Every couple of years, Francis Ford Coppola's devoted fans--and such people still exist--do something heartbreaking: They see his new film. This month has brought the latest Coppola punishment, The Rainmaker. Or rather, John Grisham's The Rainmaker, a title that tells you everything you need to know about the movie.
Critics are greeting Coppola's film--the usual Grisham tale of an idealistic young lawyer slingshotting a Goliath--with a desperate generosity. Casting about for something nice to say, most reviewers have hit upon the conclusion that J.G.'s The Rainmaker is better than the "typical" Hollywood movie (by which they mean it has fewer automatic weapons, fewer car chases, and more character actors than regular fare does). One well-meaning critic called it the best Grisham movie since The Firm. This is sad: Francis Ford Coppola, the director of The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, The Conversation, Rumble Fish, and Apocalypse Now and the winner of five Academy Awards, is being praised for making the second-best John Grisham movie.
What's even sadder: The Rainmaker is actually much better than most of Coppola's recent work. In the past 15 years, he's become the most hackish of the studio hacks. His last dozen films have ranged from bombastic dreck (Bram Stoker's Dracula, The Godfather Part III, The Cotton Club) to infantile dreck (Jack, Captain Eo) to biographical dreck (Tucker: The Man and His Dream) to pretentious dreck (One From the Heart, New York Stories). He has also been producer for an astonishing volume of bad cinema and television, including NBC's The Odyssey; the 1992 movie Wind; and White Dwarf, a sci-fi movie for Fox.
Despite this record of unadulterated mediocrity, a fog of optimism continues to envelop Coppola. Rainmaker reviewers are saying the same thing about Coppola that they said when Jack opened in 1996, when The Godfather Part III opened in 1990, when Tucker opened in 1988: He's ready to make his comeback. This movie, it is promised, will be Coppola's last as a studio lackey. Soon he will return with his own project, independent of Hollywood's morons, and make the great movie that They have stopped him from making since the late '70s. (Coppola is cryptic about what this project will be, but there are vague rumors about Megalopolis, a long-planned film comparing Imperial Rome and modern Manhattan. Other rumors have him filming Jack Kerouac's On the Road.) The optimists are sure to be disappointed--they misdiagnose the cause of Coppola's illness.
People continue to believe in Coppola because he is the romantic archetype of the movie director. He has embedded himself in the mythology of the film industry like no director since Orson Welles or D.W. Griffith. Coppola made his name as the director who would risk everything--his fortune, his family, even his sanity--for his art. During the '70s and the '80s, Coppola bucked Hollywood by opening his own studio, American Zoetrope. It was a doomed enterprise but a noble one: For a few years, Coppola did free himself and his protégés from Hollywood's thrall. In the late '70s, he cemented his reputation as an Artist with Apocalypse Now. He gave himself a nervous breakdown, gave Martin Sheen a heart attack, and spent $16 million of his own money to complete the picture. (His Apocalypse Now lunacy is brilliantly chronicled in the documentary Hearts of Darkness.) In the early '80s, Coppola drove himself into bankruptcy again for One From the Heart, his beloved musical romance. He made a black-and-white movie ... for kids (Rumble Fish). Coppola has made more actors into stars than any 10 other directors combined, and he has pioneered technology (notably video editing) that other filmmakers have come to rely on. In person, Coppola is expansive, generous, a brilliant talker, a salesman. He is, in short, the very model of what a movie maker should be.
This vision of Coppola as romantic genius makes it very easy to rationalize his failures as poor accountancy. "His career can be summed up as the case of a man who needed a financial manager," says Roger Ebert. Coppola spent much of the '80s in bankruptcy, driven there by the failure of One From the Heart and his studio's collapse. So of course he became a hired gun: He needed to pay his debts. According to the mythology, Coppola was given third-rate scripts and managed to transform them into second-rate entertainment like The Cotton Club, Gardens of Stone, and Peggy Sue Got Married. (Coppola, who had been notorious for delivering his own movies late and over budget, earned a reputation as a reliable director. He stuck to his budgets, and almost all his studio movies, even the reprehensible Jack, earned money.)
Coppola too buys into the notion that he would have kept making great movies if only he'd been debt free. He's obsessed with the notion of artistic purity. The Rainmaker is a two-hour tribute to the idea of not selling out. (Click on the graphic to see the movie's emotional climax, when the young lawyer hero confronts the old lawyer villain about selling out.) In recent interviews, Coppola has upbraided himself for his own
But Coppola may be misjudging the reason why he's made so many bad movies. He thinks that selling out--making movies for financial rather than artistic reasons--has put a crimp in his style. But he has always been a sellout. Or, to put it more kindly, the quality of his movies has never depended on whether the movies were sellouts or not. Some of Coppola's "personal" movies are magnificent (The Conversation and, arguably, Apocalypse Now). But others are dreadful (One From the Heart, Tucker). Some of Coppola's sellout movies are dreadful (The Cotton Club, Jack ...). But Coppola's two greatest movies, the Godfathers, were studio-funded, studio-managed projects. The Godfather, in fact, was the quintessential sellout: Paramount picked Coppola to direct the movie because he would work for cheap. Why would he work for cheap? Because he had just bankrupted himself making a disastrous independent movie called The Rain People.
Coppola has become a studio hack for much more banal reasons. He got older, mellower, more respectable. He has his estates, his winery, his Belize resort, his merchandise. It's impossible to imagine today's Coppola driving himself or his actors the way he did during the filming of Apocalypse Now. He also seems to lack the inspiration for a grand project. His last truly personal movies were Tucker, back in 1988, and One From the Heart, back in 1982. Neither was good.
Recently Coppola said, "People want me so badly to do something truly astounding. To show them something they haven't seen before. I would like to do that, and I really believe I can do it."
This may be the heart of Coppola's dilemma. He views his life as a story of unfulfilled promise, the tale of an artist constrained by commerce. It isn't. Coppola's life is the story of fulfilled promise. He made two of the greatest, if not the two greatest, movies in American history. These were triumphs enough for any career. It is Coppola's tragedy that he believes his best work is always ahead of him, yet keeps on making Rainmakers.