Eleanor Coppola, who chronicled her family's filmmaking, dies at 87

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Eleanor Coppola, who chronicled her family's filmmaking, dies at 87
Eleanor Coppola with her husband, Francis Ford Coppola in Los Angeles, March 26, 2022. Coppola, a documentary filmmaker and artist who called herself “an observer at heart,” a description borne out through works chronicling the cinematic triumphs and ordeals of her husband, Francis Ford Coppola, and their daughter, Sofia Coppola, died on Friday, April, 12, 2024, at her home in Rutherford, Calif. She was 87. (Hunter Abrams/The New York Times)

by Clyde Haberman

NEW YORK, NY.- Eleanor Coppola, a documentary filmmaker and artist who called herself “an observer at heart,” a description borne out through works chronicling the cinematic triumphs and ordeals of her husband, Francis Ford Coppola, and their daughter, Sofia Coppola, died Friday at her home in Rutherford, California. She was 87.

Her family announced her death in a statement, which did not state a cause.

Coppola’s career as a documentarian began when her husband asked her to record the production of “Apocalypse Now,” his 1979 exegesis of the Vietnam War that took so long to make that some began calling it “Apocalypse Never.” By then, he was Hollywood royalty on the strength of his first two “Godfather” movies. But with “Apocalypse Now,” he stumbled.

He came close to going broke as the movie, its roots in Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” ran way over budget and over schedule. Filming was slowed by steady rains on location in the Philippines, which served as a stand-in for Vietnam. A typhoon destroyed movie sets. Major parts of the script were written on the fly. Marlon Brando was overweight and underprepared for his role as a deranged Green Berets colonel. To top it all off, the film’s principal actor, Martin Sheen, had a heart attack during the shooting.

As for the Coppolas, they careened toward divorce, a marital collapse set in motion largely by his sexual infidelities and frequent tantrums on and off the movie set. “My greatest fear,” his wife captured him on tape as saying, “is to make a really pompous film on an important subject, and I am making it.”

She had her own lapses. “If I tell the truth, we both strayed from our marriage, probably equally, each in our way,” she wrote in “Notes on the Making of ‘Apocalypse Now,’” a 1979 account of that period. “Francis has gone to the extremes in the physical world, women, food, possessions, in an effort to feel complete. I have looked for that feeling of completeness in the non‐physical world. Zen, est, Esalen, meditation.”

But the Coppolas, married since 1963, figured out how to stay together. She later managed Rubicon Estate, the winery they owned in Northern California, and designed costumes for the Oberlin Dance Company in San Francisco. Her account of the Philippines experience became the basis for an acclaimed 1991 documentary, “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse,” which she narrated and directed with Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper.

As an observer of moviemaking, Eleanor Coppola said, she dressed in black, deciding that her presence on the set so attired would be less intrusive. She fretted that her daughter, Sofia, had been miscast in “The Godfather Part III” as the daughter of mobster Michael Corleone (played by Al Pacino). And she was unhappy to hear that Diane Keaton had said that Eleanor Coppola was her model in playing Kay Corleone, the gullible “Godfather” wife who takes her mobster husband’s word that he had not had his brother-in-law killed.

After “Apocalypse Now,” Eleanor Coppola documented other movies by her family, including her husband’s “John Grisham’s ‘The Rainmaker’” (1997) and their daughter Sofia’s “The Virgin Suicides” (1999) and “Marie Antoinette” (2006).

“I may hold the world’s record for the person who has made the most documentaries about their family directing films,” she said. Her career, she wrote in “Notes on a Life” (2008), reflected that “I am an observer at heart, who has the impulse to record what I see around me.”

Late in life, she tried her hand at directing cinematic fiction, with decidedly mixed results. Her “Paris Can Wait,” released in 2017, when she was 81, was dismissed by Jeannette Catsoulis in The New York Times as “little more than an indulgent wallow in gustatory privilege.” Although Coppola’s “Love Is Love Is Love” fared better in 2021, a Times reviewer, Teo Bugbee, nonetheless said that “the movie doesn’t move.”

A source of enduring heartache for her was the death of her son Gian-Carlo Coppola in 1986 at 22, the oldest of her three children. He was in a speedboat steered by Griffin O’Neal (a son of actor Ryan O’Neal’s), who tried to maneuver between two slow-moving crafts that turned out to be connected by a towline. Gio, as the Coppola son was called, was knocked back by the towline with such force that he died instantly. (Griffin O’Neal, convicted of negligence, was given a 30-day suspended sentence.)

The son’s death filled Eleanor Coppola with “unspeakable rage,” she said. She channeled her grief into an art installation called “Circle of Memory,” which over the years has had several stagings. It consists of a chamber whose walls are straw bales, with salt falling in a stream and children’s voices reciting the alphabet. Visitors are invited to recall children who had died or disappeared.

“I feel like there’s a circle of order going on in the universe and a circle of chaos,” she said. “And every once in a while, they intersect.”

Eleanor Jessie Neil was born in Los Angeles on May 4, 1936, one of three children of Clifford and Delphine (Lougheed) Neil. Her father was a political cartoonist who died when Eleanor was 10.

“I felt handicapped as I made my way into the adult world without his support and guidance,” Coppola wrote of her father years later. Among other things, her mother, who oversaw the home, wasn’t much of a housekeeper, she said. “My teenage rebellion,” she said, “consisted of baking perfect lemon meringue pies, sewing all night and working two summer jobs, things my mother didn’t do.”

Eleanor graduated from Huntington Beach High School in 1954 and from UCLA in 1959 with a bachelor’s degree in art.

She met her soon-to-be husband in 1963 on the set of “Dementia 13,” a Roger Corman horror film that Francis Ford Coppola wrote and directed and on which she served as an assistant art director. After learning that she was pregnant with Gio, they were married that year in Las Vegas.

She is survived by her husband; her daughter, Sofia; her son Roman, who is also a filmmaker; a brother, William Neil; and several grandchildren.

Life with Francis Ford Coppola was obviously not always easy, she said. They were “opposites in every way,” she said, and had “plenty of friction.”

“But it’s good friction, it’s a creative friction,” she said. “You grow from it. You don’t go to sleep at the wheel.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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