"Notes ON the Making of 'Apocalypse Now,' " Eleanor Coppola's 1979 production diary of husband Francis' audacious, flawed film released that year, remains one of the best accounts ever written of the insane difficulties involved in shooting a big-budget movie on location. Nearly 30 years later, she brings the same scrupulous honesty and lucid, thoughtful prose to her memoir "Notes on a Life."
Ranging episodically over several decades, Coppola offers a poignant self-portrait of middle age -- she's just turned 50 as her text begins in 1986 -- thinking about the choices she's made. "I am an observer at heart," she writes, and we see her mingled admiration and envy of those who fling themselves into action. Francis and daughter Sofia direct movies while Eleanor shoots "making of" documentaries about them. Attending a tribute to her friend Alice Waters, she muses, "I haven't created a body of notable work in my life when many around me have."
The author could have come off as an overprivileged whiner as she describes jaunts to Brazil, Thailand and Bali, a cruise of the Caribbean in George Lucas' chartered yacht, the Coppolas' apartment at the Sherry-Netherland in New York and their mansion in the Napa Valley. But her detailed evocations of such lavish scenes are coupled with an awareness of how rarefied they are. At celebrity-studded occasions, she expresses emotions we've all felt. Underdressed for a celebration of the five Golden Globe nominations for Sofia's 2003 film "Lost in Translation," she flashes back to a "childhood memory of being eight years old and arriving in white shorts at what I thought was a beach party and finding all the girls in pastel party dresses." Perhaps because she still feels like an outsider, Coppola makes good use of her insider access in a variety of sharp vignettes. She paints a funny, touching picture of her husband, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg talking about past film productions "as if they were aging generals recalling their various campaigns." There are terrific accounts of moviemaking: Francis filming a snowy horseback chase on a Los Angeles soundstage for 1992's "Dracula"; a nighttime shoot of a samurai charge in the freezing Japanese countryside for Akira Kurosawa's "Kagemusha" (1980); Sofia explaining to Kirsten Dunst that her character's encounter with Madame du Barry in 2006's "Marie Antoinette" is "very like high school, like the Socs and the Greasers."
"I am fascinated to be an observer of the creative process," Coppola writes, and it's clearly true. She also acknowledges being resentful that it's usually someone else's creative process she's observing. Like many women of her generation, she pushed aside many of her aspirations when she married and had children. The difference is that she didn't marry a guy with an ordinary job, she married a man who turned out to be one of America's greatest film directors. Francis Ford Coppola is, not surprisingly, the elephant in the room in his wife's memoir, which is a three-dimensional portrait of a marriage unlike any other, and yet not so very different after all.
The particulars are more glamorous, to be sure. If you're going to be bogged down in domestic details, reviewing plans for remodeling the wine cellar or whipping up dinner for 20 on short notice when the cast of "Dracula" comes over certainly beats scrubbing floors and defrosting the freezer. But Coppola's done those chores too, often in remote locations with cranky toddlers in tow, and she's not the only spouse to be irked by a partner who "goes to work, intently focused on his project, [while] I attend to little tasks." When Francis bemoans his excessive obligations and overscheduled life, he's talking about awards ceremonies and all-expenses-paid junkets to foreign countries. When he petulantly informs her, "And you don't look out for me. . . . You don't help me," he's just another self-absorbed workaholic who thinks his wife's job is to take care of him.
When she calmly responds that "he sets his calendar himself with his assistant," she's another veteran of a long marriage who no longer feels obliged to solve all her mate's problems. Frank about Francis' faults, Coppola also captures his zest for life, his intelligence and charm, his passion for moviemaking, his love for her and their children. (The death of their 22-year-old son Gio in a freak accident, starkly described in the opening pages, devastated them both and haunts the author throughout the book.) Their relationship isn't perfect, but neither is it the oppressive bond of a male chauvinist and his subservient wife. Sofia grew up to be as assertive and career-focused as her father; younger son Roman, second-unit director on several of his father's and sister's films, seems more like his mother.
Once her children were adults, Coppola could have devoted more time to working on conceptual art installations like the two she describes in the book. Francis' reactions to these projects, nearly 30 years apart, nicely encapsulates changes in the marriage: he was hurt by the first one, which he thought made fun of him and his achievements; at the opening for the second, he tactfully stayed out of the limelight so that her work would be the focus. If the author were a different sort of person, she would simply have focused on her projects; instead, she kept making documentaries about other people's. "[I]t is a rare opportunity to see my child at work, be included in her world," she writes about filming Sofia on the set of "Marie Antoinette," and we see elsewhere that an important element in her relationship with Francis is the excitement of being included in his world of creative risk and rewards.
The fact that she generally was an onlooker rather than a participant in this world was her choice, Coppola acknowledges in this nuanced assessment of her life. Her mature understanding illuminates this engaging memoir, which chronicles with equal acuity regrets over the paths not taken and pleasure in the ones that were.
Wendy Smith is a critic and the author of "Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940."