Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola.
Written by: Armyan Bernstein & Francis Ford Coppola.
Starring: Frederic Forrest (Hank), Teri Garr (Frannie), Raul Julia (Ray), Nastassja Kinski (Leila), Lainie Kazan (Maggie), Harry Dean Stanton (Moe).
Francis Ford Coppola had one of the greatest decades any director has ever had in the 1970s. He directed four films – The Godfather (1972), The Conversation, The Godfather Part II (both 1974) and Apocalypse Now (1979) – all four of which were nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, two of them winning. He won a Best Director Oscar for The Godfather Part II, won three writing Oscars (for Patton, and the two Godfathers) and the Palme D’Or for Apocalypse Now. More important than any of those awards however is the fact that three decades later, all of his 1970s films are still considered to be masterpieces. Making Apocalypse Now was a long, torturous process, but he ended up making what I still consider to be the best film ever made. And then, with 1982’s One From the Heart, the bottom fell out.
It wasn’t supposed to happen like that. One From the Heart was supposed to be a simple movie – an antidote to the bloated production of Apocalypse Now, and was supposed to help establish Coppola as a truly independent filmmaker – and get his Zoetrope ideal off the ground running and finance personal projects for Coppola and other filmmakers. Instead, the film, originally budgeted at $2 million, exploded into a $28 million dollar movie, that bombed at the office and with critics, and led to Zoetrope, and Coppola himself, going bankrupt. Pretty much all the films Coppola directed for the rest of the 1980s and 1990s were made in an attempt to pay off his debts – which eventually he was able to do – and thanks in part to a successful winery, he is once again able to make just the films he wants to make – which has led to Youth Without Youth (2007), Tetro (2009) and Twixt (2011) – personal movies, that have mainly be greeted with a shrug (although I found much to admire about the first two – and still need to see Twixt). One thing is for sure though – One From the Heart marked the end of Coppola’s career as a truly great director. There is much to admire about some of his later films – but never again would he reach the heights of the 1970s.
Watching the film three decades removed from its release, it’s easy to see where things went so wrong with the movie – but also easy to admire much of what Coppola accomplished with the film. I’m not going to go nearly as far as the film’s most adamant defenders, who claim it is another Coppola masterpiece, but the film is not an epic failure like Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate either. Coppola used innovative editing techniques that are still used today. It’s easy to see the film’s influence on films such as Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge (2001). The film is always at least interesting, and sometimes brilliantly so, to look at and listen to. Coppola built his stage bound Las Vegas sets, in all their garish, brilliant color (which is what sent the budget skyrocketing) – but damn it, if they don’t look impressive. Too bad all the technical brilliance on display throughout One From the Heart is at the service of a rather simplistic, rather dull story.
The film stars Frederic Forest and Teri Garr as Hank and Frannie – a couple who has been together for five years, and are stuck in a rut. They have different ideas on where they want the next step of their relationship to go – he’s spent money buying out his roommate in the rundown home they pair live in, so he can fix it up nicely for them. She’s spent money on a trip to Bora Bora he doesn’t want to go on. They argue, they breakup and each goes running to a friend – he to Moe (Harry Dean Stanton) and she to Maggie (Lainie Kazan). They also both meet an interesting stranger in the night – her Ray (Raul Julia), a romantic waiter who says he’s a singer and piano player, him Leila (Natassja Kinksi), a travelling circus performer on the road with her family. The whole movie is set to a brilliant song-score written by Tom Waits, and performed by Waits and Crystal Gale. Waits would receive the film’s only Oscar nomination for his music – that apparently even inspired the production design of the movie, and certainly inspired the film’s overall tone.
There is not a moment in One From the Heart than is anything other than interesting to watch. Coppola is doing some brilliant technical things throughout the movie, and the music sets the tone for a film that is both romantic, and mournful. Yet the story itself really lets the technical achievement done. Hank and Frannie just do not seem right for each other – and Ray and Leila do more than provide a contrast for each of them to compare their current lover to – but actually both represent a far more logical option for both of them. They seem to be on the same page, want the same things moving forward, and they have undeniable sexual chemistry together. Hank and Frannie have run their course – but the movie doesn’t seem to realize it, continuing to let them crash back into each other right up until the “happy” finale. For the most part, the performances are fine – but they are awfully one note.
I’m not sure why Coppola felt this rather simple, rather wrong-headed story deserved such epic treatment. Had he had a better one, perhaps One From the Heart really would be a masterpiece, even if it still bombed at the box office. But he doesn’t. What the film really is, is a hugely ambitious misfire with so much to love about it, that I wished I could like it more.