Francis Ford Coppola is a singular artist. It’s not our place to say whether or not he’s more accomplished than Steven Spielberg or Brian De Palma, but it is fair to say he brandishes more authority over his work. Coppola’s name is attached to the majority of his screenplays, and like Quentin Tarantino, he’s a writer-director, as opposed to a director for hire.
From the shimmering efforts of The Godfather trilogy, to the sexual aerobics of his Bram Stoker’s Dracula picture, Coppola likes to create worlds where his characters can eat, breathe and be miserable. He has a film for everyone, from The Conversation and Rumble Fish, making him the critical darling of his particular generation.
Indeed, he’s a true artist, allowing his artistry to weave into the work, like the passion of a singular talent. In many ways, he’s the embodiment of a modern-day Picasso, bringing mass confusion from his world into the universe of his characters. Voluminous and versatile, the films span several different genres.
Where he will go next is anyone’s guess, but he’s never released a truly awful film. At his worst, his work seems merely inadequate, and at his best, work from the heavens above. This is a smattering of characters that have fleshed out his finest work.
The 10 best Francis Ford Coppola characters:
10. Fredo Corleone – The Godfather
John Cazale’s tenure as an actor was brief, albeit one tinged with tremendous good fortune, as his CV contains nothing but Oscar-nominated films. And amidst these pictures stands Fredo, Cazale’s most famous character, who would go on to become shorthand for future weak-willed characters in cinema.
Cazale appears as Fredo, the well-intentioned, if fundamentally inept, middle son in the Corleone family. Struck by ambitions of grandeur, Fredo takes off for Las Vegas, only to discover that the American paradise holds less regard for him than his father does.
Where Michael is stealthy, and Vito is powerful, Fredo cowers, the tears he cries for his father’s death are the tears he knows no one will shed for him. Cazale reprised the role for The Godfather Part II, portraying the ultimate sacrificial lamb.
9. Patty – Rumble Fish
Capturing the essence of 1980s machismo, Coppola pulled it all together by piecing a probing picture that neatly pulled the exploits of a colourful gang of misfits through a series of blinding set pieces, painted in black and white.
Diane Lane plays Patty, the sensible voice of reason in a film that exhibits the perfume of male bravura. As ever, it takes a woman to highlight the dangers of the world the main characters live in, but Patty is a bonafide character in her own right.
She lives happily and freely in her own personal narrative, only pausing to give insight into the narration when best deemed appropriate. And through her eyes, Coppola exposes the danger, frame by frame, beat by beat.
8. Rudy Baylor – The Rainmaker
Although he has become more of a mainstream action star in recent years, Matt Damon was the lo-fi director’s poison of choice for much of the 1990s. And that’s precisely what Coppola had become by the 1990s, a lo-fi, indie director keen to direct smaller films to the grander epics of his 1970s milieu.
Damon plays Rudy Baylor, a precocious lawyer who can’t seem to get himself the big break that is sure to make his name. Through Baylor, Coppola shows his younger self as a struggling artist determined to get recognition and autonomy for his work.
Damon acquits himself quite nicely to the role, particularly in the early scenes, where he spends his time pouring drinks for the customers he one day hopes to represent. He says it all in his eyes, the portal to his soul.
7. Dracula – Bram Stoker’s Dracula
It’s not necessarily ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’, but it’s certainly ‘Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula’, and one the director tailored to the tastes of the early 1990s. The AIDS crisis was everywhere, so he showed the vampire in pitying guise, carrying the blood that could kill him if it should pass his mouth.
Bolstered by Annie Lennox’s startling ‘Love Song for a Vampire’, the film tapped into the cultural zeitgeist of the time, and Gary Oldman plays the vampire as an almost sexual deviant, prying the land for women he’d like to sleep with, as much as he’d like to hill them.
Coppola intended for the film to appear like an “erotic dream”, so he shows his vampire in various animal-like poses. Oldman is clearly enjoying himself, as is co-star Winona Ryder. Won over by the romantic elements of the script, Ryder decided to expose the hidden desires of a woman born in the 19th century.
6. Darry Curtis – The Outsiders
Let it never be said that Coppola lacks ambition and drive. He didn’t just direct one ‘coming-of-age’ drama in 1983; he directed two. Rumble Fish is the superior work, but The Outsiders is an acting powerhouse, featuring an incredible ensemble that includes Emilio Estevez, Tom Cruise and Flea from the Red Hot Chilli Peppers.
And then there’s Patrick Swayze, all pecks and shoulders, smouldering along as Darry Curtis, the film’s central character. He embodies the more free-wheeling sensibilities of the everyday 1980s drama, offering a more nuanced worldview to the other cast and characters.
Swayze is excellent, bringing gravitas to the proceedings. He’s easy to mock because of Dirty Dancing, but Swayze really knew how to act, often through his body alone. The Outsiders shows just how committed he was to his craft.
5. Colonel Kurtz – Apocalypse Now
What’s even more remarkable than Marlon Brando’s performance is his director’s desire to fulfil his vision of Joseph Conrad’s premise. Brando certainly made it difficult for the director, arriving onto Apocalypse Now overweight and unfamiliar with the text in question.
What Coppola did next was genius: He put his star in a darkened room and surrounded him with sparse light, making him appear to be the God Kurtz imagined himself to be. It only adds to the growing tension within the film, as he sits around his temple, surrounded only by books and splendour.
Brando took a disliking to Dennis Hopper and filmed his scenes separately to the Easy Rider star. But nevertheless, Brando did excellently with what he was given, bringing mysticism to the pulsating Vietnam effort.
4. Harry Caul – The Conversation
Embodying the banality of the 1970s in a series of biting scenes, The Conversation now stands as a portal into the paranoia that was creeping into America during the decade. Watergate, Vietnam, Nixon: everything was suspicious. No one was beyond questioning.
In Harry Caul, Coppola has the perfect embodiment of the era, culminating in a private detective who senses danger on every street corner and sidewalk. Gene Hackman plays the sleuth, wracked by devout Catholicism, and his dedication to his work.
Wherever he turns, people die, and the more he wades into the dangerous waters, the more he realises that he himself is the danger. The film closes on the character, alone in his own home, with nothing but a saxophone for company.
3. Preston Tucker – Tucker: The Man and His Dream
In many ways, Tucker is the hardest to quantify within this paradigm, precisely because he is so different to the rest of the director’s oeuvre. He’s a flashy raconteur, eager to dine out on the money he has made for himself. What’s more, he’s based on an actual person.
Jeff Bridges stars as Tucker, capturing the essence and integrity of the great automobile manufacturer, keen to market his version of ‘The American Dream’ to the general public. Bridges is brilliant as the impresario, a man who is loud in his public life, and quiet in his personal one.
Indeed, the film might well be Coppola’s most criminally overlooked in his canon. No, it’s no The Godfather, but nor was The Godfather Part III. This 1988 venture more than earns its value in ticket sales for what it sets out to do.
2. Lieutenant Colonel William Kilgore – Apocalypse Now
All together now, one, two, three: “I love the smell of Napalm in the morning.” Yes, this lively character is Robert Duvall’s most fondly remembered performance, and for good reason too. He’s braggadocious, beguiling, and laced with just the correct amount of idiocy to project everything that was exhilarating and terrifying about the Vietnam conflict.
A mainstay in the Coppolaverse, Duvall also appeared in The Godfather and The Conversation, but this is his most indelible performance. Throwing himself into the ocean amidst a parade of gunfire, smoke and explosives, his Kilgore typifies the normalcy of the war for thousands and thousands of American soldiers.
It’s hard to enjoy yourself in the battlefield, but at least Kilgore makes a go at it, surfing across the seas, the bombs falling behind him. It’s like watching a ballet at the Royal Opera House; almost as loud, too.
1. Michael Corleone – The Godfather
It could not have been anyone else, could it? I could just as easily have put in Al Pacino, considering how adeptly he inhabits the character and how much the character wraps around him. He plays three different iterations of the character, bringing him from naive would-be wed to mobster supreme, atoning for the murders in his past.
Pacino never truly left the character go, as snippets of Michael Corleone have turned up in everything from Dog Day Afternoon to The Irishman. It’s the romanticism, regality and richness that has inspired a dozen of imitators who have never come close to Pacino’s take. And how could they?
But there would have been no Corleone if Coppola had not devoted so much of his intellectual energy to the character. The persona embodies the glories that sits in each of us, if only we are brave enough to tap into it.