Corleone, he fought for and cast Marlon Brando, not yet 50, as the 75-year old Mafia chieftain. Though Brando was considered box office poison and known to be a dangerously difficult actor, Coppola believed no one else could bring the quiet ruthlessness the role deserved. In supporting roles, Paramount suggested Warren Beatty, Robert Redford, Jack Nicholson, David Carradine, even the Waspish Ryan O’Neal for the sons, utterly ridiculous. Coppola instead cast James Caan as Santino, John Cazale as Fredo and relatively unknown Al Pacino as Michael, the key role in the film. His casting was legendary, in fact his casting was hugely responsible for the greatness of the film.
Coppola and Puzo crafted a screenplay which explored the perversity of the American Dream, a narrative in which immigrants came to America, worked hard, finding great wealth through their business which happens to be crime. Graft and murder are a part of their everyday life, yet treated as a business, never personal.
When the film was released it was an immediate blockbuster with audiences, who formed long lines around city blocks, and film critics hailed the film the greatest American film ever made. Certainly it helped that the novel had been a bestseller, building an awareness, but the film stood on its own in every way.
Though there had been a counter cultural revolution building in American cinema, beginning in 1967 with Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, In Cold Blood, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Midnight Cowboy and They Shoot Horses Don’t They? This striking new realism, by the early seventies, was sweeping through American film, and Coppola emerged as a great filmmaker at a pivotal moment in film. The Godfather was so much more than a gangster film, as Coppola chose to make a film about fathers and sons, of the bond of family, and crime as a business. There was violence like we had never before experienced, the depositing of the head of a half million dollar race horse in the bed of a pompous movie studio chief, the garrotting of Luca Brasi, the shocking assassination attempt on Vito, Michael’s revenge in a small Italian restaurant, the massacre of Sonny, and the beautifully edited final sequence where on Michael’s orders, the heads of the other Five Families are executed, consolidating the absolute power of the Corleone family. The violence was graphic, startling in its realism, and sudden, unexpected, which shocked audiences.
However the majority of the reviews focused on the artistic merits of the film beginning with Coppola’s intimate direction and the stunning performances of Brando, Pacino, Caan and Robert Duvall, brilliant as adopted son Tom Hagen. In many ways the film kicked into motion a second coming of method acting in the United States, and catapulted Brando back to major stardom for the next eight years. However, while the majority of reviews focused on Brando, it was noted over and over the film was really about Michael and, with his superb performance, Pacino became a major acting force in the seventies. The National Society of Film Critics certainly noticed Pacino, honouring him with Best Actor, while the New York Film Critics Circle awarded Robert Duvall their Best Supporting Actor prize.
The Godfather earned Coppola the Directors Guild of America Award (DGA) as the Best Director of 1972, a hugely popular choice. The film was nominated for 10 Academy Awards and going into Oscar night was the front runner for the top awards. Nominations came for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Brando), Best Supporting Actor (Pacino, Caan, Duvall), Best Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Costume Design, and Best Sound. Incredibly the superb cinematography was snubbed, as was the excellent make up, both most deserving and highly acclaimed. Initially the score had earned a nomination, but it was rescinded when learned elements of the score had previously been used. Going into the big night, tied with 10 nominations as well, was Bob Fosse’s extraordinary musical Cabaret, also a film for the ages, arguably the finest musical ever made.
As the night unfolded, The Godfather gang watched as Cabaret won award after award, besting Coppola’s film in each category. The Godfather finally won its first award of the evening when Coppola and Puzo won for their Screenplay Adaptation of Puzo’s novel. When Best Director was announced there was an audible gasp as Coppola, winner of the DGA Award, had lost the Academy Award to Bob Fosse for Cabaret. Very rarely through the Academy’s history had the winner of the DGA not gone on to win the Academy award, which seemed to suggest The Godfather had no chance at Best Picture. No one was surprised when Marlon Brando won Best Actor for The Godfather, his second Oscar but first since On the Waterfront (1954) 18 years earlier. Everyone was aware Brando had not attended, but when a young Native American rose to speak on the actor’s behalf, everyone associated with The Godfather held their collective breath. Sacheen Littlefeather read a statement from the actor declining to accept the Oscar based on the treatment of the American Indian in films. She was booed off the stage, reading the entire statement in the press room. Believing the chance to win a Best Picture was gone, the producers prepared to watch Cabaret win the nights top award.
But it did not.
The Godfather won Best Picture, rightfully so, which thrust Coppola to the very top of the A list of young filmmakers creating the New American cinema. As his share of the profits began rolling in, one million, two, three, five million he began spending some of that hard-earned cash.
In between the making and release of his next film The Conversation (1974), he wrote the screenplay for The Great Gatsby (1974) only to be terribly hurt when director Jack Clayton ignored entire passages of the script, which might have better fleshed out the characters. Going back to short stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Coppola filled in missing portions that he felt better defined the connection between Gatsby and Daisy and dove into Gatsby’s mysterious past. Now the film was doomed with the casting of Robert Redford as Gatsby and Mia Farrow as Daisy, they simply had no heat which in a love story is essential. Redford, a fine actor, lacked the danger Gatsby needed to be believed. This is a man who made his fortune through crime, and not for one second did Redford suggest any menace. Jack Nicholson would have been a stronger choice, or Warren Beatty, even Bruce Dern, so magnificent in the film as Tom Buchanan, each with the ability to be dangerous on screen. Farrow was a disaster as Daisy, so flaky that one wondered what any man saw in her. Ali McGraw had been the initial choice, and Diane Keaton might have done wonders with the role, but Farrow, no. The Great Gatsby failed, rather miserably, but Coppola believes to this day had Clayton shot the script Coppola wrote, it might have been different despite the casting.
His other major project before he got back to directing was producing American Graffiti (1973) for his struggling young protege George Lucas, though Coppola was not impressed that Lucas had approached others before him. Universal knew the Coppola name could help the film which, despite financing, they never believed in. Coppola was a true producer to Lucas, rarely visiting the set, allowing the young director to make the film he wanted to make. With a budget of $750,000, and a short shooting schedule, Lucas no question was under brutal pressure to deliver a fine film that would be a success.
When Lucas finally screened the film for Universal executives, he filled the audience with regular movie goers as well and got exactly the reaction he desired. The audience loved the film, were with it throughout, while the executives deemed it unreleasable. In a fury, Coppola raged at the executives as audience members were filing out. He roared that Lucas had saved their jobs by delivering a smash hit, but the executives refused to believe him, saying the film should go straight to television. Still Coppola raged, offering to write a cheque right then and there for the film to distribute himself. His indignation stopped the Universal executives’ complaints, because if he saw this, what were they missing? Turned out plenty because American Graffiti became a monster hit, racking up more than $80 million in ticket sales. It became a touchstone film for audiences who could watch the film and see their own youth, saying “I know that kid, I was that kid”. With the haunting freeze frames before the closing credits, the audience discovers what becomes of the kids in the film, much of it terribly bittersweet. One of them is killed by a drunk driver, another is MIA in Vietnam while the young lovers marry then divorce. This knowledge gave the film a sense of realism audiences had not expected and suddenly the film had great depth.
Nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture and Director, the film won nothing but has staked its place as one of the greatest American films ever made. Coppola did what a great producer should do, he left the director alone to make his film the way he wanted.
With a $1.6 million dollar budget, Coppola directed, produced and wrote The Conversation (1974), a small, intimate, altogether brilliant film about the surveillance industry and one man, Harry Caul, portrayed by character actor Gene Hackman. For six years Coppola had researched this industry, attending trade shows, speaking with experts, pouring over catalogues, knowing everything he could learn about surveillance. The film was shot in and around San Francisco, using outdoor locations for nearly all of the film. In fact, the only built set was the apartment scene for the film, Harry’s sparse ordinary home.
The Conversation was invited to the Cannes Film Festival where it was met with strong reviews, eventually winning the Palme D’Or as Best Film. It seemed to hit a nerve in America, released at a time when wire tapping was major news given the Watergate scandal which would bring down President Nixon, resigning in disgrace. The main character Harry was a near silent man, paranoid to a fault, terrified of being heard, of being found out. He will bug anyone he is hired to bug, but when the tables are turned and he realizes he has been set up, listened in on himself, his life falls apart.
Coppola readily admitted the success of The Conversation rested entirely on the shoulders of Gene Hackman who had won the Academy Award for Best Actor as narcotics detective Popeye Doyle in The French Connection (1971) and had become one of the finest actors in American cinema. Like a wounded Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Harry goes about his business, until he too is bugged and terribly betrayed. With little dialogue, a by product of his job, Hackman brilliantly conveys Harry’s isolation, his intense loneliness, and the fact he can trust no one nor let anyone into his life.
THE GODFATHER PART II
1974 was a banner year for Coppola, the greatest of his extraordinary career. Paramount had begun plans for a sequel to The Godfather once the dollars began rolling in for the film. They became adamant for a follow up when the film surpassed Gone with the Wind (1939) as the highest money-making film of all time. Coppola had initially demurred, asking the studio to consider Martin Scorsese as director for the sequel. When they promised a Coppola absolute control, allowing him to direct, produce and co-write the script, for a ridiculous amount of money, he finally agreed. Writing the screenplay this time, he and Puzo decided that the film would expand, telling the story of Vito’s rise in Little Italy, while exploring Michael’s absolute power in the late fifties. The two men wanted to explore how absolute corruption corrupts absolutely, how organized crime is a worldwide business, and that betrayal can often come from those closest to you.
Shooting The Godfather Part II took nine months in various locations around the globe. Most of the cast returned: Pacino, Duvall, Talia Shire, Diane Keaton, John Cazale, even James Caan and Brando agreed to cameos. However Richard Castellano, the beloved Clemenza, was killed off and written out when his demands for money became foolish, allowing Coppola to create a new character, Frankie Pentangeli, portrayed by the gifted playwright Michael V. Gazzo.
Important additions to the cast included Robert De Niro, cast as the younger version of Vito, and Method Acting guru Lee Strasberg as Hyman Roth, a character based on Meyer Lansky.
The film was beautifully structured with a broken narrative, moving easily between the fifties and back in time, exploring the life and rise of Vito. The film opens after the murders of Vito’s brother and father, and eventually his mother, forcing the nine-year-old child to be hidden by family and friends who eventually get the boy to America. Here he grows and works, marries, fathers children but is under constant threat from the local crime lord who demands money from Vito. So we watch as Vito enters the world of crime, killing the man and assuming his position as a man to be respected, a man of great power. But we see the fairness of the older Vito in the younger man, a man who understands murder just happens to be part of his business. He will return to Sicily to avenge his family, slicing open the belly of the ancient old Don who killed them, his ruthlessness exposed.
We encounter a Michael, now in Utah, claiming to be trying to make his entire business operation legal, an obvious lie. When an assassination attempt on him fails, he leaves Utah, leaving Tom (Duvall) in charge, seeking the man who ordered the hit. To be truthful, he already knows and when he again encounters Hyman Roth in Cuba, he slowly realizes it was him, but what he does not expect is that his brother Fredo (Cazale) was used as a dupe to get close to Michael. This will doom Fredo, and the older brother knows it. Michael will again consolidate his power, but lose his family, his morality gradually decayed by his business. His power his corrupted him in every way, by the end of the film he is alone.
The Godfather Part II opened in late 1974 and received rave reviews from the nations critics, many declaring the sequel to be that rarity, a sequel stronger than the first film. For me the film achieves something very unique in film history, being one of the greatest achievements in film direction in the history of film. Think of the images from the film, that ship of immigrants, their faces filled with hope, gently gliding past the Statue of Liberty, the near sepia tone of Little Italy; the murder of Fanucci by Vito; the assassination attempt on Michael as a hail of bullets explode into his bedroom; his realization it was a Fredo who betrayed him, that famous kiss between brothers in Cuba; the senate investigation in which all charges against a Michael are dropped, Kay’s confession to Michael that she aborted their son bringing ruin to their marriage; Michael eliminating all his enemies, including his brother Fredo; and that final shot, Michael outside, forever alone. In a moment of genius, we are suddenly back in the forties with a Sonny, the entire family to celebrate Vito’s birthday. It is a striking reminder of the true greatness of Al Pacino’s performance as we see him smiling, happy to be with his brothers until he drops the bomb that he has joined the Marines. As his father comes home, he sits alone in the kitchen, foreshadowing his future of being utterly alone.
Coppola placed the film on the shoulders of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, portraying the son and the father. With a tremendous, internalized performance, each time Pacino came on screen his presence radiated danger, his dead cold eyes suggesting menace. He rarely raises his voice, explodes into violence when his wife tells him she aborted his son, and the depth of his hatred for her unmistakable in his eyes, his fury unleashed. Without question, this is the greatest work of the actor’s career. De Niro was on the rise when cast as Vito, immediately heading to Sicily to learn the language, armed with tapes of the first film to study the details of his performance. His obsession became the body language of Brando, his use of his hands, that distinctive raspy voice and the quiet confidence in how he carried himself. The two actors were astonishing, bringing performances for the ages to this great film.
For me The Godfather Part II represents the peak of Coppola’s career and is arguably the finest film ever made. Bolder than the first in its complexity and sweep, darker in its exploration of moral corruption, the film is a masterpiece. Nominated for 11 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Pacino), Best Supporting Actors three times (De Niro, Gazzo, Strasberg), Best Supporting Actress (Talia Shire), Best Screenplay Adaptation, Best Musical Score (Carmine Coppola), Best Art Direction, and Best Costume Design. Tying the film with nominations was the superb noir Chinatown (1974) and Bob Fosse had a new film in the running with Lenny (1974).
Coppola became the first director in years to earn two of five nominations for Best Director from the DGA Awards, up for both The Conversation and The Godfather Part II. Both his films were nominated for Academy Awards as Best Picture, with The Conversation notching three. Coppola had already won the coveted National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Director and, shortly before Oscar night, Coppola won his second Best Director Award from the DGA, both awards for The Godfather Part II making him the clear-cut favourite going into Oscar night. But the spectre of Cabaret hung over Coppola and he had his doubts his film would win. He went into the big night pleased that his father Carmine had been nominated for his lush, sweeping score and his sister Talia for supporting actress.
Oscar night was historical as The Godfather Part II became the first sequel to win the Academy Award as Best Film, and Coppola finally won his first Academy Award as Best Director. In all, Coppola took home three Oscars that night winning for his screenplay and as producer he took home the top prize. The Godfather Part II won six Academy Awards, adding Best Supporting Actor for Robert De Niro, Best Art Direction, and Coppola’s father won for his magnificent score. Robbed for his greatest screen work was Al Pacino as Best Actor, for his intensely brilliant work as Michael. Incredibly Art Carney managed to win the award, besting no less than Pacino and Jack Nicholson in Chinatown. Once again Gordon Willis was snubbed for his stunning cinematography, and both John Cazale and Robert Duvall were deserving of nominations for Best Supporting Actor.
The legacy of The Godfather Part II is one of great glory, standing strong today, 46 years after it was released. Many, myself among them, believe it surpasses the first as a greater film, and I stand by my claim that it is the single greatest film ever made. A bold statement but one I will vehemently defend. Coppola cut the two films together in chronological order, restoring many scenes he cut for a major television event, but I prefer seeing the films as they were created. In 1990 The Godfather Part III was released, and I need to be clear. This film, in my universe, does not exist, it was never made, it is a travesty. Watching an older a Michael, obscenely wealthy, the most powerful crime lord in America, jump into a car as a chauffeur to show his long-estranged wife Sicily was beyond ridiculous. No bodyguards in a country teeming with assassins? And that is all I will say about Part III, and believe me, that is too much.
In 1975 Coppola found himself the most sought after filmmaker in the business, he found himself with extraordinary power and the ability to do anything he wanted. He had personally won five Academy Awards, had two Best Picture winners and a third nominee, two DGA Awards and great wealth. He had created The Directors Company with Peter Bogdanovich and William Friedkin, but that venture failed, leaving him with American Zoetrope. What he decided to do next confounded the entire industry but was typical of Coppola, going against the grain
He decided to make Apocalypse Now, a script written by a George Lucas which at that time was a gonzo black comedy about Americans in Vietnam. Coppola spoke with a Lucas about rewriting the script, but Lucas was tied up with Star Wars (1977) so permitted Coppola to take control and do the rewrite himself. With his friend from the cottage in Malibu, war historian John Milius, they fashioned a story based on Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”, changing the location from Africa to Cambodia, setting the film during the Vietnam war. It would be, Coppola hoped, the first major American film to explore the war in Vietnam and for that reason he was very excited. Coppola hoped to capture the madness of Vietnam, bringing to the screen the nightmarish aspects of this most unpopular war.
Casting the film proved much more difficult than he could have imagined. Most actors stated they had no interest being in the jungle for six months, and though each admired Coppola, wanted to work with him, the appeal of shooting in the jungle was a zero. Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, Al Pacino, Robert Redford and Jack Nicholson turned down the role of Captain Willard, but he managed to sign Marlon Brando for a huge sum of money to portray the renegade American Colonel Kurtz. Robert Duvall joined the cast as Colonel Kilgore (that name!), and eventually they found their Willard in a Harvey Keitel.
Cast, crew and the Coppola’s then packed up in 1976 for the shoot in the Philippines, where the landscape and jungles closely resembled Vietnam. The government of the Philippines had agreed to loan Coppola helicopters from their army and to co-operate in obtaining the locations Coppola desired. He would be working with the gifted cinematographer Vittorio Storaro for the first time, the two men proving to work beautifully together, their minds locked in synch. Hoping things got off to a smooth start, their hopes were almost immediately dashed. After a few days of shooting the decision was made to fire Harvey Keitel, not an easy move for a company thousands of miles from home. The shoot was halted while Coppola flew home, returning a week later with Martin Sheen, an acclaimed actor who had auditioned for Coppola for The Godfather.
Shooting resumed as did the countless issues on the production of the film which proved soul sucking to Coppola. Typhoons wiped out the massive set of the Kurtz compound, the monsoon season forced them to shoot in pounding non-stop rain, the government routinely called away the helicopters they had loaned often right out of the shot to go fight the rebels in the hills, Dennis Hopper spent most of the shoot stoned on which ever drugs he could find, making shooting his scenes hell, and the most crushing blow came when Martin Sheen was felled by a near fatal heart attack. Sheen was administered the last rites before being taken to a hospital, then flown back to the United States. There was genuine concern he would die, which Coppola did not wish to acknowledge.
For more than six weeks Coppola shot around Sheen, using a double for long shots, or another actor in shooting over his shoulder, or the easiest, shots that did not include Sheen. When the actor miraculously returned to work he looked rested, much healthier than he previously looked, and he got right back to work. Coppola might have thought his issues with actors were over but then Marlon Brando came in for his scenes, and all hell broke loose. Hugely overweight, claiming to have not read either the script or the Conrad book “Heart of Darkness”, Brando stated to Coppola he could improvise his scenes. With little choice, Coppola would discuss his ideas and then turn the camera on Brando who improvised his dialogue, an astounding achievement considering the final art.
Days, weeks, months, years went by as the shoot hit more than two hundred days causing rumours in Hollywood that were causes for concern as the budget soared out of control. Coppola sunk much of his own money into the film because he believed in the art, he felt he was creating something unique. It then took a year to edit the film, the team under brutal pressure to make the Cannes Film Festival, finally premiering there as a “work in progress”.
The press conference for the film became legendary as Coppola stated to the world’s film critics, “My film is not about Vietnam, my film IS Vietnam. We were in the jungle with access to too much money, to much equipment and little by little we went insane.” In his own unique manner Coppola was preparing the press for the experience of his film, which was unlike any film they had ever seen. Thunderous applause and a prolonged standing ovation greeted Coppola at the end of the first screening of his unfinished film. Many North American newspapers carried the reaction to the film on their front pages, this film became international news. Coppola knew immediately he had lightning in a bottle and carried on preparing the film for the August release in North America.
I was 20 years old in the summer of 1979, studying to be an actor, though I knew then film criticism was my true calling. Having driven the 90 minutes in the city of Toronto to see Apocalypse Now on opening day, I entered the massive University Theatre, received my black programme and settled into my seat. There was no way of knowing I was about to be galvanized by a film, that my life was about to be altered forever. The lights went down, there was silence and the film began, no previews of coming attractions, no credits, just an opening shot of a lush green jungle, the trees gently swaying, a scene of peace, solitude. Then the electronic sounds of helicopters were heard on the soundtrack as choppers appeared on the screen. With Jim Morrison and The Doors mournfully singing “The End”, the jungle suddenly explodes into an inferno that we cannot look away from. “This is the end” sings Morrison as Coppola plunges into his hallucinatory, surrealistic Vietnam.
Nearly three hours later I stumbled out of the cinema to a nearby park bench, stunned at what I had just experienced. Seen is too small a word because Apocalypse Now had challenged every one of my senses in a way no film ever had. I was stunned and knew at that moment I could never be an actor because I could not accomplish what the actors in that film had. Then I stood and joined the line to see the next showing of the film, shaking with anticipation.
The narrative of the film is deceptively straight forward, an unhinged Captain Willard (Sheen) is sent into Cambodia to assassinate a renegade American Colonel Kurtz (Brando) who has gone mad and turned against the Americans, setting up his own utopia in the jungle. Willard will travel upriver into Cambodia and is told to “terminate with extreme prejudice” the Colonel. His journey becomes our odyssey into the heart of darkness in Vietnam, and Coppola explores the futility and madness of this ugly war. As Willard moves into the war, we experience a hallucinatory hell as he moves closer to Kurtz. They encounter the brash, fearless Kilgore (Duvall) a surfing nut who loves the smell of napalm in the morning and exterminates a village just to watch a famous L.A. surfer hit the waves with his boys. Further in they catch a show with Playboy bunnies that goes awry, and yet further death visits the boat carrying Willard to Kurtz. When he finally encounters him, the man is like a giant, wasted Buddha, his bald head captured in shadows, like his fractured soul. He relates to Willard the horrifying incident that destroyed him, Viet Cong hacking the inoculated arms off children. Willard finds Kurtz wants him to kill him, to tell his son what he tried to do, Willard sees a reflection of himself, but still kills him because he knows that is what Kurtz wants. As Kurtz lays dying his choked whisper, “the horror, the horror” ends the film.
BACK TO THE OSCARS
Apocalypse Now was, remains a towering cinematic achievement that has grown in stature through the years. Critics, though split on the film at the time of release, agreed they had never experienced anything like it, truly original in every way. Today it is celebrated as the extraordinary work of art it has always been. Nominated for eight Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Duvall), Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Sound and Best Film Editing. Sheen and Brando were both snubbed, a shocking action considering their work. Coppola received his fourth nomination from the DGA, thus nominated for every film he had made in the seventies, and won the Golden Globe as Best Director. But 1979 was a love in for the fine divorce drama Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) which bested Coppola and his war epic at the Academy Awards winning five Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director. Coppola watched disappointed as his masterful war epic won just two awards, Best Cinematography and Best Sound.
In hindsight it seems asinine that Apocalypse Now did not win Academy Awards for Best Film, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Film Editing in addition to the awards it won. The film has far surpassed Kramer vs. Kramer in being a film for the ages and has earned a reputation as one of the greatest films ever made.
Coppola would never again attain the heights he did in the seventies. He rose to the very top of the industry, only to fall like Icarus in the eighties, often a victim of his own ambition and ego. But for the AFI not to recognize his work in the seventies?
The horror, the horror, indeed
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.