Francis Ford Coppola’s first movie in nearly a decade, Youth Without Youth, is about a man nearing the end of his life who has a chance to return to the beginning. It answers the unanswerable question we all ask ourselves sooner or later of what it would be like to relive our lives having already lived them, having already been given some idea of how to live them, of the good choices we made and the bad. Struck by lightning, an elderly linguistics professor in Bucharest named Matei (Tim Roth) finds himself not killed but hurled back in time, with a second chance to do the work and love the woman whose loss has obsessed him. In the process Matei lives an altogether different life that, while informed by the first go-round, poses new mysteries and extracts an altogether different, perhaps higher price, paradoxically bringing him to the same end. Youth Without Youth also becomes Coppola’s survey of the movies, slipping from genre to genre, at one moment a fantasy and at another a noir, both a spy story and a philosophical odyssey, with a romance underlying all of it. Of course it’s not irrelevant that this survey is offered by a director who, like Sturges in the ’40s and Hitchcock in the ’50s, had the most remarkable run of the ’70s and who at the age of 68 nears an end of his own. Youth Without Youth is Coppola building his own lightning bolt and getting in its way, hoping to open his eyes and find in his place the young man of 1971 who just had won an Academy Award for writing Patton when Paramount improbably tapped him to direct a gangster picture.
Coppola got the job by virtue of all the vowels in his name. Paramount head of production Robert Evans lobbied hard for the still-green filmmaker for what should have been the most dubious of reasons: ethnicity. Coppola was the right Italian in the right place, and Evans reasoned that if nothing else, having Coppola on the project would head off angry Italian American groups who wondered why every other Italian in every other American movie belonged to the mob. But the payoff for choosing Coppola was bigger than anything Evans imagined or could have. Forced to excise the word “Mafia” from the film, which at the time struck everyone as fatally ludicrous, Coppola replaced it with a euphemism that came to mean much more: Family. Spoken in the dark, The Godfather’s opening words, “I believe in America,” were so instantaneously classic as to become cliché by the time the movie finished three hours later. If Youth Without Youth is about the movies, The Godfather was its own survey of what happened to America after World War II when, in the span of a quarter century, the country went from having conquered an axis of evil worthy of the name to getting bogged down in terrain where we had no business. After Casablanca, The Godfather is the ultimate example of a movie where everything that seemed to be going so wrong came out so right, and Coppola’s achievement represented not just a brilliant synthesis of Old and New Hollywood sensibilities but also—there’s no other word for it, given that every day he was on the verge of being fired—a kind of heroism, a triumph in the battle of wills with studio nitwits whose idea of Michael Corleone was not a dark, moody off -Broadway actor named Pacino with vowels all his own, but Ryan O’Neal.
What’s most startling is how much Coppola was taken for granted over the subsequent seven years, and how ruthlessly he was written off afterward. This was the period when, after Coppola willed The Godfather into greatness, the same will delivered the paranoid tour de force The Conversation, the unlikely Godfather sequel that topped its predecessor in depth and scope, and the apparent grand folly of Apocalypse Now, which inspired the filmmaker to announce at the Cannes film festival, “This film isn’t about Vietnam. It is Vietnam.” No one really knew what that meant other than that Coppola’s heroism had gone to his head and that if you were going to make such claims, you had better back them up: In a quasi rough cut, Apocalypse Now took the Palme d’Or as the festival’s best picture. Prizes and megalomaniacal proclamations aside, Coppola was shaken by the Apocalypse experience. Not so much in spite of the film’s surreality but because of it, Vietnam veterans would identify Coppola’s vision of the war—rather than more realistic films like The Deer Hunter and Platoon—as the one that most accurately captured it; five years of typhoons, heart attacks, temperamental stars, malfunctioning helicopters, and marital tumult certainly felt to the filmmaker like an impossible quagmire all its own. It would be two decades before the movie achieved a classic status (particularly in the superior Redux version now on DVD) that might have convinced Coppola the nightmare was worth it. Spent physically, emotionally, maybe even spiritually, Coppola had nowhere to go after Vietnam and the panorama of America’s 20th century. So he went to Las Vegas.
Some people thought what happened there, which was a romantic little fantasia called One from the Heart, should have stayed there. One from the Heart may have been from Coppola’s heart, but it left critics and audiences unmoved and couldn’t help seeming a step down, given that Vegas at the time was square, Losersville, with none of its current cachet. In fact, Heart is a better movie than people gave it credit for, anticipating the aesthetic of artificiality that two decades later had Baz Luhrmann’s name all over it, but with its failure Coppola found himself in deep financial trouble, his beloved Zoetrope production company tumbling into bankruptcy. The result was a decade of wheel spinning. The director since has claimed that the likes of The Outsiders and Rumble Fish were the small personal movies he always wanted to make, before he got sidetracked by immortality, but they were only fitfully successful, and many people regarded them as a betrayal. When he tried to go epic again with The Cotton Club in the mid-’80s, the force of will that previously overcame all obstacles had exhausted itself. Soon Coppola was hiring himself out to projects such as Peggy Sue Got Married and Jack, perhaps figuring, not entirely without reason, that he had been a director-for-hire when assigned The Godfather, after all. But what a difference another seven years made. They were bookended by another Vietnam picture, 1987’s Gardens of Stone, which was haunted by the awful death of Coppola’s son in a boating accident.
In retrospect, the fulcrum of Coppola’s career was two movies in the early ’90s that augured a comeback that never quite came back. Its bravura passages make The Godfather, Part III one of cinema’s great lost opportunities; in a way, a total disaster might have been easier to accept. Picking up the Michael Corleone story a couple of decades after the close of the second film, with a provocative and subversive idea at its center having to do with the Catholic Church and the abrupt death of John Paul I after a month in the papacy, Godfather III yearns for, among other things, Robert Duvall’s return as Tom Hagen, the consigliere who was a son of the family without really being a son, a brother without really being a brother, truer to the family and its loyalties than the blood ties that came undone in Godfather II. Paramount wouldn’t cough up the money for Duvall, or for the extra time needed both in production and onscreen, and the battles that Coppola once won as a novice, with nothing to lose, he couldn’t win as a legend. When Winona Ryder bailed on the role of Michael’s daughter, Mary, Coppola in a lapse of judgment cast his own daughter, Sofia; while hardly the disgrace that reviewers claimed, she was doomed to haplessness, an inexperienced actress playing torrid love scenes with Andy Garcia in front of her father. (Madonna had wanted the role; the mind reels.) Most frustrating was Al Pacino’s misconception of the character he had made one of the screen’s greatest. The implosive deadly boss at the end of the second film— mute and unknowable, a hushed monster with the murder of his brother on his hands amid the swirling autumn leaves— had become a grandfatherly patriarch cracking Tony Bennett jokes and playing cute in taxicabs with Diane Keaton. Stories have it that Coppola and Pacino were locked in their own battle of wills, Coppola now the one who needed Pacino more than vice versa. If so, the director whose sheer resolve had been his genius lost once more.
The Godfather, Part III was going to be the least of the trilogy even under the best of circumstances, but it did OK at the box office and with Oscar nominators. Conversely Coppola’s next picture, the cumbersomely titled Bram Stoker’s Dracula (just remastered and rereleased on DVD), was his most underrated and best since Apocalypse. Coppola got his Winona Ryder—she brought the script to Coppola as something of a peace offering after the Godfather III rift—playing the love of the vampire’s afterlife, and Gary Oldman was sensational as the vampire in one deranged incarnation after another down through love-starved centuries, from the medieval prince called Vlad the Impaler to a dandy of Baudelairean excesses, the Rolling Stone the rest of the band kicked out because he was too weird. As well as making more explicit the implicit sexuality of the vampire myth, Coppola got all Cocteau on us; his movie was a jewel box of antiquated tricks at odds with a technology that had surpassed them, which gave the whole thing a tension and panache. At Dracula’s core was the notion that love was bigger than God, and the messier it was, the more divine. It’s not a great movie because, except for maybe Lawrence of Arabia, no movie whose last third is its weakest can be great, but it’s one possessed of the Coppola temerity, difficult to imagine from anyone else.
We shouldn’t fault Coppola for not matching the Godfather movies, since no one else has matched them, either. But they misled us about their author. Coppola never was the classicist those films suggested. Beginning with One from the Heart and reaching fever pitch with Dracula, that aesthetic of artificiality that Coppola has erratically but determinedly pursued over the last three decades—with the conviction that therein is a truth more true than what the “real” conveys— culminates in Youth Without Youth, a bracing kitchen sink of a movie by someone who’s always wondered what the hell was wrong with the kitchen sink anyway. Professor Matei becomes a voyager navigating not only the fun house of his own destiny but also that of Coppola’s cinematic consciousness. The irony is that the director’s small, so-called personal movies, like Youth, wind up feeling remote, whereas the big Godfather studio pictures teem with the untidy insights of relationships and human behavior. For the better part of 20 years, Coppola reportedly has been working on a magnum opus called Megalopolis, which he can’t or won’t complete; intuitively he may understand that no finished movie can equal the masterpiece all of us see on the movie screens of our minds, or that he sees on his. So his is now a career of detours, some, like Dracula, worth the diversion. Youth is the same story as Dracula, about a man who lives over and over again, to more frustration than fulfillment. It’s more ambitious and impressive but also less moving, a failure that can come only from someone of Coppola’s extraordinary talent. Film critic David Thomson shrewdly has observed that Coppola has a little of all the Corleone boys in him, Fredo and Sonny and Michael; he also has in him, however, some of Matei, who has in him some of Vlad. Like both of them—figures with no families at all , it should be noted—Coppola the young filmmaker became the master of everything he thought mattered, only to lose it the more he loved it. Left exiled by the movie business to an artistic twilight between life and death, he may feel that his conquests have turned to dust, scattered to the ages. The difference between Coppola and his vampires lies in the nature of their restlessness, with the undead coveting sleep and the artist coveting the moment when he wakes.
Photographs by CHRIS BUCK/CORBIS