In his rollercoaster career, not only has Francis Ford Coppola always been torn between two extremes of filmmaking – the massive epic form, and the small, intimate film – but has fluctuated between mammoth hits as well as failures. It was Coppola who led the way for other “movie brat” directors, such as Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg, to emerge from film schools and storm into Hollywood in the 1970s. Coppola first worked as writer and assistant director to Roger Corman, who enabled him to direct his first movie, Dementia 13 (1963). You’re a Big Boy Now (1966), a lively comedy about a young man’s sexual education, was very much a movie by a 26-year-old of the mid-1960s. In 1969, Coppola opened his own studio, American Zoetrope, after the unhappy experience of making the musical Finian’s Rainbow (1968) for Warner Bros. The Conversation (1974), made for Zoetrope, is a post-Watergate thriller about a professional eavesdropper (Gene Hackman) being under surveillance himself. The Godfather (1972) made Coppola one of the world’s most bankable directors, while The Godfather: Part II (1974) won six Oscars, and is one of the few sequels that is considered better than the original. With Apocalypse Now (1979), Coppola succeeded in his desire to “give its audience a sense of the horror, the madness, the sensuousness, and the moral dilemma of the Vietnam War”. The film, costing $31 million, took three-and-a-half years to complete and five years to break even.
The failure of One From the Heart (1982), a $27-million musical romance, led Coppola to scale down his ambitions with two teen films, The Outsiders and Rumble Fish (both 1983), the casts of which now read like a Who’s Who for the Brat Pack. Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988), about an entrepreneur’s pursuit of a dream, then followed. Coppola returned to familiar territory with The Godfather: Part III (1990), concluding a saga that started off as “just another gangster picture” and ended up being one of the great achievements of post-war American film.