independent

Friday 18 April 2014

Coppola: It runs in the family

With 'The Bling Ring', Sofia Coppola is again challenging audiences – just like her father

Lavish: Kirsten Dunst in Marie Antoinette

In every one of her five films to date, Sofia Coppola has examined the lives of privileged but vulnerable females, from troubled teens and lost 20-somethings to the cluelessly extravagant Marie Antoinette. In her new movie, the girls are even more messed up than usual, because The Bling Ring tells the true story of a group of Hollywood brats whose obsession with celebrity landed them in all sorts of trouble.

In 2008, a gang of fashion conscious, reality TV-mad San Fernando Valley youngsters grew tired of waiting to be noticed and decided to muscle their way into the lives of the rich and famous. Their plan was simple: they would google the addresses of TV and film stars, track their whereabouts on the celebrity gossip site TMZ, and raid their homes when they knew the celebrities were out.

For over a year, their scheme worked. Led by a precocious and terrifyingly self-absorbed young woman called Rachel Lee, they broke into the homes of Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Orlando Bloom, Megan Fox and Rachel Bilson, stealing an estimated $3m worth of jewellery and designer clothes before the police finally caught up with them.

In Coppola's film, Emma Watson, Katie Chang and Taissa Farmiga play members of the gang whose craving for the trappings of celebrity seems at once pitiful and repellent. Though the film comes close to glamorising the excess and glitz of celebrity culture, it also satirises a culture where fame rather than achievement has become the dominant aspiration.

It's a subject Coppola should know something about. As part of one of American filmmaking's most distinguished dynasties, she's a Hollywood insider if ever there was one. She was hanging out on film sets as soon as she could walk, became a child actor and was exposed to celebrity at a perilously young age.

Instead of having her head turned, however, Sofia retreated from the limelight after a nasty experience on The Godfather III, and will rarely be seen these days at red carpet gatherings. She lives quietly between New York and Paris with her rock star husband Thomas Mars and their two kids, and devotes most of her free time to making serious and thoughtful films.

Most impressively of all, she has succeeded in emerging from her father's huge shadow to become a respected filmmaker in her own right.

In recent interviews about The Bling Ring, she has rejected any suggestion that her own young life bore any relationship whatever to the experiences of the deluded juveniles who inspired her film.

"I think people think I grew up around that or something," she has said. "To me, Al Pacino and Paris Hilton are different, you know what I mean?" Indeed they are, and Sofia shared her first scene with Al when she was only a few months old.

When she was born, on May 14, 1971, her father Francis Ford Coppola was midway through shooting the film that would define his greatness, The Godfather.

Everyone remembers the brilliant climactic scene where, as Michael stands godfather to his sister's son, his goons are elsewhere merrily wiping out his enemies.

The baby boy at the font was actually Sofia, and this was not the last time her father would cast her in one of his films.

Though born in New York she was raised mainly in Hollywood and later northern California, and seemed destined from the start for a career in movies. Her first cousins Nicholas Cage and Jason Schwartzman would both become actors, and for a time she seemed to toy with the idea as well.

There are touching photos of her on the set of The Godfather Part II with her dad. She had a cameo, aged three, in that film, and in her early teens played slightly larger roles in her father's films Rumble Fish, The Outsiders, The Cotton Club and Peggy Sue Got Married.

She has fond memories of a sometimes chaotic childhood. "It was always interesting," she has said, "and I really enjoyed that my parents always included us in their lives. So we got to be around all these interesting people and go on adventures."

She and her siblings were carted around the world according to their father's filming schedule, and she spent over a year in the Philippines during the epic Apocalypse Now shoot.

She has always maintained that she was never really seriously interested in acting, but in 1990, at the age of 19, she was thrust into the limelight in the worst possible circumstances. Her dad was about to begin shooting The Godfather Part III in Rome when Winona Ryder, who'd been cast as Michael Corleone's daughter Mary, withdrew because of exhaustion.

Francis Coppola persuaded Sofia to take Ryder's place, and her listless performance was universally panned. She was even voted 'Worst New Star' and 'Worst Supporting Actress' at the 1990 Golden Raspberry Awards, and although she now says her lack of ambition as an actress made the attacks easy to shrug off, some of the nasty things that were said about her must have hurt.

She has hardly ever acted since, and instead spent much of the 1990s going to art school and experimenting with visual arts and film. "I didn't know what I wanted to do", she's said, "and then I made a short film and felt like it was a combination of all these interests of mine – design and photography and music. But it was really when I read the book The Virgin Suicides that made me wanna make a movie."

Jeffrey Eugenides's award-winning novel told the grimly romantic tale of five beautiful teenage sisters who are so oppressed by their parents' authoritarian regime that they form a suicide pact. Coppola's soporific adaptation did the book justice, and mixed glossy but intelligent cinematography with a cleverly chosen soundtrack, an approach that's since become her trademark. The film was well received, but did only modest business at the box office.

'Lost in Translation' is a kind of cinematic embodiment of jetlag, and was inspired by the frequent visits to Japan Sofia made while in her 20s. She herself described it as a "valentine" to Tokyo, and in truth it was a slender tale of a middle-aged film actor and a lost young woman who are drawn together in the cheesy bar of a skyscraper hotel.

Coppola's film was all about mood, and mixed humour and pathos most effectively thanks to a typically understated lead performance from Bill Murray, playing a despairing Hollywood star whose bubble of existential gloom is burst when he meets Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), a young woman full of thwarted promise.

While the film's ambivalent ending annoyed the hell out of some, it went down a bomb with the critics. Coppola became the first ever American woman to get a Best Director Oscar nomination, and her original screenplay won an Academy Award.

What she's done since hasn't always pleased everyone, and I myself compared her lavish costume drama Marie Antoinette to a Duran Duran video. But she never picks boring or obvious subjects, operates way outside the normal Hollywood channels and makes ambitious films that challenge the viewer and make you think. A bit like her father's, in fact.

pwhitington@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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