The Godfather’s Godmother – Francis Ford Coppola On Female Film-makers
He might be best known for his films about mean men, but Francis Ford Coppola is enlightened when it comes to women. Hardly surprising, as the great Dorothy Arzner was his mentor. K magazine caught up with him at the Marrakesh International Film Festival….
As jury president of the Marrakech International Film Festival, in December, Francis Ford Coppola reeled off an impressive list of women in history, from film to pharaoh. He elaborated on the theme in an interview that week.
Sitting comfortably inside the fabled hotel La Mamounia, Coppola slumps slightly in a chair and greets journalists, gathered to speak to The Godfather director, like a professor welcoming students. He wears a blue shirt, nothing fancy, and looks relaxed.
In his opening talk, he proved himself to be a learned man, citing in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris, Beirut and San Bernardino, opening lines from the Koran, whilst talking of its beauty. And he is clearly well versed on women in history.
“When I was a boy, my father was in an orchestra, and only occasionally was the harpist a woman,” he says. “That was 1941. That is very recent. Now, if you are a woman instrumentalist the law, the rule, is that you must audition behind the curtain so that when they listen to you play, they don’t know what you are, what race, how old, if you are a woman. You look at an orchestra in modern times, and it is easily more than half women.”
There’s a long way to go in cinema: in 2014, only seven per cent of the top 250 grossing films in America were directed by women. And Coppola is aware of that: “Unfortunately, because of the evolution of the human species, women were first treated as children,” he says. “So in the glorious days of Greek civilisation, women and children were slaves. Then in Rome they got rights like divorce, or they could have some money of their own. So it has been a long evolution because of the type of species we are. Not only were they treated as slaves but they were also desired. I have no doubt that a lot of what was going on in archaic ideas, was to control the girls so that the older men get them and the younger men get sent off.”
Knowledge of women
Coppola’s history lesson continues, mentioning renowned men such as Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Napoleon, but he points out: “There have been women all along at that level. There was Hypatia in Alexandria, who was a philosopher and up there with the men. There was Hatshepsut who was a pharaoh in Egypt, and one of the great figures in history. There was Maria Gaetana Agnesi, an Italian mathematician who was known as the Witch of Agnesi because she did formulae no man could understand…Ada, Countess of Lovelace, who was the first computer programmer, who sponsored Byron’s daughter.”
He concludes: “We have a history of women every bit as great as great men, and we know women can do anything a man can do – and will, as our species evolves. It takes time and we have seen it happen now. The women are doing dazzling work and when I started in film, there were no women film directors, so my daughter became one of the first, so I feel there is good progress.”
Happily, his UCLA teacher, Dorothy Arzner, was an exception. “She was a very important Hollywood director,” he says. “She was a successful film director in the 1920s and 1930s; the only woman who was. She was a wonderful woman, and she was very encouraging to me. I think what meant so much, as I always had self doubt, was that she would say: you are going to do fine. She was very famous. I just had the good luck that I was her student.”
Indeed, Arzner’s work stands to this day as the largest body of work created by a female director, within the studio system. Raised in Hollywood, where her father ran a restaurant frequented by Hollywood types, she landed a job through a connection to director William C. DeMille, and started out as a stenographer at Famous Players-Lasky Corporation. That company became Paramount, and Arzner was promoted to script writer and editor, working as such on over fifty films, before she began directing.
She made her first movie, Fashions For Women, in 1927, and directed actress Clara Bow in her original talkie, The Wild Party. The first female to be accepted to the Directors Guild of America, she is also credited with launching the career of many famous actors, from Katherine Hepburn to Lucille Ball. “She was such a professional and had such success, she could tell you what you hadn’t done without even looking,” says Coppola.
He comes across as one of those men that are all the more understanding from being nurtured by and knowledgeable of strong women, like Arzner. He’s supportive of women and keen to shed light on history in his own way. “The funny thing is the man that wrote The Godfather, Mario Puzo, who put all those great lines like, ‘an offer you can’t refuse’ – those were all things his mother said,” he says.
His daughter Sofia Coppola, who he calls a “strong, independent director,” is here with him in Marrakesh, and when he dedicates the main award at the Festival to all cinema, rather than one film, he cites his granddaughter. “Once my granddaughter exclaimed to me, I love all cinema,” he began. “And I was startled.”
Man to Mann
As to why he chose to be in Morocco, “My grandmother was born in Tunis,” he says. “She spoke Arabic and French. She was Italian but born in Tunis. I have always loved the stories. I know a lot about the Middle East but just more from interest,” he says.
As an American invited to serve as a cultural figurehead by the Arab world in troubled times, Coppola was an ambassador of sorts at the Festival, but also a surprise. He spoke eloquently about a variety of subjects. As well as the Koran, his reading list is extensive. He compares his next project to Thomas Mann’s great autobiographical novel.
But it will feature his own family, both male and female. “Maybe I will make only one film more in my life but it may be very long,” he says. “What I’ve written is a story, sort of like Buddenbrooks. It is about three generations of a family: mine. What I know the most, is a family like my own.”
For further information about Kering, go to www.kering.com.