A Tribute to Eleanor Coppola and Her Life in Cinema

Chris RobideauxArtist, FilmLeave a Comment

Her life overshadowed by her famous and successful cinematic auteur husband Francis Ford Coppola, Emmy Award-winning film maker Eleanor Coppola passed away on April 12th of this year at age 87. What most of the cinema-buying public may not know is that she was quite the film director herself. Specializing mostly in edgy behind-the-scenes making-of documentaries of films made by her husband and daughter Sofia Coppola, her film making credits include such insightful docs as Hearts of Darkness (1991), the revealing documentary of the making of her husband’s film Apocalypse Now (1979).

Following this outing were a string of similarly-styled film making docs like The Making of Marie Antoinette, The Making of The Virgin Suicides (both directed by her daughter Sofia), Francis Ford Coppola Directs ‘John Grisham’s the Rainmaker‘, and also the 36-minute A Visit to China’s Miao Country (1996), a daring travelogue about a mystifying part of the world.

Early Life

Eleanor Coppola was born Eleanor Jessie Neil on May 4, 1936, in Los Angeles, California. Her father was a political cartoonist for the Los Angeles Examiner who died when she was 10 years old. She and her two brothers were raised by their mother, Delphine Neil (née Lougheed) in Sunset Beach, California. Her brother Bill became a noted visual effects artist. She graduated from UCLA with a degree in applied design and was a member of the women’s fraternity Alpha Chi Omega (Alpha Psi chapter).

While working on the set of the 1963 horror film Dementia 13, she met her future husband Francis Ford Coppola. Her position was assistant art director, and he was making his directorial debut with the film. They had been dating for several months when Eleanor discovered in 1963 that she was pregnant. Initially, Eleanor considered giving the baby up for adoption, but he convinced her otherwise. The couple married in Las Vegas on February 2, 1963, and gave birth to their first son Gian-Carlo Coppola. Years later, Eleanor gave birth to Roman and Sofia Coppola.

Eleanor was a constant presence on films directed by her famous family members. Her contributions to cinema consists of mainly documentaries in which she acted as director, cinematographer, videographer, and writer.

Many of her documentaries consist of behind-the-scenes looks at such films as The Virgin Suicides and Marie Antoinette, which were directed by her daughter Sofia Coppola. In her documentaries, she captured the struggles that endangered her family’s films even before they made it onto the big screen. Through her film work, Eleanor Coppola was able to illustrate not only what goes into a film financially, but also capture the emotional toll filmmaking has on the individuals on and off the camera.

Apocalypse Now

For her early film career, she spent much of her time accompanying her husband on his film shoots. In 1976, she began documenting the making of Apocalypse Now. Her recordings of the hectic film process were later released in her memoir Notes on the Making of Apocalypse Now (1979). The book chronicles such events as the near destruction of the film’s production as well as the stress that both cast and crew were suffering from at the time. This would not be the only documentation of the making of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now as she decided to film a documentary based on the same movie.

The documentary film Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse was co-directed by Eleanor Coppola, Fax Bahr, and George Hickenlooper. In the film, Eleanor narrated the trials and difficulties surrounding the production of the award-winning film as not only problems arose with the studio but also the cast and crew working at the time. Such events caught on camera include the nervous breakdown of the film’s lead Martin Sheen as well as the trouble facing Francis Ford Coppola when an expensive set was destroyed.

The documentary film was released in 1991, which went on to win several awards such as the Emmy for “Outstanding Individual Achievement – Informational Programming – Directing”. The film was also nominated for a Directors Guild of America (DGA) Documentary Award in 1991.

Feature Filmmaking

Coppola made her feature film directorial debut with the 2016 romantic comedy Paris Can Wait starring Diane Lane as a wealthy film producer’s wife and Arnaud Viard as a charming Frenchman who drives her from Cannes to Paris. The film premiered at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival.

In 2020, Coppola released her second feature film, Love Is Love Is Love, a set of intertwined love stories about three couples.

Written Works

Coppola penned two successful books. Her first book, Notes on the Making of Apocalypse Now, recorded the film’s journey from 1976 to 1979. Her detailed note-taking continued in other areas of her life as she collected and wrote about her life’s major events. With notes covering a 30 year time span, she went on to write the book Notes on a Life.

Notes on a Life

The memoir Notes on a Life follows thirty years of Eleanor Coppola’s life as she juggles raising children and being there for Francis as he directs films that move the family from place to place. The book consists of short passages from each day beginning with the death of her oldest son Gian-Carlo Coppola at the age of 22 and the birth of her granddaughter Gia just months later. The death of Gian-Carlo Coppola serves as a constant refrain throughout the entire book.

The book is told through her own point of view and although she mentions certain events concerning those around her, such as the controversy surrounding Francis’ decision to cast Sofia in The Godfather Part III, her memoir chronicles the inner struggles and problems the family faced at the time.

Death: The Final Apocalypse

Eleanor Coppola died in Rutherford, California, on April 12, 2024, at the age of 87. She was born on May 4, 1936 in Long Beach, California, USA. She was a director and writer, known for Paris Can Wait (2016), Love Is Love Is Love (2020) and Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991). She was married to Francis Ford Coppola. May she forever be remembered as the remarkable, supportive wife and mother as well as the artist that she was.

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