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'Hearts of Darkness' in Honor of Eleanor Coppola 4 min read

'Hearts of Darkness' in Honor of Eleanor Coppola

The Hollywood matriarch passed away at 87, but she made beauty out of chaos on screen with her documentary on the making of Apocalypse Now.

By Cary Littlejohn

The Coppola family has been in the news a lot lately, and it was a sad addition to hear that the matriarch, Eleanor Coppola, died last week at 87.

In her honor, I bought a digital copy of Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse, her documentary of the making of her husband's famed film, Apocalypse Now.

It felt like a fitting time to watch the film (not that one is needed, as many argue her documentary might be an even better film than its subject) because of Francis Ford Coppola's recent screening of his long-awaiting film Megalopolis: The consensus opinion seemed to be the film was a bit of a stinker.

The Hollywood Reporter had everyone talking with its dispatch from the screening. The subhead to the article said the film was "too 'experimental' and 'not good' enough for the $100 million marketing spend envisioned by the legendary director."

Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘Megalopolis’ Faces Uphill Battle for Mega Deal: “Just No Way to Position This Movie”
The self-funded epic is deemed too “experimental” and “not good” enough for the $100 million marketing spend envisioned by the legendary director.

Coppola started the film more than 40 years ago and spent a sizable fortune funding it himself. But the piece quotes studio heads and distributors saying the business side of things just make it unlike that the film gets picked up. Even with news that it's in competition at Cannes isn't enough to sway the doubters.

Watching Eleanor's first documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now reinforced the idea that I had when I'd initially read the news: It seems like a bad idea to bet against this guy.

Everything was working against him. No studio funding. Typhoons. Recasting midway through. The star having a heart attack on set. And more. But he pulled it off.

So it's wild to me that Hollywood isn't leaping at the opportunity. Maybe financially speaking it makes sense. Maybe those Hollywood execs are right: Maybe there's only money to be lost in Megalopolis. And at the end of the day, maybe that's enough.

Hollywood, though, doesn't have to be just that. Sure, sure; I get it. It's a business.

But it's also art, and there seems to be less and less of it that can honestly be given that distinction. That's what Apocalypse Now is, and so much of Eleanor's film documents the ongoing newspaper and TV news reports that have all but written off for dead both Francis and his Vietnam War epic.

Bilge Ebiri made the case for Hollywood to let the dreamers dream and give us all a chance to love or hate Megalopolis.

Hollywood Is Doomed If There’s No Room for Megalopolises
Francis Ford Coppola self-financed a movie the industry’s bean-counters don’t want. It’s not surprising, but it is depressing.

Eleanor captures that dreaming in Hearts of Darkness, though it doesn't always seem pleasant. She captures the neuroses of an artist; his self-doubt came through as the list of challenges grew even comically longer. He did not hide it; he spoke it directly to camera.

She captures the raw, unedited nonsense that was Marlon Brando on set, overweight and underprepared for his role as Kurtz. And she captures Francis in the moment he decides the only way to survive this is the just forge through, as he doubles down on filming seemingly incoherent ramblings from Brando, all prompted by Francis. He was hoping, praying, that he'd find the film in the edit.

And he does. That's the craziest thing. We all know he does. For his ambivalence about the ending as written in the script, the ending he'd tried to write, the ending he conjured out of thin air banking on little more than Brando's brilliance, he nails the ending.

Eleanor was right there to capture it all. She knew what an undertaking it was; she knew how it almost broke him. The New York Times obituary said it nearly broke their marriage.

She turned chaos and near-calamity into beauty. I love that.

I love how she said she wasn't sure whether Francis asked her to make the film just to keep her busy, but it worked. And I love how she ended the film, with a little quote from Francis, speaking directly into the camera:

To me, the great hope is that now these little 8-millimeter video recorders and stuff are coming out, some people who normally wouldn't make films are gonna be making them. And you know, suddenly, one day some little fat girl in Ohio is gonna be the new Mozart and make a beautiful film with her little father's camcorder, and for once, the so-called professionalism about movies will be destroyed forever, and it will really become an art form.

While no doubt speaking from his own experiences working outside the studio system to finance Apocalypse Now, Francis could just as easily have been talking about novice filmmaker's like his wife. And what a beautiful film she did make.