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Special Features
By Shawn Stone

Three Legendary 70’s Directors Look back with varying degrees of insight and wit. on three early key works in dvd commentaries

‘On the day I was born, said my father, said he/‘I’ve an elegant legacy waitin’ for thee.’ ”

Of all the things one might expect to see, Francis Ford Coppola singing isn’t one of them. And yet, in the introduction to the director’s commentary on the new Finian’s Rainbow DVD (Warner Home Video), that’s exactly what happens. If the writer-director of the Godfather trilogy and Apocalypse Now isn’t a great singer, his wobbly delivery is kinda endearing.

And, it turns out, so is the commentary. Finian’s Rainbow, which was released in October 1968, was one of the last of the big musicals. It was Fred Astaire’s last starring role, and Coppola’s first major Hollywood job. It was made when the American film industry was going through wrenching changes, and no one at the studios had any idea what was going to come next. Coppola’s commentary—which he keeps going for the film’s entire 2-hour, 40-minute running time—is a fascinating window on this tumultuous time.

It’s also unusually revealing. In fact, considering some of the filmmaker’s wrong-headed reflections on the experience, it’s more proof that people don’t change, and rarely learn anything.

In 1968, Coppola remembers, there were two young directors that the Hollywood establishment thought promising—William Friedkin, who went on to make The Exorcist, and him. Though Coppola wanted to make small, European-style films, when Warner Bros.-Seven Arts offered him the chance to direct a big musical, it was an offer he couldn’t refuse.

“It was sort of my Achilles’ heel,” he explains. His father and uncle had long careers in the Broadway musical theater as arrangers and conductors, and he couldn’t resist the chance to call his pop to say that he was directing Astaire in a musical for Jack Warner.

It turned out, however, to be a textbook “be careful what you wish for” situation, because the young filmmaker didn’t read the script before he took the job.

Coppola knew and loved the score inside-out; the songs, by E.Y. “Yip” Harburg (“Over the Rainbow”) and Burton Lane, are almost uniformly terrific. The story, he discovered to his horror, was “a very clunky fairy tale,” however. Progressive for its time (1949), this story of race relations, corrupt Southern politicians, Irish immigrants and leprechauns was hopelessly dated—especially in the Civil Rights era. “How,” he wondered, “do I take this very clunky left-wing piece” and make it relevant?

The short answer is, he couldn’t. Finian’s Rainbow remains a clunky left-wing fairy tale, and despite a big studio push—it was released as a “roadshow” attraction in 70mm, with an overture, intermission, reserved-seating and full-color souvenir booklet—it flopped at the box office.

What he did accomplish is worth noting. While Finian’s ain’t a classic, the film, as Roger Ebert pointed out in a contemporary review, is lighter, better-directed and more enjoyable than almost every other big musical of the day. (Even the terrifying Pauline Kael, Coppola mentions, liked Finian’s.) The film is just way too long.

The funny thing is, in the commentary, Coppola’s reluctant to give himself proper credit. Like many artists, he anguishes over his mistakes—like screwing up the framing of Astaire’s numbers, and not cutting the scenes shorter. But he has some odd self-criticism, too: “I’m sure I didn’t know enough to make these people more real and less theatrical.”

Huh? We’re talking about a film that stars Fred Astaire, pop singer Petula Clark and English music-hall ham Tommy Steele—all casting decisions Coppola was not involved in. How in the world could you turn perfectly excellent movie stars into method actors? And why, in God’s name, would anyone want to?

Coppola admits that “maybe that would have been wrong,” then proceeds to periodically bring up the same point through the rest of the commentary.

Talk about a lack of self-knowledge. Coppola’s one of the most theatrical, operatic directors of the last 35 years. By the time of Apocalypse Now and Godfather: Part III, in particular, Brando and Pacino weren’t method, they were madness; in contrast, the charming show-biz style of Clark and Astaire seems fresh and “real.”

It’s fun, however, to watch the film with him. His inside stories about power struggles with Jack Warner (which Coppola, surprisingly, won, because the studio had been sold to the Seven Arts company and Warner was a lame duck) and the last days of old Hollywood are entertaining. New Hollywood, too: A kid named George Lucas turned up on the set one day, having won a contest to spend a few weeks as an observer on the Warner lot. Plus, he’s clearly seeing it for the first time in years, and his sheepish enjoyment and fidgety reactions are, again, kinda endearing.

There’s nothing fidgety about Peter Bogdanovich. The director-actor-writer and all-around show-biz raconteur is as smooth and ingratiating as they come. Whether he’s promoting one of his books, or, as in this case, doing a commentary track for one of his films, Bogdanovich is never less than charming.

And, as it turns out, generous and insightful. Just like Francis Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme and a host of filmmakers, Bogdanovich did an apprenticeship with the king of low- budget movies, Roger Corman. When Corman offered him a chance to direct, it was typically blunt: “Boris Karloff owes me two days’ work.” If Bogdanovich could come up with a way to use a couple days of new footage, and recycle some of Karloff’s scenes from a dreadful flick called The Terror, Corman would finance his cinema debut.

Bogdanovich explains the genesis of the resulting film, Targets (Paramount Home Video). After watching The Terror, he joked to his wife, Polly Platt, that they should open the film with Karloff in a screening room watching the end of the picture. The lights come up, and Karloff would turn to Roger Corman and say, “that’s the worst film I’ve ever seen.” They talked it over and decided this was a good idea.

Targets combines a plot with Karloff playing a version of himself, “Byron Orlok,” an aging horror star bored with moviemaking and convinced that the kind of films he makes aren’t scary anymore. (“The way you see him in the movie,” the director says, “is very much the way he was.”) The real world is now much scarier, and the film’s parallel plot, of a clean-cut young man who goes on a killing spree, buttresses Karloff’s argument.

Bogdanovich is a relentless name- dropper. His commentary is sprinkled with references to Fritz Lang, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Jean Renoir and on and on. The hell of it is, though, that he did interview all these legends—Renoir, for example, liked Targets very much—and he never uses the greats to bolster his own reputation.

What’s really admirable about Bogdanovich, though, is his generosity in sharing credit. He happily offers up that writer-director Samuel Fuller rewrote the entire script, improving it immensely; Fuller expanded Karloff’s role, and wrote the terrifying, complex final shooting spree at a drive-in theater.

The insider stuff is fascinating. For example, how Targets ended up with a studio distribution deal: Bogdanovich was friends with Jerry Lewis, which is how he met Lewis’ assistant, who had gone on to be Robert Evans’ assistant at Paramount. She made studio head Evans watch the film, and he loved it; after some typical studio intrigue and friendly backstabbing, Paramount bought the film.

Or the way they lied to the owners of the gun shops used in the film about the plot. They sure didn’t tell ’em it was about a crazed killer: “We told them it was about a boy who goes hunting with his father—a complete lie.”

Unhappily, just before the film was to open, Bogdanovich explains, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. The film was dumped quietly into a few theaters, and no amount of good press (The New York Times loved it) could help.

However, the film made Bogdanovich’s reputation, and led directly to his making The Last Picture Show. And, like Finian’s Rainbow, Targets is a fitting swan song for a film legend.

Five years after Finian’s Rainbow, Coppola was no longer a promising kid. Courtesy of The Godfather—and a pair of screenwriting Oscars for Godfather and Patton—he was the most powerful and prominent young filmmaker in Hollywood.

Example: As he explains in his commentary for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (Warner Home Video), when Martin Scorsese finished his 1973 drama Mean Streets, one of the first people he screened it for was Coppola. The initial result was that Coppola immediately hired Mean Streets star Robert DeNiro for The Godfather, Part 2. And not long after this, when Exorcist star Ellen Burstyn asked Coppola to recommend a director for an upcoming project, he recommended Scorsese.

This project turned out to be Alice. It’s a traditional women’s flick with a pronounced and nostalgic ’70s feminist point of view. (It’s nostalgic, unfortunately, because the “feminist point of view” seems almost nonexistent now, even in indie films.) It’s the story of Alice (Burstyn), a newly-widowed single mom, and her attempts to rebuild her life.

Unfortunately, Scorsese’s involvement with the DVD is of the phone-it-in- variety. It’s not that he doesn’t have the occasionally interesting thing to say, or even that he shares the commentary track with actors Burstyn, Kris Kristofferson and Diane Ladd. It’s that he clearly was not watching the movie when his comments were recorded. Even worse, at one point it becomes obvious that he hasn’t seen the movie recently—in describing one of the film’s key emotional confrontations, the director can’t remember whether it takes place at Christmas or on a character’s birthday. It’s even more embarrassing that this is matched up with the actual scene.

Still, he has some interesting things to say. His previous two films, Mean Streets and the Roger Corman-produced (yep, him again) Boxcar Bertha, were filmed in 25 and 24 days respectively. With a 40-day shooting schedule, Alice, Scorsese explains, provided a chance to really work with the actors in a way he hadn’t before. It also got him out of New York.

Too bad he didn’t watch the picture, though. It’s a key film in Scorsese’s career for a number of reasons. One, it was the first time he was hired by a studio. Two, it was the first (and, quite possibly, last) Scorsese film with a woman as the central character. Three, it’s pretty good, something that can’t be said about most of his post-Goodfellas work.

Which brings up an inter-esting question: Of the three directors, which is most likely to make another great film?

Probably none of ’em. Coppola hasn’t lensed a film himself in eight years; he’s made a smooth transition to producing films (and making wine). Bogdanovich is mostly working in TV, but his last theatrical film, The Cat’s Meow, was at least entertaining. He might well surprise us.

Scorsese, however, seems trapped. His collaboration with DeNiro reached a painful dead end with Casino, and, frankly, his new collaboration with Leonardo DiCaprio has nowhere to go. Maybe he should make another movie with a female lead. After all, picking up the Best Actress award in 1974 for the absent Burstyn at least got an Oscar into his hands.

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