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The memoirist of the Coppola clan

Eleanor Coppola reflects on life, art and her famous family in her new book.

May 12, 2008|Margaret Wappler | Times Staff Writer

"I think every marriage has had its rocky points, especially if you're these dynamic opposites," she said. "Francis is more volatile, operatic and Italian in personality. And I'm more calm, not without emotion, but generally I'm in a calmer state. In recent years, for quite a few years now, those rocky points have been past and we've come out the other side."

Conflicting personalities in marriage are something readers can relate to, including the editor of both of Coppola's books, Nan Talese, who is married to writer Gay Talese. "Gay is very different from Francis, but there are similarities. . . . For women particularly, they will find themselves in the book because of the balance between work and family life, relationships and their own aspirations. Eleanor is amazingly honest and open."

Coppola is also aware of boundaries, of where her story ends and others begin. Sofia's experience with critical reviews for her performance in "The Godfather: Part III" is acknowledged but not indulged.

Looking back, Coppola acknowledges the pangs of jealousy she felt with other family members' successes, the resentment that burned in her for often being tasked with the least glamorous aspect of making films, but it's a muted observation now, distanced by time and acceptance of both herself and Francis and their path.

Coppola's father, who trained as an artist in France and worked in Mexico, was a political cartoonist for the Los Angeles Examiner. He died when she was 10, but she clearly inherited some of his wanderlust, as well as her mother Eleanor Jessie Neil's love of books and travel.

In line to be the old maid of her group of friends, Coppola met Francis in Ireland in 1963. She was working as an assistant to the art director on Francis' horror film "Dementia 13."

"I never expected Francis to be a celebrity when we got married. He was making ["Dementia 13"], this black-and-white film, very low budget. I thought we were going to live in the Valley," she said with a smile. "I was just as startled and unprepared for how our lives evolved. . . . I really feel very strongly that he should be whatever he wants to be. That's why I could always be supportive of his projects, because I felt like this is artwork and he wants to make it as much as I want to make mine."

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Inner adventures

There is also the realization that she did make art in that period but that the scope wasn't limited to documentaries or the gallery; her biggest project was family. These days, her art has expanded beyond that life work.

One of the themes of "Notes on a Life" is Coppola's grief and healing over the loss of her son Gio, an aspiring director. At the time of his death, his relationship with his mother was at a turning point. On Mother's Day 1986, the last day she saw him alive, she writes, "I felt as if Gio was trying to make up for the hard times he has given me since his teenage years. This past six months he has changed." He's "happy and more self-confident and has grown closer to me."

Coppola, who considers herself spiritual but not "a joiner of religions, per se," has poured much of her pain and enlightenment into Circle of Memory, an installation that asks visitors to write down -- on scraps of paper -- memorials to people they have lost, a form of writing that echoes Coppola's own efforts. The installation has traveled extensively, and it'll arrive in Salzburg, Austria, this summer.

In the meantime, she is busy. "I was just in Argentina shooting some documentary footage for the film Francis is working on now. I have ongoing work and projects in my studio here," she said, looking toward the barn. "Art is hard work. Everyone thinks you're just having fun in your studio, but that's where you face your inner demons, all your issues, but I'm drawn to it. I feel like the inner adventure is one of the great adventures."

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