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Francis Ford Coppola’s Beautiful Failure

When Francis Ford Coppola made news in 2019 for calling the franchise-heavy model of modern mainstream cinema “despicable,” pushback was swift. There were the myriad published responses, of course, and plenty of fan weigh-in on social media, too. One particularly biting remark from an acquaintance took note of the apparent state of Coppola’s career. “It’s all sour grapes,” this person said in so many words. “Directors like Coppola are only inveighing against the MCU because audiences would rather watch movies like that instead of their highfalutin efforts. And besides, Coppola’s a nonentity anymore. Has he even put out a film since the 1990s?”

He has, indeed; three of them, with another in pre-production. Coppola’s absence from the mainstream movie business is also by design. The trends that led to today’s IP-heavy media environment built up over decades, and Coppola grew disillusioned a long time ago. “I didn’t want to be a Hollywood director,” he said, looking back on his work in the ’90s. “I wanted to make personal films, but nobody particularly wanted to sponsor me to do that.” With his winery and other business ventures providing a modest fortune, Coppola deliberately withdrew from studio filmmaking, with movies becoming a hobby he could experiment with.

In the 1970s, Coppola could have his experiments and a place of pride in studio filmmaking together. The Godfather’s look, tone, and casting choices were challenged at every turn. Under the guise of a sequel to his earlier hit, Coppola used The Godfather: Part II to fulfill an ambition to tell the story of a father and son in parallel. The Conversation, released the same year as The Godfather: Part II, was a marked stylistic departure from Coppola’s mob movies. And the legendarily troubled production of Apocalypse Now birthed one of the most surreal war films ever made. Every one of these films saw a mainstream release, critical acclaim, and healthy box office. But this charmed run of daring and unorthodox projects winning over the wide public met a disastrous end in 1981 with One From the Heart.


Frederic Forrest and Nastassja Kinski in One From the Heart
Image via Columbia Pictures

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It was meant to be a simple film. Coming off the living hell of Apocalypse Now, a gamble made with his own money, Coppola wanted something lighter, easier, smaller, and cheaper to work on. He also wanted to maintain his hard-won independent status. The answer to both issues seemed to be a small-scale revival of the old-fashioned studio system. Coppola’s production company Zoetrope moved from San Francisco to a historic Hollywood studio that he bought, actors and key personnel were put under contract, and investments were made in what Coppola called the “electronic studio,” an early form of previz and the video village. With these moves, Coppola’s hope was that he and like-minded directors would have a “dream factory” to enable the economic production of creatively stimulating and experimental movies under their complete control. One From the Heart was to be the maiden production of the new Zoetrope, a modest romantic comedy brought in for $15 million.

That $15 million became $26 million by the time all was said and done, and the rom-com blew up into a bittersweet musical composed by Tom Waits. Most of the songs were performed by Waits himself as commentary over the film rather than acting as in-story expression by the characters, but there were still elaborate dance numbers to choreograph (with input from none other than Gene Kelly). Coppola indulged in a six-week rehearsal period for the entire film, a luxury for movies of any size. The electronic studio was touted in the press as a long-term cost saver, and Zoetrope’s salaried artists unanimously voted to accept reduced pay to help the production along. But investors ran scared as Coppola used his new facilities to recreate the Las Vegas strip on a soundstage, deliberately emphasizing the artificiality of the sets.

A still from One From the Heart
Image via Columbia Pictures

This wasn’t extravagance for its own sake. The story of One From the Heart is about a long-term but dysfunctional couple, Hank and Frannie (Frederic Forrest and Teri Garr). When their fifth anniversary turns sour, they swear to call it quits for good. Hitting the Las Vegas strip where Fourth of July celebrations are underway, they are both tempted by new romantic prospects that seem to offer everything they’re missing in life. For Frannie, a travel agent who dreams of visiting the places she advertises, that means an affair with the waiter/pianist Ray (Raul Julia) and his promise of a runaway to Bora Bora. For Hank, a down-to-earth mechanic who’s strayed before, it means a one-night stand with the desperate circus performer Leila (Nastassja Kinski). The artifice of a stage-bound Vegas simultaneously reflects Frannie’s dreams of a glamorous life and Hank’s disillusionment with the American Dream. “It’s all phony bullshit… it’s tinsel!” he gripes to his friend Moe (Harry Dean Stanton). Even in the comparatively realistic sets of Hank and Frannie’s house or their friends’ apartments, dramatic shifts in color and lighting mark punctuate emotional shifts in a manner more common to theater than film. But against all this glitz, the performances by nearly all the cast are naturalistic.

This is the central contrast of the film: all the romantic dreams inspired by splashy Hollywood musicals of this kind surround a relationship that is much more human. Hank and Frannie’s potential outs seem too good to be true, but the two of them staying together isn’t any better an idea. It’s complicated, and much of that complexity is expressed through music and visuals more than dialogue, not just through the eye-grabbing broad strokes of design. Coppola was no stranger to juxtaposing events against one another, a la montages in The Godfather. In One From the Heart, he took the juxtaposition a step further: a set for a scene between Hank and Moe was built adjacent to a set for a scene between Frannie and her friend Maggie (Lainie Kazan), with a thin scrim separating the two. Lights would be up on one set, down on the other, shifting back and forth in another common theatrical device. All the while, Waits’ songs offer insight into what made this relationship last so long and why it’s gone all wrong without directly expositing what’s on the screen.

It’s a tension that largely works. Waits wrote an amazing score, and the combined efforts of production designer Dean Tavoularis and cinematographers Vittorio Storaro and Ronald Victor Garcia make for a stunning film to look at. Frederic Forrest and Teri Garr excel as Harry and Frannie, with Raul Julia providing strong support as Ray (Nastassja Kinski as Leila also does well, but the part isn’t as prominent). If anything, Forrest and Garr are too convincing; the dysfunction in their relationship is so present that I was rooting for them to stay split up, no matter how unlikely their other options were to give them what they wanted out of life. It’s the wild visuals and music that paradoxically keep some spark of Hank and Frannie’s potential as an unglamorous couple alive, by marking the alternative as just a bit too tempting. I’m still not sure if the ending to their story is meant to be positive or not.

Raul Julia and Teri Garr in One From the Heart
Image via Columbia Pictures

I had already heard about the juxtaposition of performances and mise-en-scène before I ever saw One From the Heart. I don’t know that the value of that contrast would have registered on a blind viewing. The old-fashioned styling is so upfront that it’s easy to imagine being the only thing an audience is left with, as the story of the film is thin, straining to fill even 107 minutes. It needs a viewer to buy in to what’s going on around the actors for the full effect. To take all the pieces of an unconventional musical that pushes its stagecraft in your face as a unified whole is a big ask for an audience. But challenging an audience is among the purposes of art. Literature, painting, music, and theater all have their commercial elements and appeals to the lowest common denominator, but across interviews and DVD commentaries, Coppola has long bemoaned the particular resistance that seems to exist in mainstream cinema against such experimentation. To tinker with form in small projects seen by few is comparatively easy, but to take those risks with large budgets in front of big crowds is another sort of challenge, and one Coppola had met several times. He gambled nearly everything he had on the idea that with One From the Heart, he could do it again.

He couldn’t. The ballooning expenses and a work-in-progress screening for exhibitors generated toxic press before the film was even finished, and Coppola lost two distributors before Columbia Pictures finally picked it up. Against its $26 million budget, One From the Heart made less than $650,000. Even at a time when movies could build a reputation and gradually grow an audience, the writing was on the wall. Coppola pulled the film himself, sold Zoetrope’s studio (but not the company itself), and spent the rest of the ’80s and the early ’90s digging himself out from the mountain of debts incurred by his failed dream. When he finally emerged with the wine business to sustain him, Coppola made good on his pledge to back out of the film industry as an industry. “The Godfather… made me have an older man’s career when I was 29,” Coppola said. “If I had my older career when I was young, as an old man, maybe I can have a young filmmaker’s career.”

Nastassja Kinski in One From the Heart
Image via Columbia Pictures

After 2011’s Twixt, Coppola’s last released film to date, he’s been prepping Megalopolis and conducting workshops at universities on the idea of “live cinema” through a script called Distant Vision. Like One From the Heart, these are made through Coppola’s own financing by his company, now called American Zoetrope. The “electronic studio” pioneered by that film is now a standard feature of moviemaking. But the updated studio system is gone, and none of Coppola’s recent films have attempted to break through to the masses. They each had limited theatrical screenings (if any) and aren’t easy to come by now.

This is a damn shame. While Coppola’s remarks in 2019 were often taken as a targeted attack on the MCU, the critique was of the state of the film industry at large that no longer gambles on offbeat projects at the scale once seen in the ’70s and ’80s. I’m not so disdainful of franchises that I’d borrow Daffy Duck’s favorite insult to describe them, but I am tired of their dominance over cinema screens. Films like One From the Heart are more uneven, technically and experientially, than many a slickly made sequel, reboot, or remake. But it’s a unique experience, with more rewarding highs for anyone prepared to take it on its terms, and an inspiring example to filmmakers of striving imperfectly for an ideal. For all of that, I would rather watch One From the Heart again, or any ten noble experiments and misfires of Francis Ford Coppola, than one more superhero origin story.

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