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Out of the Godfather's shadow

As an actress, Sofia Coppola suffered a critical drubbing but in a remarkable turnaround, the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola is winning plaudits...

As an actress, Sofia Coppola suffered a critical drubbing but in a remarkable turnaround, the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola is winning plaudits on the other side of the camera, writes Stephen Dodd

AT THE age of 28, Sofia Coppola harbours no rosy illusions about the sniping her celebrated surname invites. Even the glow of present triumph does little to dispel the fears. A box-office slump or a panning from the critics, and her nascent career as a film director will be over.

``There are people who would say,'' she admits, ```Daddy made it for her'.''

When `Daddy' is Francis Ford Coppola, one of Hollywood's most lionised directors, the rationale for charges of nepotism is evident. What compounds Sofia's fears, however, is that she has already experienced the critics' lash.

It is now a decade since Francis cast his only daughter in the lead female role in The Godfather Part III, yet Sofia has never forgotten the vitriol that followed, even if she has managed to apply the balm of logic to the wounds.

``Because I didn't want to be an actress, it didn't traumatise me,'' she says. ``It hurt me to be attacked by the press ... but the scars were not permanent. It was painful, but it wasn't devastating.''

The press savaged Sofia's performance. Untrained as an actress, she had stepped into the role at the last moment when Winona Ryder pulled out with a nervous disorder.

Even though Paramount begged Francis to cast a known star, he persisted, telling everyone his daughter was the actual embodiment of the screen role of Michael Corleone's daughter.

``I wanted her all along,'' the director explained. ``I was fashioning Winona in her image.''

Ten years on, as Sofia steps into the limelight as the director of the critically lauded The Virgin Suicides, a strange tale is emerging about the tragedy that underpins both her own and her father's work.

In interviews to promote the movie, which opens this month, Sofia has thrown new light onto the story. It is the aftermath of a death, she explains, and it is a personal trauma that has thrown her family into necessarily bleak reflection.

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In 1986, Sofia's brother Gio was involved in a speedboat accident. She learned the news in a telephone call: the speedboat's pilot, Ryan O'Neal's son Griffin had been at the wheel; there had been a devastating accident, Gio had suffered appalling head injuries and was dead.

From the moment of Gio's death, something changed in the Coppola family. It was as though a state of grace was over; as if father, mother, sister and brothers suddenly bore a terrible weight that would never lift. Above all, for the teenage Sofia, it was an unnaturally early acquaintance with the knowledge that lives end, that love and happiness stop.

``It is hard to imagine there was any reason for it,'' she says, ``though it changed our lives forever.''

This, as more than one critic has pointed out, may be the subtle casting imperative that led Francis Ford Coppola to chance his daughter's untried talent in The Godfather III. The role she played ended in the death of her character, an unexpected, sudden, meaningless death.

Such was the intensely personal rapport of the narrative that Francis' wife Eleanor wrote: ``Well-meaning people tell me I am permitting a form of child abuse.''

Sofia, however, sees the episode with wider vision, and clearly understands the imperatives that pushed her father towards his decision. It was a question of understanding; she had suffered the same tragedy that compelled Francis to change a standard guns-and-bullets finale into something less obvious, more personal.

It was a question of randomness, of life's unfathomable injustice.

``There are all these things in life there's no good explanation for,'' Sofia says, revealing the philosophy that has grown out of the Coppola tragedy. ``Everyone's been through tragedies you can't find an answer for.''

In other interviews she has returned again to the same theme, to random fates, to the arbitrary whimsy of loss.

``It is what The Virgin Suicides is about,'' she recently explained. ``That things happen for which there are no reasons. And if you try to find them, you won't.''

Sofia does not try to hide the influence her father has exerted on her, and occasionally on her behalf. Despite her fears that her role in The Godfather III would continue to count against her, however, she has enjoyed only praise for her debut as a director.

``People told me they liked it, but they were surprised they liked it,'' she says. ``I suppose that's inevitable.''

THE irony of the Godfather incident is that Sofia never nursed any ambitions to become an actress. She still hates the tag ``failed actress'' which the American tabloids append to her name as much for the job description as for its value judgement.

``I never wanted to be an actress,'' she says. ``The people who are great actors are people who want to be watched.''

After Godfather III, Sofia cast around for other avenues of expression. For a while, Sofia worked as a model. She became a photographer, then turned into a fashion designer, running her own label, Milk Fed.

``I spent most of my 20s worrying about what it was I wanted to do and I tried many things,'' she says.

The chance to direct came, ironically, after Sofia ignored a piece of her father's advice. She had fallen in love with the Jeffery Eugenides novel, The Virgin Suicides, a mysterious story about five suburban sisters who kill themselves. The film rights were already sold, and Francis Ford Coppola advised her to forget the idea.

``He said, `You can't write a script you don't own the rights to it's stupid'.'' Sofia adds: ``He disagreed with my approach on the business end.''

Again, the script she developed revisited a familiar theme. The deaths of the sisters acted as a device to tackle the loss of childhood, she explains, the moment when someone realises life's fragility. ``I like the fact that the story doesn't answer everything,'' she says. ``There are things in life that you can't understand.''

Though current accolades suggest Sofia has moved beyond the genre of attacks that met her first foray into the public eye, family links are still strong. She readily acknowledges the debt of knowledge she owes her father ``Dad casts a big shadow'' but points out how fortunate she has been to receive a movie education that far outshines anything film schools might offer.

Coppola family loyalties are evidently still strong, too. At Sofia's recent marriage to Spike Jonze, director of Being John Malkovich. her father's giant shadow inevitably took centre stage. Serving vintage wine from his own Napa Valley vines, Francis Ford Coppola told guests that it was his best crop, so he had named it after his daughter. The year of vintage was 1971, the year of Sofia's birth, and the release date of the original Godfather film.

Sofia believes that with The Virgin Suicides, she has moved beyond these weighty milestones. She has emerged from her family's shadow, while managing to cement her ties to the enduring Coppola tradition.

``After I saw the entire movie for the first time, I felt like I have my own voice outside such a loud family,'' she confesses. ``That is a very big deal for me.''

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