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'One From the Heart.'

Unstaking the Heart

The film that almost ruined Francis Ford Coppola returns to the screen and arrives on DVD

By Richard von Busack

Ruinous flop that it was, 1982's One From the Heart remains the turning point in Francis Ford Coppola's career. In advance of One From the Heart's DVD release on Jan. 27, the postmodern musical is back in a new print for a week's run beginning Jan. 1 at the Castro Theater in San Francisco and Jan. 2 at the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. (On Jan. 1, at 7pm, its star Teri Garr will be on hand to introduce the film.)

This brief revival gives the fated film a new chance to overcome the negative opinion it faced on its first run. In many ways, One From the Heart is a local film. Coppola lives, as he did then, on a winemaking estate in Northern California. And the cast rehearsed the movie in the basement of the North Beach building still owned by Coppola's company Zoetrope.

Kim Aubry, Zoetrope's senior vice president for post production and film science, co-produced the restoration. Previously, Aubry collaborated with Coppola on the director's-cut version of Apocalypse Now Redux.

In December, Aubry showed One From the Heart for a gathering of critics at San Francisco's Delancey Street screening room. He noted that Coppola had gone into One From the Heart with the conviction he was going to strike it rich.

"This was the film that was going to save his career. But it performed dismally. It's a puzzle why it did as badly as it did, seeing what it is."

Coppola went into this debacle as one of the most respected film directors alive. He was the maker of the two successful and honored Godfather movies, as well as Apocalypse Now, considered the definitive American film about Vietnam.

With the money from these three hits, Coppola purchased the old Hollywood General Studio in Los Angeles for a little under $7 million, rechristening it Zoetrope Studios. He had real estate, and he had a new job.

According to Michael Goodwin and Naomi Wise's book On the Edge, MGM hired Coppola for the sum of $3 million to direct One From the Heart. At the time, the salary was "the highest dollar fee paid to a director in the history of motion pictures."

Coppola had one eye on the past, on the golden era of the MGM musical in the 1950s. The director hired perennial musical star Gene Kelly as a collaborator. Kelly had the lofty title of "Executive for Musical Production and Development for Zoetrope Studio." While Coppola hoped to sum up the musical in its lavish, baroque era during the 1950s, the director also had it in mind that One From the Heart would be the movie of the future, using the latest in technical advances in filmmaking.

The upcoming DVD of One From the Heart includes a snippet of Coppola on the Academy Awards, April 9, 1979. Bearded and squeezed into a tux, he's standing next to a flummoxed Ali McGraw. Coppola assures the Academy, "We're on the eve of something that's going to make the Industrial Revolution look like a small out-of-town tryout."

Contrast this hubris to Coppola's position two years later. By 1981, One From the Heart's cost had swelled to twice its budget, Kelly had quit and the director was wading through a swamp of debts that would later swallow his new studio.

Zoetrope, which survives as a "virtual studio" without production facilities, sticks by the story that One From the Heart's poor showing was due to bad press. An article by the San Francisco Chronicle's Judy Stone is said to have harmed the film's chances. In the Aug. 21, 1981, Chronicle, Stone quoted nervous theater-chain exhibitors who'd seen a prerelease screening. One attendee pronounced the film "one of the 10 worst movies I've ever seen."

According to the Coppola camp, this previewed version of One From the Heart was a rough cut. Biographers Wise and Goodwin counter that "despite Coppola's subsequent bellyaching, what the distributors saw was pretty close to a finished film; only some matte work was missing."

The delay that kept the film from opening as scheduled at Christmas 1981 didn't help its reputation. After screenings of 41 theaters in eight cities, the film never received a truly nationwide release, and it ultimately netted under $1 million in domestic gross. One From the Heart was one of a pair of twin monuments for the days of the big-stage 1950s musicals. The other is 1982's Pennies From Heaven, a much better film, but also a flop: $22 million cost, $3.6 million box office.

During the decade after this disaster, Coppola worked for hire on films that were beneath his prodigious talents. And the expensive toylike miniatures of Las Vegas, seen in One From the Heart's titles, were auctioned off to pay for the film's debts.

Love in Vegas

For all the trouble it caused, One From the Heart is a relatively simple film. It contains no gun battles and no car chases; and it's not even in widescreen--Coppola and his renowned photographer, Vittorio Storaro, shot the film in the classic screen ratio of the 1940s film, 1.33-to-1.

It tells of a love quadrangle in a stylized Las Vegas, during the Fourth of July. Fran (Teri Garr) isn't quite ready to settle down with her live-in lover, Hank. Couldn't they take a trip to the sensual island of Bora-Bora for a vacation? Nope, says Hank (Frederic Forrest), who runs a junkyard in the desert. Besides, he's just spent their mutual savings on their house as a surprise.

After a squabble, the lovers head off in different directions. Hank goes to visit his chum Moe, played by Harry Dean Stanton. The actor should have billed himself as Harry "Dean Martin" Stanton. Moe has the perfect Vegas attitude: affable, drifty and tipsy.

The men get caught in a storm of revelers who have converged on downtown Vegas to see the fireworks. During the night, Fran gives herself to a Latin lover from Argentina (Raul Julia).

Meanwhile, Hank has a tryst with a pickup, a circus acrobat named Leila, played by Nastassja Kinski, back when she was one of the cruelest-looking women alive. Eventually, the two true lovers find their way back to each other, and their temptations vanish--one, on a jet to the tropics, the other, into thin air.

Armyan Bernstein's script was originally set in Chicago, but Coppola yanked it out of its ordinary-people context. So the romance is played out against a background of what's presumed to be an average couple's fantasies: huge full moons, the tango, visions of tropical islands, the lights of Vegas. All this gilded fantasy is a backdrop for the scheme of a good-hearted inarticulate lug and his dame who needs a last little whiff of courtship before she settles down.

Screenwriter Bernstein has gone on to a noteworthy career as a producer and writer, but here he displays a tin ear for tough working-class dialogue, with lines like "You wouldn't know a tit from a tortilla."

On the soundtrack, Crystal Gayle and Tom Waits perform a God-like musical commentary on the action. As in any film with heavy narration, the singing gets intrusive and slightly incoherent: Waits' lyrics sound approximately like "mumble mumble mumble guy from South America."

But the big problem may be Coppola's misplaced faith that Forrest could be a lead performer. In a scene where he bundles Garr over his shoulder and hauls her away, Forrest is put forth as another John Wayne: treating the ladies rough and making them like it. Forrest's real future wasn't as a leading man but as a capable supporting actor.

Scads of movie fans nurse a long-standing crush on Garr, a blonde comedienne with a droll, sad face. Her own science is as impressive as Coppola's any day. One From the Heart is set in Las Vegas in the peak of summer, and that may explain why Garr doesn't wear much in this movie. Still, by today's standards, the display of the actress is ruthlessly calculated. Wise and Goodwin tell of Garr receiving direction from the Voice of Coppola, carried by loudspeakers from the interior of his notorious Airstream trailer: "Let's see more of your boobs; turn this way, more, now turn that way."

Even in the context of the story, Fran's got a right to be angry: her own money's been spent without her being consulted first. One From the Heart has a retrograde, sexist streak that can't be overlooked, and it's not as if the times were drastically different in 1982. (Similarly, Apocalypse Now Redux's previously trimmed scenes also looked badly dated, with Playboy bunnies acting like dumb sexbots.)

Set Piece

But the true star of One From the Heart is the set. Coppola sank his attention and his fortune into one of the last great realistic Hollywood studio sets ever constructed. The eminent production designer Dean Tavoularis wove up a million dollars in neon--10 miles of it, it was boasted. These include a $11,000 version of the Dunes Hotel sign (onscreen for about 15 seconds, actually.)

The Las Vegas miniatures in The Amazing Colossal Man (1957) or Mars Attacks! seem to beg for a monster to destroy them; the public likes it when old casinos get blown up good, as seen in the closing credits of The Cooler. But Coppola's affection for the city is seen in his model of Las Vegas's light-spangled Fremont Street. This set is right up there with such eye candy as the Manhattan street set Stanley Kubrick built for the ill-fated Eyes Wide Shut.

The other two major sets are Fran and Hank's house, positioned on a dead-end street (it looks deliberately like a backdrop, emphasizing that this couple isn't going anywhere), and a painted blue-black desert sky that looks over Kinski and Forrest as they drive past those toy-train miniatures of the Vegas strip before settling for the night amid the discarded signs in Hank's junkyard.

Precious as it is, there's something chewy in this confectionary movie. It dimly reflects the struggle not just of Coppola but also of all filmmakers. As much as One From the Heart is about anything, it's about the conflict between a woman who loves fantasy and a practical businessman. Hank's junkyard is illuminated by the juxtaposed signs "Realty" and "Wrecking."

He has the practical nuts-and-bolts approach to life, as a man who must tear down other people's dreams. The dreamy heroine, with her movie-drenched fantasies of escape is named, significantly, Fran[cis?]. And she longs to escape the embrace of a junkyard dealer. Coincidentally, MGM's own glittery history begins with a junkyard, which the family business of Louis B. Mayer.

In real life, Coppola's ultimate submission to the money side of the business is just as gloomy as the "realistic" finale to One From the Heart.

The Gilded Era

With its mock little-people, its colloquialized version of Betty Grable and John Payne dialogue and its hasty choreography, One From the Heart is a beautiful film that's terrible. Is it worth celebrating? It's one thing to overreach yourself making a movie about Vietnam. It's quite another to overreach yourself making a movie about Arthur Freed musicals.

Still, Coppola was ahead of his time in realizing that the artificial look of the MGM-era musical would be seen as a classic style. Some of the most vaunted directors of the 1990s, from Lars von Trier (Dancer in the Dark) to P.T. Anderson (Punch-Drunk Love) yearn to return to the simplicity of those old musicals.

Today's audiences love Moulin Rouge! and Chicago, movies that are soaked in the painted, gilded style of the reruns on Turner Movie Classics. The postmodern look of One From the Heart, with its hot neon and tinsel, may be rooted in the music video--a form of filmmaking that doesn't have to say anything, just deliver a lot of atmosphere in a few minutes. One postmodern film after another has accustomed us to the artificial in sets, such as the fake jet and tiny Tokyo model Quentin Tarantino constructed for Kill Bill.

As Coppola correctly predicted on the long-ago Oscar show, he was standing on the edge of a technical revolution that would change movie directing and editing, let alone movie watching. And much of the technology Coppola used was indeed ahead of its time. The director tinkered with the One From the Heart script on a primitive word processor, a novelty at the time. The high-definition video recorders and early digital-editing system that so enamored Coppola are now present on almost all movie shoots.

Part of the story of One From the Heart is how Coppola directed some of the film from a trailer called "Image Control," a.k.a. "Silverfish," an Airstream equipped with all the comforts of home. By giving himself distance from the heat and turmoil of the movie set, Coppola proposed to direct the film as if from the point of view of a member of the audience. (The trailer's also been called--by editor Walter Murch--a "bathysphere" that helped Coppola escape the pressure of his angry financiers.)

Since so many current films are compendiums of special effects, directors may spend as much time staring at a computer screen as they once did looking through a camera. Ultimately, even Coppola's Airstream trailer--anticipating the remove of the director from the on the set side of filmmaking--seems like a harbinger of things to come.

And yet, the Silverfish is still an unforgettable expression of a director's ego. Coppola's commands to the set via loudspeaker started inevitable jokes about Coppola as the Wizard of Oz. Critic Pauline Kael, who hated One From the Heart, took the Oz metaphor further when writing about the similarly, studiously artificial French film Moon in the Gutter. What was going on in these situations, she wrote, was a reversal of the situation in The Wizard of Oz. It was a Wizard of Oz telling the world not to look at anything but the man behind the curtain.

Since One From the Heart's release and failure, the insistence on technology has overshadowed art of directing actors, with fast editing, heavy dependence on CGI and attention to surface over story. Film lovers today are like corks in a tsunami, spinning in a never-ending wave of films that may be contemptuously heartless but always state of the art.

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Web extra to the January 1-7, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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