By the late 1960’s the classic Hollywood studio system was kaput. The Supreme Court ruled in the late forties that the studios which also owned their own theater chains had an illegal monopoly. That was the first nail in the coffin. The next was the rise of television. Then the inevitable death or retirement of the studio moguls. By the end of the sixties studios were being sold to the highest bidder. Paramount Pictures was sold to Gulf + Western, a multinational company that started out making automobile bumpers. The San Francisco based insurance giant Transamerica would later buy United Artist while Nevada real estate magnate Kirk Kerkorian bought MGM.
And what did these new corporate overlords know about making movies? Nothing really. Their only hope for survival was to turn to the younger filmmakers working in the industry to help bring in a new audience. These included Stanley Kubrick, who got his start in the fifties making B-movies; Sam Peckinpah and Robert Altman, who worked in television, and Arthur Penn and Mike Nichols, who established themselves on Broadway. Later, after the phenomenal success of Easy Rider, the studios began to recruit an even younger generation of autures. Many (though not all) of them would be educated in the pioneering film schools of L.A. and New York. They included George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Brian Di Palma, William Friedkin, Peter Bogdonovich, Hal Ashby, Paul Schrader, John Millius and others. Yet the Godfather of them all (yes, the pun is intended) was Francis Ford Coppola.
Born in Detroit but raised in Woodside-Queens, NY, Coppola was born into an artistic family. His father, Carmine Coppola, was a flautist who would later perform for Arturo Toscanini and the prestigious NBC Symphony Orchestra. His paternal grandfather ran a movie theater in Brooklyn specializing in Italian imports while his mother was offered a film contract back in Italy (her father made her refuse it).
After high school Coppola had originally enrolled in Hoffstra University on Long Island where he declared theater as his major. The weekend he arrived the campus cinema club screened Sergei Eisenstein’s October: The Ten Days that Shook the World. By the time the lights came up in the auditorium Coppola knew that he wanted to be a filmmaker.
While at Hoffstra Coppola became president of the campus drama and musical comedy clubs. A fellow student was James Caan, whom Francis would later cast in several films, most notably as Sonny Corleone in The Godfather. He later transferred to U.C.L.A, one of the first universities with a program in cinema studies. Coppola again became a star pupil, winning awards for his short films. Yet Coppola realized early on that the Hollywood studios in the late fifties/early sixties had no interest in hiring film students. The only way to get the attention of the Hollywood big wigs was to prove that filmmakers trained in academia could actually make movies that had some commercial appeal.
In 1962 Coppola made his feature film debut at the very bottom of the Hollywood food chain with a soft-core skin flick called Tonight for Sure. It was nothing to brag about but it at least proved that a film student could make a commercial movie. He then went to work for Roger Corman, who eventually agreed to produce a horror film that Coppola wrote and directed called Dementia 13. Again it was nothing to brag about but it was a credit. It was also during in tenure with Corman that Coppola met Eleanor Neal, his wife of over fifty years.
Coppola entered the big leagues when he dropped out of film school and accepted a job writing screenplays for producer Ray Stark and his independent company Seven Arts. He ended up penning the scripts for such films as This Property is Condemned and Is Paris Burning, the later co-written by Gore Vidal. There’s an old joke that has been circulating around Hollywood since time began about a none-too-bright starlet who made the mistake of sleeping with the screenwriter in order to get ahead. Coppola soon learned how little actual power screenwriters have in Hollywood. Most of the films he penned bore little resemblance to what he had originally written, that is if they made it to the screen at all. One screenplay he wrote that would make it to the screen and become a classic was Patton (1970) a biopic about the controversial yet heroic World War II General. Curiously, the producers did not originally want to use Coppola’s script because they felt it was too stylized. They were particularly afraid of the opening he wrote, with Patton standing in front of an American flag addressing an unseen audience. When George C. Scott agreed to play the title character he insisted on going back to Coppola’s original script. The opening of Patton has long since become iconic and the film won Oscars for Best Picture and Coppola for Best Adapted Screenplay along with Edmund H. North.
Hungry to finally direct a studio feature, Coppola optioned a novel called You’re a Big Boy Now by British author David Benedictus. Knowing that if he adapted the novel while still under contract with Seven Arts that they would own it, so he struck a deal with Stark allowing him to direct the film before he started writing it. Stark agreed and Coppola went to work.
Many changes were made while bringing the novel to the screen, not least of which was relocating the films setting from London to New York. It was doubtlessly cheaper to make the film in the Big Apple rather then the British Capital. Mayor John V. Lindsey had just recently opened the Mayors Office of Theater, Film and Television and You’re a Big Boy Now was among the first films to enjoy the tax credits that the office offered. Another reason was simply that New York was where Coppola grew up.
The films protagonist is Bernard Chanticleer (Peter Castner) a nineteen-year old from Great Neck, Long Island. He still lives at home and is under the thumb of his overbearing parents. His Dad (Rip Torn) is a curator at the New York Public Library. He’s gotten Bernard a job retrieving books, which he does on roller-skates. Problem is his father always seems to know where his son is in the vast Library Building. Seeing as how this was before every public building was wired with security cameras, it’s not quite clear how Big Brother, err Father, is able to keep watch.
Dad decides that it’s time for Bernard to get out on his own so he helps his son get his first apartment. Unfortunately the task of finding him proper lodgings falls to his equally overbearing mother (Geraldine Page) who is so convinced of her son’s devotion that she gives him a lock of her hair every week.
Mom finds Bernard lodgings in a rooming house in the Village. It’s run by a widow named Miss Thing (Julie Harris). Since Mother is terrified that her son will fall prey to “girls” in her absence she arranges for Miss Thing to contact her should Bernard bring any female company to the house. Miss Thing promises to call Mrs. Chanticleer. She also assures her that she has a pet rooster that only attacks girls. Frankly, I found the rooster to be a dumb plot point. Also, having lived in a NYC rooming house for three years I can tell you that Miss Things house is far bigger and nicer than any such establishment on the island of Manhattan. Frankly, all the scenes in Miss Things house look like they were still set in London.
Her home is not the only thing that smells of tea and crumpets. While American filmmakers were starting to imitate the techniques of such French New Wave directors as François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Goddard and Jacque Rivette, Coppola freely admitted that You’re a Big Boy Now was greatly influence by such contemporary British film directors as Tony Richards and Richard Lester. The latter (actually an American who made a name for himself in the British cinema) was responsible for A Hard Days Night and Help! starring The Beatles and The Knack or How to Get It starring a young Michael Crawford. Like those films You’re a Big Boy Now makes clever use of rapid-fire editing timed to staccato rhythms, a freewheeling style and clever visual flights of fancy. One scene that would probably cause controversy today has Bernard getting off the subway. On the wall of the train station he sees that someone has written “Niggers Go Home” in chalk. “But where’s home?” Bernard asks himself. “I know, the Highlands.” Bernard then imagines a black man in a kilt playing the bagpipes and leading a group of inner city school children through the Scottish countryside. Before the P.C. Police get involved it should be noted that Bernard erases the offending graffiti.
One night in Times Square Bernard runs into Amy (Karen Black) a bright, pretty girl from the library that has a crush on him. The two of them get to talking and it turns out they went to the same elementary school. She’s clearly the perfect girl for him but two things complicate matters. First, Bernard takes her back to his rooming house where she’s attacked by the before mentioned rooster. Second, Bernard has eyes on another young lady.
The other woman is Barbara (Elizabeth Hartman), a sexy redhead who Bernard also meets in the library. Later, when he takes Amy to a discotheque, he sees Barbara working as a go-go dancer. Suddenly he can’t pay attention to what Amy is saying. Later on they kiss in the middle of Times Square but even during this tender moment Bernard’s mind is on the less virtuous woman. This point is emphasized by the fact that while their kissing we see the electronic news zipper above with the name “Barbara” repeated endlessly.
Later, in another bizarre bit of happenstance, Mom and Dad take Bernard to a night at the theater. While Hello Dolly! would have been a lot more appropriate for them, they instead go to an experimental (read: pretentious) Off-Broadway play. Wouldn’t you know it; Barbara is the star of the show.
Bernard writes her a letter. She responds and invites her over to her apartment. No sooner does he arrive than she turns on him. Later he’s thrown out of his rooming house. Barbara invites him to move in. Once again, it all goes to hell.
You’re a Big Boy Now was released right before Christmas in 1966. It received mostly positive reviews and Coppola got a fair amount of ink seeing as how he was the first film student to ever get the chance at directing a mainstream Hollywood film. Coppola had dropped out of film school when he accepted his screenwriting gig and in an unprecedented move he submitted Big Boy to the department head of U.C.L.A. as his thesis film, thus earning him his degree.
Alas, the film was not a box office success. Some historians have claimed that the film was overshadowed by The Graduate, another film about a frustrated youth trying to break free of his bourgeois upbringing, overbearing parents and coming to terms with his own sexual awakening. The reality is that Big Boy was released a full year before The Graduate. Mike Nichols even feared that Coppola’s film would dwarf his. He needn’t worry. The Graduate was the biggest hit of 1967 and became a cultural touchstone for anyone who came of age in the sixties.
Why did one film fail and the other one triumph? Very hard to say. Okay, pound for pound The Graduate is a better film. But that shouldn’t detract from what makes You’re a Big Boy Now such a treat. It’s an utterly silly but occasionally heartwarming film. It’s a film that leaps joyously to life while keeping time to a killer soundtrack by The Loving Spoonful (“Do You Believe in Magic”, “Summer in the City”). Like Midnight Cowboy, released three years later, it captures New York during the administration of Mayor Robert Lindsey. But where as Midnight Cowboy portrays the Big Apple as a world of decay and loneliness, You’re a Big Boy Now portrays the city as an exciting place full of color and adventure.
Francis Ford Coppola directed two more films for Seven Arts, which went on to merge with Warner Bros. They were a delightful film version of the Broadway musical Finian’s Rainbow – Fred Astaire’s last musical – and The Rain People.
The seventies would end up being Francis’ decade. After winning the Oscar for his Patton screenplay he started up American Zoetrope, an independent studio in San Francisco that was to be a haven for young filmmakers. It didn’t quite turn out that way. After producing George Lucas’ debut film THX:1138, Warner Bros. demanded that he repay the $300,000 in start-up capital that hey leant him. Desperate for work he accepted an assignment from Paramount Pictures. Lucky for him that assignment was The Godfather, one of the greatest films ever made and for a while the biggest moneymaker in movie history. From there he went on to produce American Graffiti for George Lucas – for many years the most profitable film of all time – then The Conversation and The Godfather, Part II. He then nearly risked his personal fortune, his career and his sanity while making Apocalypse Now, a film that would ultimately become a major box office hit and a classic in it’s own right.
Coppola suffered a reversal of fortune in the eighties. He purchased a studio in Hollywood that he planned on turning into a cutting edge production faculty employing new, state-of-the-art video technology. Unfortunately the first film he made with that technology was One From the Heart, a massive (though stylish) box office failure. He spent the rest of the decade paying off his debt working as a hired gun. Coppola has never regained the mojo he had in the seventies but that’s not to say that he hasn’t made some interesting films. Some, like the charming Peggy Sue Got Married and the overdone Bram Stokers Dracula were hits. Others like The Godfather, Part III were better then critics gave him credit for. Almost all of them have been interesting. Even Jack, his 1996 film starring Robin Williams as a ten-year old boy who is aging at a rapid rate had more to it then meets the eye. What looked like a rip-off of Big actually had quite a bit to say about how a short life can also be a full life.
Today Coppola no longer needs to go out and find work. His thriving Napa Valley vineyard has given him the financial wherewithal to make his own, personal films. He’s lately been on a creative jag with the self-financed indies Youth Without Youth, Tetro and Twixt. None have gotten much acclaim or commercial success but they seem to have pleased the only audience member that matters, the director.
Personally, Francis Ford Coppola will always be one of my heroes. People like me are dreamers, he’s a doer. I always like what he’s trying to do in his films and I admire the hell out of him for doing so many other things, from wine making to publishing to running hotels in Central America. But among his myriad of accomplishments is a charming and funny story about a kid coming of age in the City that Never Sleeps. An overlooked gem that badly needs to be re-discovered.