Legendary 70’s Directors Look back with varying degrees of
insight and wit. on three early key works in dvd commentaries
day I was born, said my father, said he/‘I’ve an elegant legacy
waitin’ for thee.’ ”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.”
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?
admits that “maybe that would have been wrong,” then proceeds
to periodically bring up the same point through the rest of
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
brings up an inter-esting question: Of the three directors,
which is most likely to make another great film?
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.
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.