Few directors have had as disastrous a major big screen debut as Sofia Coppola. The daughter of towering cinematic icon, Francis Ford Coppola, the occasional actress (she had appeared in cameo roles in many of his films as a child) was thrust into the middle of a personal nightmare when her father made the bold decision to cast her in 1990’s The Godfather: Part III. Left in the lurch when Winona Ryder dropped out of the film, Coppola promptly pushed his daughter into playing the pivotal role of mobster’s daughter, Mary Leone, in her place. One of the starkest and most foolish examples of Hollywood nepotism ever seen, Sofia Coppola was miscast and woefully out of her depth in the role, and her dire performance nearly sank the whole film. As an actress, her career was over, but Sofia Coppola had a few surprises in store.
Nine years after the casting disaster of The Godfather: Part III, Sofia Coppola returned to public life as a film director, and the results were far sweeter than they had been when she was in front of the camera. The 29-year-old’s The Virgin Suicides is an auspicious first film. Taking as her subject Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel, Coppola fashioned an engaging and thought provoking tale of a group of teenage boys whose lives are changed forever one summer due to the death of the adored and dreamy Lisbon sisters by suicide.
Thought un-filmable by many commentators, Coppola kept the book’s fragile sense of time, space and character wholly intact, while also infusing it with passion, empathy, grace and style. With a superb cast headed by James Woods and Kathleen Turner, and great turns by Kirsten Dunst, Josh Hartnett and Scott Glenn, Coppola easily dodged any charges of riding on her famous father’s coattails by delivering a mature, insightful, and engrossing film with a directorial signature all her own.
1999’s The Virgin Suicides, however, was just a warm-up. Coppola followed it up in 2003 with the modestly budgeted but much loved Lost In Translation, and announced herself as a major talent. In this beautifully realised comedic drama, Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) finds herself lonely and adrift in Tokyo, until she meets burnt out (and much older…) Hollywood actor Bob Harris (Bill Murray). The pair strike up an unlikely friendship that signals a massive shift in both of their lives. “I was really surprised by her,” Scarlett Johansson told FilmInk of her director. “She’s very conscious of all of us actors. Bill is very instinctive, and he comes to the table with a lot. Sofia was very respectful and responsible with that. She really let us burn a lot of film, which is unusual on a low budget production. She never told us it was going to be the last take, or that we had to move on. She always allowed us our own space.”
Lost In Translation was a critical and commercial success, and Coppola created her very own watershed moment when the film saw her become the first American woman ever nominated for a Best Director Academy Award, and only the third woman (after Jane Campion and Lina Wertmuller) nominated in the ceremony’s history. She didn’t win that gong, but Coppola did pick up the Best Adapted Screenplay Award, and paved the way for a move into bigger budget filmmaking. An ambitious dream project, 2006’s Kirsten Dunst-starring Marie Antoinette was an unconventional portrait of the brattish French monarch, and a major box office and critical disappointment. It was an early career low point for Coppola, and the director’s two quiet follow-up films – 2010’s forcefully emotional but cruelly underrated Somewhere and 2013’s stellar finger-on-the-pulse true story, The Bling Ring – suggested a further slide from the top of the directorial tree.
Coppola, however, is now shaping as a consistent, hard-working director who has moved past the starry, attention grabbing early days of her career. In short, she now appears to be doing what she wants, and making the films that she wants to make. In 2017, Coppola surprisingly moved into remake territory by reshaping Don Sigel’s 1971 Civil War-set Clint Eastwood-starrer, The Beguiled. Adapting Thomas Cullinan’s source novel herself, the director put a fascinating spin on this tale of an injured Union soldier who hides out in a girls’ boarding school in The Deep South. “The original film just stayed in my mind,” Sofia Coppola told The Hollywood Reporter. “I thought that it’d be interesting to tell the same story, but flip it to the women characters’ point of view — the idea of these women cut off during that time, left behind during the war. It doesn’t appeal to me to make someone else’s movie. But I just thought the premise was so interesting or loaded, and it would be interesting to tell this story from the other side.”
In her new film, On The Rocks, Coppola stages something of a return to her roots, and invites obvious comparisons to her most artistically successful film. Another simply structured, largely plotless two-hander, it’s also a reunion with the much loved Bill Murray. In this loose comedy-drama, the ever-eccentric actor plays Felix, a semi-retired, wholly unreconstructed art dealer who enjoys flirting with any woman within earshot and holds distinctly old-school opinions when it comes to relations between the sexes. These attitudes are thrown into stark relief when Felix’s daughter, Laura (Rashida Jones), seeks a little fatherly comfort and advice when her husband, Dean (Marlon Wayans), cheats on her with a co-worker. On The Rocks then rejigs into a cogent father-daughter story that functions not just as a showcase for Bill Murray and Rashida Jones, but also for Coppola’s unique ability to tell seemingly small but ultimately richly incisive stories about people that feel real. “It’s kind of the clash of how they look at relationships and also how your relationship with your parent affects your relationships in your life,” Coppola told Indiewire of On The Rocks. “It’s the two of them as a father and daughter on a little adventure to spy on her husband. It’s a lot of them talking about life and men and women over martinis in New York.”
On The Rocks is released in cinemas on October 2 and on Apple TV+ from October 23, 2020